Skating beauty has admiration for the sweet science
Oksana Baiul’s challenging life as an up and coming figure skater could resemble that of many striving prizefighters. Her mother died of cancer when she was 13. Having already lost both her maternal grandparents, and not knowing her father, there was no one to care for her. When her skating coach emigrated to Canada, Baiul found herself sleeping on a cot at her hometown rink, as a mere teenager. But by the age of 16, heading into the 1994 Olympic Games of Lillehammer, Baiul of Ukraine was ready to shock the world.
“Even though I won worlds in ’93, I wasn’t expected to win at the Olympics. We went to the Olympics as a new country, just split from Russia. I didn’t understand what was happening. The story happened with Nancy (Kerrigan) and Tonya (Harding). I just did my job, skated as well as I could. I came out of nowhere like a tornado.”
Baiul became the first female athlete to win the gold medal for Ukraine. Today, she’s just about on par with the Klitschko Brothers – in terms of fame in Ukraine. Naturally, this natural born competitor who overcame long odds in her life, just loves the sport of boxing.
“I like boxing, I love to watch it live, it’s very exciting. It’s a very tough sport,” says the 31-year-old who lives in Cliffside Park, N.J., across the Hudson River from New York City. “I love sitting there enjoying how people fight. It’s a fighter sport. That’s what I love about it. I’m a fighter too. What you learn in your sport helps you in your life. Life knocks you down, you get up. Life knocks you down, you get up again. You have to learn how to fight, fight towards pain and resistance. You see all that in the ring, when you are sitting there watching the match.”
What was her first ringside experience? “I can’t remember the first one. One of them was with Katarina Witt (another Olympic skating champ) in Germany. I skated in her show. She said, Come to the fights with me. So I went to the fights. Katarina, she loves boxing too. We saw English fighters, I don’t remember the names. I remember we talked about how the boxers came out to the ring, how they played the music. It’s really exciting. I remember we were kidding with each other – about the girls going out on the ice and fighting each other [laughs]. Skating is a little like that, but more graceful.”
Baiul compares the pressure before a major skating competition as similar to what the boxers go through before a fight. “In skating there is the tension like boxing. Before the free program there is a six-minute warm-up. It’s a real difficult area to be in, with the other skaters. Pressure is enormous, you’re anxious,” she says. “So you just stand there, shake your legs. So many things go through your mind. Me and Katarina were like, Just go out and fight before the free program, that would make it funny.”
Baiul has been to many live fights and has met many of the modern greats. “I’ve met so many of them. Oscar, I went to his fights. Mike Tyson. Lennox Lewis. Muhammad Ali. The Klitschkos. You meet them, it’s interesting. Then you see them how they fight in the ring and they’re different people. But when you talk to them, they’re like big marshmallows [laughs]. They’re like big bears.”
Her favourites? “I like Oscar De La Hoya, when he was in shape. And Mike Tyson. You cannot deny it – a genius. And the Klitschkos. I feel okay watching them fight. It’s exciting. I see Wladimir at the fashion shows, I’m very friendly with him. He’s very nice.”
She met Iron Mike Tyson. “At the ESPY Awards in 2007. He tried to stay away from people. When you go through the life experience he went through – I think he put the gate up around him.”
Her favourite fight? “Let’s say Vitali is fine. When he got the title (vs. Corrie Sanders). I was at the next fight he had at Madison Square Garden (vs. Kirk Johnson), it wasn’t really a fight. A lot of Ukrainians flew in from all over the world to see it. That place was packed with Ukrainians, they came from Calgary, Canada, Rochester, all over the globe.”
When asked why she thinks Eastern Europeans are dominating heavyweight boxing today, Baiul replies, “My sport is going through the same thing as boxing, like Eastern Europeans dominate heavyweight boxing now, in skating, Asians are dominating the sport. It was never like that, never. Now it’s all Asian people. I think it’s because of the coaching. And you have to be very hungry to do this or that. You really have to be hungry, to love the sport and fight for it.”
Her favourite boxing movies? “Rocky, of course. And Raging Bull. I went to the premiere of the remake with Martin Scorcese. Raging Bull is a pretty great movie.”
Favourite boxing book? “I have the Klitschkos book. I really do. It’s about both of them. It’s a beautiful book, quite a lot of pictures of them through their lives, at home, doing different things.”
Earlier, Baiul commented about how there is a common tension before a boxing match and a skating competition. So I decide to ask her if she has noticed any boxers who have the coordination and potential to make a good figure skater? “It’s interesting to say. In figure skating you have to be graceful. That TV show ‘Dancing With The Stars’ – the football players and boxers do that show and they do well and become popular. Skating is similar,” and with a laugh, she adds. “I think Vitali would be a good figure skater!”