She is holding nothing back, laughing like, well, you hate to say it, but like a braying mule. Oksana Baiul, 16, the youngest women's world figure skating champion since the legendary Sonja Henie, clutches her sides and rocks back and forth, howling with infectious mirth. Her mouth, you fear, might come unhinged. Her lips are pulled back from her upper gums and teeth. It is pure, uninhibited girlish laughter, wondrous to behold.
Life, you are thinking. After going the extra mile to heap sadness after sadness on this wide-eyed, green-eyed, coltish adolescent, life has done an about-face. She is happy.
The woman eliciting the laughter from Baiul is her coach and surrogate mother, Galina Zmievskaya. She is discussing the peculiar elation they both feel at being back in Odessa after touring the United States. "We walk down the street, see a line of shoppers, and we immediately feel joy to be home," Zmievskaya says. "We are fighting each other to get ahead of the next person. This is great fun for us, and we have this kind of luck every day. Swinging our bags, clawing our way to the front. Then we leave with a piece of sausage."
Zmievskaya pauses, allowing the translator to catch up and Baiul's laughter to subside. "So we have pity on you," she continues. "You don't get these joys in America. You don't know the happiness, after a period of no hot water for three weeks, to turn on the faucet and get hot water! So we have some advantages, you see, in our system."
Zmievskaya is not ordinarily known as a humorist. She has the reputation, rather, of being a she-bear, stern and fiercely protective of Baiul, particularly around the press, who have been descending on Ukraine from the four corners of the globe ever since the 5'4", 103-pound teen turned the figure skating world topsy-turvy by winning, in her first appearance, the world championship in Prague last March.
So protective is Zmievskaya that she sits in on each interview with her pupil, steering the questions away from Baiul's unhappy past. What good can come of it? she reasons. The past is past. Why not let the child get on with her life? Always the press is trying to ask Oksana about the sad things, the things that make her cry. The reporters ask about her mother, Marina, a French teacher who died of ovarian cancer when Oksana was 13. What teenager can talk of such things over and over again? Or they ask about her grandmother, who helped raise her in the industrial city of Dnepropetrovsk and died when Oksana was eight. Or her grandfather, also dead, who bought Oksana her first pair of skates when she was three so she might lose some weight and, someday, study ballet.
Or they ask about her father, whom Oksana doesn't know. At first, when she won at the worlds, it was reported that her father had died when she was two, that Baiul was an orphan. Later, however, it was learned that her father and her mother may have simply separated when Oksana was two. Either way, he dropped out of his daughter's life.
Or they ask about her former coach, Stanislav Korytek, who had worked with Baiul since she was five. Nine years he had coached her. She had lived with Korytek for the first weeks after her mother died. Then, unexpectedly, while she was away at a skating competition and on the brink of stardom, Korytek slipped off to Canada to make a new life for himself at the Toronto Skating, Curling and Cricket Club, leaving Oksana behind. How much more could a child be expected to take? Would there be any constancy in her life?
"He just bought a ticket and left," Baiul says, without bitterness. "He called me afterward to tell me, and I understood his position. Everyone wants to eat."
Everyone, too, wants a home. Even an eventual world champion. It was Zmievskaya who finally gave a home to Baiul. The coach of 1992 Olympic gold medalist Viktor Petrenko, Zmievskaya was prevailed upon by Korytek after he emigrated to take Baiul on as a pupil. Zmievskaya, who lives in Odessa, 12 hours by train from Dnepropetrovsk, did more than that. She took Baiul, then 14, into her three-room apartment to raise as if she were one of her own children. Zmievskaya's older daughter, 19-year-old Nina, would soon be moving out to marry Petrenko, so Oksana could share a room with Zmievskaya's 12-year-old, also named Galina.
The quarters are crowded, but there is nothing unique about that. Zmievskaya's husband, Nicolai, president of Black Sea Inc., a shipping and construction company, also lives in the apartment. As does Zmievskaya's mother, the family dog and a cockatoo, which, according to Bauil, screams hello in Russian whenever the phone rings. "He's also dancing rap sometimes," she says.
