by Dan Eden


first heard of Oksana Baiul in 1994 when she won the Gold Medal for figure skating at the Olympics. Within a few months, Simsbury, Connecticut was alive with opinion over the proposal to build a huge skating rink complex on some vacant tobacco land in the north end of town. Oksana had just won the World Championship in figure skating. Her name and story were linked with the skating rink much like an ex-"M*A*S*H" actor is used to sell Fords.

Figure Skating rates second as the most popular sport in America. Football is number one. The rise in popularity of this largely spectator sport and Olympic betting in the U.S. has been attributed to many things. It began with what has been jokingly called "the whack heard 'round the world" - the Tanya Harding incident - and was fueled by Fox Network's acquisition of NFL football from long standing CBS Sports.

To fill the void, CBS ran its coverage of figure skating in early evening, family primetime. Its popularity and market share rapidly soared.

Figure skating is an art that blends the strength and flexibility of ballet with the meditative focus of karate. Incredibly, even our national sport, baseball, doesn't come close to the ongoing popularity with both watching and participating in fun on the ice. But it wasn't always so.

The proposed skating rink in Simsbury was part of a national trend to build rinks and skating complexes in response to the public's appetite. Newly built rinks were seeing their capacity reached with amateur and professional hockey and multi-level skating classes. Skating was replacing ballet or dance as a means of teaching grace to America's girls. And for every would-be Ice Princess, there was an ideal role model. Oksana Baiul seemingly came from nowhere to win the most coveted prize. Her youth and mastery of skating captivated young and old alike. This Cinderella persona was a role that was graciously assumed by Oksana. The growing public interest in skating that Oksana brought to America benefited the entire industry.

With the prospect of world celebrities like Oksana and Victor Petrenko, also promised as a town resident, the skating rink that was to pump business and prestige into an otherwise conservative community was enthusiastically approved and built. Ironically, the enormous complex contains a skate and accessories shop, restaurants, exercise facilties, and just about anything that would compel a visitor to "shop locally." Nevertheless, merchants and area hotels do see some activity during major performances.

As promised, we did get Oksana Baiul. Perched in a panoramic development on Talcott Mountain, at age 17, she owned a 9 room home for a cool 450,000 dollars. Friends told me of "Oksana sightings" now and then but I think she lived a stealthy and busy life. But on more than one occasion, I was reminded of her huge popularity by carloads of tourists who would stop me for directions to Oksana's home. It was lucky for Oksana that, at the time, I had no idea and coyly pointed to the historic white house in the Masocah Plantation. Most were impressed.

I watched Oksana on the television many times. She impressed me as someone who was perhaps surprised herself at her amazing abilities and was enjoying her performance as much as the audience. She was more of an artist, I thought, than a mere athlete. She seemed to have all the technical stuff down tight, like Mozart knew his piano. And she was able to use this mastery to express herself, in her own style.

Two years later and I read headlines that Oksana, now 19, was involved in a high speed car wreck with her lime green Mercedes convertible, allegedly under the influence. Suddenly the atmosphere in town is alive again with opinion. But before the locals can decide whether its resident celebrity should be blamed or pittied, she is gone. Her home is on the market and her association with the International Skating Center is kaput. What happened?

I undertook to explore her sudden departure. My first call was to the famous William Morris Agency in New York. I had read that Oksana had been on their list of clients with promotional deal worth 1.5 million dollars. Surprise number one: they indicated that she is now being managed by a woman named "Wendy" in New York City.

Wendy was surprisingly easy to reach and graciously agreed to return Oksana's answers to several questions that I could submit to her by fax. I waited in anticipation. I explained that I lived in Simsbury and was curious about her departure.

After a few weeks, the long anticipated envelope arrived. Instead of the traditional press kit of photographs and slick reprints and information sheets, I found a photocopied compilation of magazine articles about Oksana that spanned the past twelve months. But no answers to my questions. I was feeling paranoid, that Simsbury was perhaps a place that was better off forgotten with other bad memories for Oksana. Attached to this stapled collection there was a cover letter with the following biography:

Born in the Ukrainian factory town of Dnepropetrovsk in 1977, Oksana was just two years old when her parents separated. For her fourth birthday, her grandfather presented her with a pair of skates. Once Oksana put those skates on her feet, she rarely left the ice. Within three years she began skating in local competitions. At thirteen, she lost her mother to cancer; her grandmother died shortly after. For a brief period, Oksana lived with her coach, Stanislav Koretek, and his family. When he emegrated to Canada in 1992, Oksana was quite alone.

It was then that a fellow Ukrainian skater, Viktor Petrenko, suggested that Oksana train with his coach (and mother-in-law), Galina Zmievskaya. Soon Oksana moved into Galina's home in Odessa, sharing a room with one of Galina's daughters. In 1993 in Prague, Czeckoslovakia, Oksana - who had never even competed in a junior world competition - skated away with the World Championship title! In 1994, Oksana shocked the world with her winning performance at the Lillehammer, Norway Olympics, gaining a Gold Medal in figure skating at age 16!