Former skating champ at home on ice | AspenTimes.com

Former skating champ at home on ice

Nate PetersonAspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN Tai Babilonia said she has always felt more comfortable on blades than in shoes. So, when the world champion pairs skater caught cabin fever last summer during a visit to the Aspen home of her fiance, comedian David Brenner, Babilonia knew where to go to get right.At Lewis Ice Arena she found a familiar place in an unfamiliar town, a refuge, so to speak, for a “big city girl” unaccustomed to life in the mountains. She also found an old friend in Teri Hooper, the head coach at the Aspen Skating Club. Back when they were both aspiring young skaters, Hooper and Babilonia trained at the same Los Angeles rink under famed coach John Nicks.Reconnecting in Aspen so many years later seemed fated for the two Californians. It also spawned a new working relationship. Babilonia, a busy person by nature, said she needed something to do during her stays in Aspen, and Hooper, realizing a great opportunity, asked the two-time Olympian if she’d be interested in working with some of the club’s young skaters.Since then, whenever Babilonia has been in Aspen, she has faithfully shown up at Lewis Ice Arena and the Aspen Ice Garden to help instruct skaters who work with Hooper throughout the year.”Having this saved me, being here in beautiful, lovely Aspen,” Babilonia joked Tuesday after teaching two half-hour lessons. “The rink saved me, and Teri saved me.”Babilonia modestly admits that she doesn’t have teaching experience and said that she does more “polishing” than real coaching. Up close, however, it’s easy to see that she is a natural instructor and motivator and that her pupils have the utmost respect for her, even if they don’t know just how famous their part-time coach is.

“She shows us what it looks like to do something, and then we do it, and then she tells us how to do it better,” said 9-year-old Aspenite Karoline Shechter.”She’s a good skater, and she’s very funny,” said Alan Bellio, a 10-year-old resident of Silt. “She really helps us with timing, and a lot of other things like our tricks and lunges.”Shechter and Bellio are two of the club’s most talented young skaters, and Hooper, realizing the potential for a strong pairs team, had the two start skating together in February.

They competed at their first pairs competition in April in Denver, where they finished second among four teams. Babilonia said the two have potential to be a great pairs team, if they stick together.”They’re much more sophisticated than I was at their age,” she said. “They’re on top of it. … When I’m out there, you’ve got to keep it going. You can’t waste any time because their mind, it goes a mile a minute. They’re teaching me to stay on my toes.”Babilonia also pointed out that Bellio and Shechter appear to be good friends, which wasn’t the case for her and partner Randy Gardner when the two were first matched together nearly 40 years ago. The two went on to win five consecutive pairs titles at the U.S. championships, and in 1979 were the first Americans in 29 years to win gold at the World Figure Skating Championships.”We were two solo skaters, and our coach saw us and we were similar in height and sort of cute, or I don’t know, I guess we were cute,” Babilonia said. “We played Dr. Dolittle and Mrs. Dolittle in a club show, and our coach literally had to bribe us to hold hands. My partner had cooties, as far as I was concerned, so just to get us to hold hands was a major event.

“With these two, I can tell they’re friends, which is a plus. I can tell they like each other. Alan doesn’t have cooties, but it’s just the same with a pairs team – it takes time being together.”Tuesday, Babilonia stressed the importance of communication to Shechter and Bellio, who at times tested her patience.Shechter kept wanting to take the lead from Bellio, insisting that her partner was skating too slowly. Bellio disagreed and tried to reassert control while Shechter fought to hold her pace.At one point, Babilonia stopped the two and used a metaphor of a stem and a flower to illustrate how the two should be in sync.”You’re the stem, Alan, and she’s the flower,” Babilonia said. “Flowers always have to take the stem’s lead.”

Hooper said the pairing between the two, while at times trying, has made both skaters better individually. “That was a really great side benefit that I didn’t expect to happen,” she said. “It’s calmed Karoline down, who’s really hyper, and it’s made Alan skate big and strong.”As for Babilonia, Hooper said she’s not only instructing, but learning, too.”A lot of higher-level skaters like her don’t have an interest in younger kids,” Hooper said. “I love the interest that she has taken in our young club, because our club is young. She’s just taken this awesome interest in them, and she really helps them. It’s an inspiration for them to say I’ve taken a lesson from Tai Babilonia, an Olympic skater, and I think she’s getting something back from it, too.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com


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