Ah, the curse on domestic tranquillity known as rap music has even reached Ukraine. Oksana and young Galina, now 14, who've grown to be like sisters, crank up the volume on the stereo in their room on CDs by Hammer and Dr. Alban—"the one with the strange haircut who has girls dancing around him in plastic," says Baiul—and dance until they hear the thump, thump, thumping of the angry family from the apartment below them.
"I'm very patient with them," says Zmievskaya. "They dance and fall on the ground. They throw pillows. They are starting to put on makeup. They even succeeded in putting makeup on their granny. We have fun together, and when the music is too loud, we have headaches together. The atmosphere at home is always jolly."
It is easy to believe. The Ukrainian motto, at least in the once-proud city of Odessa, seems to be: Better to laugh.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, newly independent Ukraine has fallen on lean times. The Odessa airport is usually shut down for lack of jet fuel, and when Zmievskaya, Baiul and Petrenko leave for an international competition, they must first travel to Kiev via the overnight train. Streetlights along Odessa's cobbled, tree-lined avenues are dark, and stray dogs wander hungrily along the wide sidewalks. Traffic is light. Lines at the bakeries are long, unemployment is high, and crime, virtually unheard of under communist rule, is rampant. Tourism, a potentially lucrative industry for this old, handsome city on the Black Sea, is hobbled by a lack of Western-style hotels and fine restaurants.
When asked for directions to a seafood restaurant, one Odessan commented wryly, "We have no seafood. We have no meat, either. You are American? If you want seafood, I suggest you hire a fisherman."
"A sense of humor is the only thing that is left for us," says Zmievskaya when she is told the story. "Have you heard the one about the Ukrainian dog that met the American dog?" she asks. " 'How are you, Bob?' asks the Ukrainian dog. 'Can't complain,' Bob says. 'I eat the scraps at McDonald's in the morning, and in the afternoon I head across the street to Pizza Hut. It's a fine life. And you, Boris? I hear that there are many changes in the former Soviet
Union. New republics. Elections. Free markets.'
" 'Yes, many changes,' Boris says. 'The leash around our necks has become shorter. The food? It's been put aside and we cannot find it.' " Zmievskaya smiles and winks as she sets up the punch line. " 'But there is the chance, to bark as much as you like.' "
Baiul has never heard these stories before, she has never seen Zmievskaya so animated during one of her interviews, and she laughs like a girl whose joy has been bottled up like soda water, then is shaken and popped open. Every topic, no matter how mundane, becomes a fresh source of merriment for her.
"The ice machines, they don't work," Zmievskaya scoffs, when asked about the two Zambonis parked beside the ice at the Sports Palace, where Baiul and Petrenko train. "They're a monument to a former life." She explains how, in the not infrequent times when the Zambonis are being repaired, Baiul herself will pick up a shovel and help clear the ice. So will Baiul's ballet instructor, Nina Stoyan, who was a prima ballerina at the renowned Odessa Academy Theater. So will Petrenko, who says of the ice on which he and Baiul train, "It's getting worse every year. The front is sinking."
When a South Korean skater was training under Zmievskaya in Odessa last summer, the girl complained about the skating conditions. Zmievskaya merely pointed to Petrenko and said, "Look, there's an Olympic champion. He makes a triple Axel, and there's water on the ice. If we skate in good conditions, we could do miracles." Soon the South Korean champion, too, was out there shoveling.
"And it's another way we get joy," Zmievskaya adds, grinning at Oksana. "When we get proper ice, it's the same way as with the sausages."
Nothing is taken for granted. In stark contrast to the years under communism, today's young Ukrainian athletes can expect little in the way of financial help from the government, which has bigger problems than sports to tackle. The Odessa figure skating club had only an old skate-sharpening machine until Petrenko bought it a new, proper one last year. He also paid for Baiul's new skate blades and skating outfits before she was the world champion.
