Thursday, April 30, 2020

Oksana Baiul

Fondly remembering the 1994 Lillehammer games: How a 16-year-old Oksana Baiul melted my 11-year-old baseball-loving heart and introduced me to the Winter Olympics and the world of figure skating.

Aaron S. Robertson

Recently, I was having a conversation with several friends, and we ended up on the topic of the Winter Olympics. The next Olympic Winter Games is scheduled for February 2022 in Beijing, China.

During that conversation, I recalled, fondly, the very first Winter Olympics that I actively tuned into - the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway. Not coincidentally, it was also the first time that I actively tuned into the sport of figure skating. And it was all because of Oksana Baiul of Ukraine.

I was 11 years old in February 1994 when the latest issue of my Sports Illustrated for Kids subscription arrived in my mailbox. And there she was, at 16 years old, gracing the cover of the magazine. My 11-year-old heart skipped a few beats and then proceeded to melt.

1994 Sports Illustrated for Kids Oksana Baiul cover
The 1994 Sports Illustrated for Kids Oksana Baiul cover.
Prior to that issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids coming to the door, an issue that served as a preview to the upcoming games, I don't believe I had ever heard of Oksana Baiul, even though, I would soon learn, she was the ladies champion of the 1993 World Figure Skating Championships held in Prague, Czech Republic. But if I never heard of her beforehand, it wouldn't have been surprising, I suppose. For starters, I was a typical Midwestern city kid from a blue-collar family, and not yet exposed to much of anything that could be described as "the performing arts" or "the fine arts," much less "worldly" or "world culture." Not unless you want to count all the times I had Chinese, or spaghetti, or tacos, for dinner. I probably would have had trouble locating Ukraine on the map back then (or on the globe, as many classrooms still had). Furthermore, when it came to sports, I was a big baseball and basketball fan, more so baseball. Just several months before the Olympics, this native Milwaukeean and die-hard Brewers fan found himself rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1993 World Series against the Toronto Bluejays. I faithfully watched every single game from beginning to end. The Bluejays ended up taking the series. Actually, when I think about it, that was the first World Series that I actively tuned into.

And as far as the American figure skaters went, sure, I may have heard the names Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, and a few others before in passing, but so what? It didn't mean much to me. My friends and I were in love with baseball. We were boys of summer. Other than building the occasional snowman or snow fort, anything to do with winter sports and recreation seemed largely foreign and just plain blah to us. We were no Dan Jansens or Bonnie Blairs, that's for sure. When we weren't playing little league, or Cub Scout softball league, or games in the streets, we were building our card collections, watching the Brewers on TV, and taking in baseball trivia and history. In winter, we would switch over to playing baseball games on Nintendo and watching Milwaukee Bucks games on TV, all while impatiently waiting for spring training to come. But I'll tell you what - like every other American who didn't follow figure skating, I definitely became aware of the names Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding by 1994, following the infamous physical attack on Kerrigan by associates of Harding's. It was hard not to. It was a scandal that made the two young women household names around the world, and it eventually led to Harding being stripped of a U.S. championship title and banned from professional competition for life. Among the men responsible for the assault on Kerrigan were a bodyguard of Harding's, along with Harding's ex-husband. The attack occurred on January 6, 1994, in Detroit. Both competed in the Olympics the following month, and the tension between them was clearly visible as the investigation by the authorities and all the media buzz continued.

But it was this talented young woman from Ukraine that caught my attention and got me hooked on figure skating. And with it, I developed an appreciation for the Winter Olympics as a whole. I finally started paying attention to hometown heroes Jansen and Blair, who both took home gold from Lillehammer in their respective speed skating competitions.

The beauty, elegance, artistry, and grace of it all is truly amazing. It's theater, dance, ballet, and sport all rolled into one. And it's not all outwardly visible. It's not all simply physical movements, physical endurance, and physical appearance that we see. Far, far from it. I can't begin to imagine what goes on in the minds of these skaters - the amount of mental focus required to pull it all off successfully. Having to think of the next move in advance while somehow, simultaneously, being fully present in each and every moment. One slip of the mind, even for a split-second, can cost the entire show. And yet, they make it all seem so care-free. So seamless.

Following are four performances by Oksana Baiul during the 1994 Winter Olympics. The third video captures her gold medal performance, while the fourth one features a joint performance with Viktor Petrenko, also from Ukraine.

The very last video is entitled, "15 Strict Rules Female Figure Skaters Have To Follow." I came across it while conducting research for this post and thought it was worth sharing. Very informative and interesting.


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