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19 Oksana Baiul

PRETEND FOR a moment that for every sadness God heaps on a soul, a
special gift, unique and beautiful, unmatched in all the world, is
added to balance the sadness. Pretend that this is the secret to the
skating of Oksana Baiul.
She burst on the figure skating scene in March 1993, when, at age
15, she became the youngest world champion since Sonja Henie in 1927.
It was not just Baiul's youth that captured the public's fancy. It
was her style -- elegant and graceful, musical and bedazzling, lithe
as a cracking whip -- that made judges and spectators take note that
here was something they might never see again. When Baiul skated, she
lit up from inside, like a firefly. She radiated a joy on the ice
that belied her heartbreaking past.
Born in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, Baiul was orphaned at 13 when her
mother, who taught French, died of ovarian cancer. Oksana had never
known her father: He had left home when she was two. Her grandmother,
who helped raise her, died when Oksana was eight. Her grandfather,
who bought Oksana her first pair of skates, when she was three, was
also gone. Without family, she had only her skating. Then, in a final
abandonment, her coach of nine years, Stanislav Korytek, surprised
her by moving to Canada in 1992 while Baiul was away at a skating
competition. How much more could a child be expected to take?
Only then, with her will forged by tragedy, did life smile again
on this green-eyed wisp. Baiul's new coach, Galina Zmievskaya, took
her into her home in Odessa and treated her like one of her
daughters. Under Zmievskaya's guidance, Baiul gained polish and
poise. But Baiul's command of the spotlight, her star quality --
these were things that could not be taught. ''It's all natural to
her,'' Zmievskaya explained in 1993, when Baiul, then virtually
unknown, won her first world title. ''All God-given talent. You tell
her something, and she does it and goes, 'Like this?' ''
At the 1994 Olympics, in Lillehammer, Baiul proved she had
something else, too: the guts of an athlete. In practice the day
before the women's final, she and another skater collided, leaving
Baiul with three stitches in her right shin and a badly bruised back.
The next morning, she left the practice ice in tears. But that night,
an hour before her free-skating program, Baiul was given two
injections of painkillers, and she proved she was as scrappy as she
was beguiling. Landing every triple jump she attempted, the
16-year-old Baiul won over the judges, dazzled the crowd and defeated
Nancy Kerrigan of the U.S. No less an authority than Germany's
Katarina Witt, a two-time Olympic champion, said of Baiul, ''She is a
perfect skater.''
But, just as certainly, Baiul is not yet in her prime. She has the
standard repertoire of triple jumps, but it is unlikely she'll
improve much in that regard. Artistically, though, she has shown us
only the tip of the iceberg. She is an ingenue today; in the next few
years, her creativity on the ice will develop in ways that can only
be guessed at. Baiul will be just 20 when the next Winter Games are
held and, should her health and motivation last, only 24 at the Games
in 2002. By then, these early years of Oksana Baiul, alluring as
they've been, may be remembered as the bud to the flower.