To say that Baiul is unspoiled is to miss the point. She's grateful. This fair-skinned, frail-looking young woman has taken the worst that life could possibly throw at her and soldiered on, appreciative of every kindness. It is as if she wakes up each morning and, discovering that her life with the Zmievskayas is not a dream, winks inwardly at her good fortune and goes through the day on a high. Better, far better, to laugh.
Asked if, away from the ice, Baiul is ever moody, difficult, a skating princess, Petrenko smiles and responds Socratically. "Allow me to answer that with a question," he says. "How does she appear on the ice to you?" Charming and expressive, he is told. "She's the same way away from the ice."
"She loves everything," says Linda Leaver, coach of 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano, who observed Baiul on a U.S. tour of world and Olympic champions last spring. "She loves staying in the hotels. She loves the food. She loves the fans. She loves the bus rides. And she loves to perform. She couldn't wait to get out on the ice during the tour. Every night she let it all hang out."
Even in practice. Baiul's love of skating resonates. It's the one thing, you see, that has always been there. It has never left her. When Zmievskaya talks to her on the ice, Baiul's eyes are wide with attention. There is none of the adolescent rolling of the eyes, no shrugging of shoulders, no pouts. "Faster! Faster! Faster!" Zmievskaya will shout, clapping her hands. "You're acting like a dead chicken." Or: "You're jumping like a grasshopper." Or: "Be like a butterfly."
Baiul—whose favorite book is a Russian fairy tale about a crooked horse, and whose favorite movies are The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast—is all of those things on the ice. She has an animated sparkle that projects to the upper tiers of the arena. "She's like a young goat," says Zmievskaya, and you are unsure whether the translator has missed the idiom, or if she actually said "young goat." But for the first time you appreciate the derivation of the word kid.
Yet for all Baiul's freshness and youth—her favorite two things in the world are teddy bears and Snickers—she has a grown woman's sense of style and grace when she skates. It's what sets her apart from the other young jumpers who are bursting onto the figure skating scene, seemingly out of nowhere, since the elimination of compulsory figures. Baiul's favorite skater is the former three-time U.S. champion and 1990 world champion Jill Trenary, a woman who, says the colorful Zmievskaya, "attracts sighs on the ice instead of groans."
"She's an example of femininity," Baiul says, more demurely. "Like a real woman."
Baiul's ballet training gives her femininity a more classical look than Trenary ever attained. She skates with an elegant friskiness. The question that Baiul must now answer is how she will handle the pressure of being the Olympic favorite. "Only the young can do that."' says Zmievskaya, dismissing the notion that Baiul's tender years will work against her. "They are brave."
"I think Oksana doesn't really understand what's happened," agrees Petrenko. "Or she's just starting to understand. The hardest thing is to be the star. Everybody looks at Oksana as the champion, and the champion doesn't have the right to make a mistake."
At Skate America in Dallas in October, Baiul's first international competition since winning her world title, she made several mistakes, falling on both a triple flip and a triple Salchow and failing to land a combination jump. She won the competition anyway when her rivals—including France's Surya Bonaly, who took the silver medal at last year's world championships and won last month's European championships while Baiul finished second—fared even more poorly. But instead of brooding about the errors that were made in Dallas, Baiul assessed her performance the Ukrainian way. Better to laugh. She pretended to spit on the floor. "Today...pwahhh!" she said.
It is hard not to pull for such insouciance. Harder still not to have faith that in Lillehammer, when it matters the most, when the sporting world's attention is fully riveted on this gifted child-woman, she will show what miracles she can perform on a proper sheet of ice. "I like when people are watching," Baiul says, genuinely. "What's the reason for figure skating without spectators watching?"
This is her gift back to a benevolent world.
Baiul, the youngest world champion since Henie, often finds herself staring out at long lines and lean times in Ukraine.
Zmievskaya (left), Petrenko's mother-in-law, mothers Baiul.
At Skate America not all of Baiul's landings were happy ones.