How could we ever forget the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway? It was probably the most memorable Olympics (winter or summer) in my lifetime or any future Olympic Games we’ll see again. It also turned guys like me who only had zero to casual interest in watching figure skating prior to 1994 (yet still with a high-minded artistic sensibility) into understanding what the artistic possibilities were for the sport. As soon as we Oregonians got over the shame of Tonya Harding almost ruining (while contradictorily giving a shot in the arm to) the sport that February night in 1994 during the women’s figure skating finals–along came a 16-year-old Ukrainian girl who managed to not only take the Gold Medal away from the knee-knocked Nancy Kerrigan, but also took figure skating into an artistic stratosphere that made it on par with professional ballet or modern dance.
Oksana Baiul obviously brought the classical Russian sensibilities to figure skating that all Russian skaters brought before. Yet, she took it to a higher emotional level and displayed near-elastic (or maybe ethereal) body movements of expression that was truly unparalleled in the history of the sport. There really wasn’t a single demographic in the world that wasn’t captivated and instantly drawn to her abilities, her engaging personality, beauty, and the personal trials she’d gone through to get on the medal stand. Of course, anybody that compelling as an artist will get overly high expectations placed on them by the public the artist can’t possibly live up to. Baiul ended up in the next three years trying to please the public’s perception of who she was as an artist and experiencing the worst possible thing for an artistically ambitious teenager: Reaching your artistic and career peak before you’re even 20 years old. That can lead you to other stimulants to keep up with the pressure.
I was fortunate to see Baiul perform every year from 1994 up to about 2000 at the annual Champions on Ice tour that I attended yearly with my family…with quasi-VIP seats no less. By 1997, Oksana was still the biggest star in the world of figure skating and was ubiquitous on TV with all those figure skating specials that once took over the prime-time airwaves through most of the 90’s. (How things have changed in just ten years.) When I and my family managed to briefly talk with and get OB’s autograph at that 1997 show, it was obvious she was feeling the pressure of trying to keep up with the bar she’d set for herself three years earlier. She was clearly emotional and not happy with her performance that night which involved a few falls. At the time, I suspected that she may soon take a break–despite the likely pressures to keep performing and living up to her new professional status.
It was only six months later when we all heard about her drunk driving accident in Connecticut where she lived at the time. Sure, it was shocking at first, but when many heard the realities of how time-consuming her schedule was–it was completely and utterly forgivable. Then there was that thing about her alcoholic gene that only compounds the problem. In a time today when a lot of young starlets are being driven to the edge of insanity with too many expectations and no time to cool down and get personal priorities in order–OB’s story should still be one of the best primers to use in getting through the storm.
Well, by 1999–Oksana had learned some valuable lessons, started to slow down a bit with the touring and even gave up touring with Champions on Ice altogether by the turn of the century. By that time, Michelle Kwan was the biggest star of the show and still is along with Sasha Cohen. It was unfortunate when some people turned away from Baiul’s life and career around then based on her reported tempestuous personality that went against the vision they had of her in Lillehammer. What a shame that a great artist can’t be allowed to be a more dimensional person who has a good right to be a little hot-headed at times for the sake of perfection.
It was around this time when she promptly disappeared as a recurring regular on American TV screens (with all those fun prime-time figure skating events following suit) and went off on a personal journey while much of America had 9/11 and terrorism on their minds for a while.
But wait! A great artist always stays a great artist…
Even though Baiul had a couple of official fan sites during the 90’s and early 2000’s–most of them shut down around 2001 when she took a couple of years away from performing to get her life the way she wanted it. However, within the last couple of years, a new official site opened that allowed people to catch up with her and find out what she’s been doing since we all lost sight of those 90’s glory years when she frequently brought high art to prime-time television.
When I recently did a little research on Baiul to catch up with what she was up to and ran across her new official site: oksanastyle.com–it said she took those two years off to work with a psychiatrist to iron out all her troubles and set the right priorities for her life. Give a big high-five to mental health experts for actually helping a notable person who had to deal with the pressures of being in the spotlight. Rather than having to live on a jet or tour bus during 75% of the year–Oksana instead focused on developing her figure skating clothing line, continued training to keep her body strength up (with one-time intention of maybe competing in the Olympics again), and ultimately honed in on performing in special performances in select cities that she would produce herself.
She also became engaged to be married to a Russian fashion designer from NYC–even though their engagement has gone on for the last eight years (they met in 2000) with reportedly no wedding yet or much else known about their status. Keeping her work as a steady balance in her life with a relationship reportedly did help her become a happier and saner person.
It was in 2004, then, when a lot of those ridiculous “Where are they now?” pieces started in People Magazine and other publications to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Baiul winning her Gold Medal in Lillehammer. (Ok, blame me for doing the same thing with my own title here, though I at least started with “What” instead of “Where” or “Why.”) During that time in February of ’04, Oksana managed to let those paying attention in on what she was doing. It was probably missed by many people, however, and those same many still likely ask what’s happened to her.
What’s currently changed in her professional skating life is that she seldom performs in any American cities outside of the New York/NJ area where she lives and trains now. Whether that’s her own choice–or officials in the U.S. figure skating community shunning her after past misguided opinions made–isn’t quite clear. In the last few years, OB has performed and produced various professional skating/musical productions on the east coast and tours considerably in exhibitions over in Russia and Europe. At the time of this writing, she was recently touring in the European version of Champions on Ice, which is a bit of an ironic full-circle from her days touring with the show during the 90’s.
More personal discoveries and priorities made…
One rare appearance on prime-time TV a few years ago (actually “20/20”) showed Oksana visiting Russia and reuniting with not only her grandmother but also her long-lost father who we all remember hearing abandoned her and her late mother before she was brought to America under the aegis of a prominent figure skating coach named Galina Zmievskaya (seen sitting next to Baiul in the kiss and cry booth the night she won the Gold Medal in Lillehammer). That re-connection to her family was truly awe-inspiring when it seemed to develop into a near-legendary story in America and assumptions that she really had no family extant. Now she’s reportedly in good relations with her father and grandmother who she goes to visit regularly in the Ukraine.
When OB found out her grandmother was of the Jewish faith (something she’s said she suspected she had in her lineage)–she decided to get more involved in the faith the last few years. Before that, it was always assumed from profiles on those figure skating specials that she had connections to Catholicism (or Russian Unorthodox Christian) without being too serious about it. Now, her official site mentions considerable focus on how she’s studied and practices Judaism. This led to more connective strings over in Russia where she was asked to be involved with an organization in the Ukraine called the Tikva Children’s Home. This is an orphanage there that takes in orphaned Jewish kids living in Ukraine–and it’s her current charitable passion.
While things have personally improved vastly for Baiul, that mystery of why she doesn’t do more here in America still permeates. She’s said in recent interviews that she just doesn’t want to tour extensively. And that probably makes sense when American tours get unfairly longer and puts more pressure on the participants in having to endure performing in 80 cities within a four-month span. Now OB can do limited tours without it disrupting her other business interests and life.
Still, though, there’s American TV and the thought of those old prime-time TV specials. Come on, network TV, and put a good family figure skating special back on in prime-time again with Oksana Baiul as the star! People are ready to lap that up again after possibly being temporarily burned out with them around the end of the 90’s. Considering figure skating has a combination of reality TV AND high art–you really have the perfect fit for a TV audience who seem to want to return to the essence of the 90’s.
In the meantime, visit Baiul’s official site for a few minutes and check out the photographs of her at various media events the last few years. She’s 30 years old now as of this article writing–and looks healthier than you’ve probably ever seen her.