(L-R) 1980 U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team members Linda Fratianne, John Summers, Tai Babilonia, Stacey Smith, David Santee, Charles Tickner, Lisa-Marie Allen, Scott Hamilton, Kitty Carruthers Conrad, Peter Carruthers, Sandy Lenz Jackson, Michael Botticelli, Sheryl Franks and U.S. Figure Skating Foundation president Paul George pose for a photo on Feb. 18, 2020 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Forty years ago, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner had a devastating night in Lake Placid. The defending world champions in pairs figure skating, they were favored to win a medal at the Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980.
Then Gardner injured a groin muscle, and the pair had to withdraw.
“I wanted to come back and thank this beautiful town of Lake Placid,” said Babilonia, who’s back in Lake Placid to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Games and to participate in Scott Hamilton’s Sk8 to Eliminate Cancer event.
“That night was so confusing,” she added, “and all of you helped us to get through it. And so that's why I'm back. … I embrace what happened, I know it sounds crazy. But that's our history, that's our story. Over the years, and through a lot of therapy, I have learned to embrace that. It was an incredibly crazy evening. But everything happens for a reason.”
The Babilonia and Gardner story was just one of the many memories that came from the 1980 Winter Games. And almost all of the figure skaters on the 1980 “Dream Team,” as they were dubbed, returned to Lake Placid for the 40th anniversary celebration and Sk8 to Eliminate Cancer—an effort spearheaded by Hamilton and Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist and now ORDA director of sport in Lake Placid. The skaters each raised money for Hamilton’s organization, with pairs skater Kitty Carruthers Conrad raising the most at $7,200. Carruthers Conrad and her brother Peter Carruthers finished fifth in pairs in 1980 and were the silver medalists four years later at the Sarajevo 1984 Games.
In total, the Olympians and the town of Lake Placid raised over $60,000 for Sk8 to Eliminate Cancer with more participants registered than any other town, reported Hamilton.
“I'm just incredibly grateful to the Lake Placid community that they got behind this in such a gigantic way,” said Hamilton, who finished fifth in the Lake Placid Games and then won Olympic gold four years later. “We've done a lot of these events around the country, raised a lot of money. But Lake Placid is the most participants we've ever had in any Sk8 to Eliminate Cancer.”
On Tuesday afternoon, in a snowstorm, the Olympians and other Sk8 to Eliminate Cancer participants skated 5 kilometers around the Lake Placid oval, site of Eric Heiden’s five Olympic gold medals in speedskating in 1980.
Linda Fratianne, who won an Olympic silver medal in women’s figure skating in 1980, lives in Sun Valley, Idaho, now and has been skating an hour each day to prepare for the event. The youngest skater to ever do more than one triple jump in her program, Fratianne too had been favored to win the Olympic title at the Lake Placid Games but was beaten by East German Anett Pötzsch by 0.30 points. Knowing that she did her best, Fratianne is happy with her silver medal.
The women skated their free program on the same ice where the U.S. men’s ice hockey team had just beaten the Soviets the previous evening—the “Miracle on Ice” game. But the hoopla surrounding that game did not affect Fratianne. She watched the game from her hotel room.
“I couldn't have be more proud, and we were excited for the team,” she said. “But [coach] Frank [Carroll] said, ‘We have a job to do. We're going to do it.’ It was like I had blinders on until the competition was over.”
Meanwhile, the day of the Miracle game, Fratianne’s teammate Lisa-Marie Allen missed the bus to the rink for practice, so she hopped on the bus with the hockey team and shared a seat with goalie Jim Craig. They chatted about how they handled the pressure of Olympic competition.
A photo of the 1980 U.S. Figure Skating Team banner taken on Feb. 18, 2020 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“I take responsibility for their win,” joked Allen, who finished fifth.
Charles Tickner, the Olympic bronze medalist in men’s figure skating in 1980, felt the pressure of competing in front of friends and family and almost wished he had been competing at a Europe-hosted Olympic Games. But he was thrilled to watch all the U.S. hockey games and is only disappointed that he missed seeing Heiden win his medals.
“I was insanely happy to make the Olympic team,” said Tickner, who had missed making the 1976 team. “Winning a medal was icing on the cake.”
For his part, Hamilton was inspired by Tickner and teammate David Santee, who finished fourth right behind Tickner in 1980, but then joked that he was thankful when Tickner retired, along with 1980 Olympic gold and silver medalists Robin Cousins from Great Britain and Jan Hoffmann from East Germany.
“I woke up, and [David] and I were No. 1 and No. 2 in the world,” joked Hamilton, who became four-time world champion starting in 1981.
Mostly, the 1980 team reminisced about how close they were as a team and the charm of the 1980 Games — what many of them consider the last small-town Olympic Games. For some, this week’s reunion was the first time that they had seen each other in decades, and they were on hand to see a banner raised in their honor above the 1980 rink where they competed.
“This was the last ‘village Olympics’ for the Winter Olympic Games,” said Peter Carruthers, who became a TV commentator for subsequent Games. “This was a place where you could go to the local sweater shop, and our parents could drive here, and they got to stay in houses around here and little places.”
“There were no managers or agents,” added Babilonia, “just parents and coaches.”
In fact, Fratianne sat in the ice rink’s locker room with her mother while Pötzsch and the rest of her competitors skated their free programs.
But it was these Olympic Winter Games and the stories that unfolded—where Heiden dominated speed skating, the U.S. ice hockey team gave America a much-needed boost of confidence, and Babilonia and Gardner had perhaps the worst night of their young lives—that “really ignited greater interest in the Winter Olympics,” said Hamilton, who was the U.S. flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony, an outdoor event at Lake Placid’s Horseshow Grounds.
Returning to Lake Placid, Babilonia likely spoke for all of her “Dream Team” teammates when she said she has “every emotion” when she drove into Lake Placid and saw the Olympic complex.
“I get chills, I get tears, I get happy tears,” she said. “I'm full of emotions. But I've learned to embrace every emotion.”
Then she looked at Paul Wylie, gestured to the room, and said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.