Ukraine’s ice queen
A world champion at 15 and an Olympic gold medal winner a year later at the Lillehammer Olympic Winter Games, Ukrainian figure skater Oksana Baiul fought adversity all the way to the top.
A testing childhood
Oksana Baiul was born and bred in Dniepropetrovsk , Ukraine, growing up at a time when her country was still part of the Soviet Union. Her father left the family home when she was only two. A year later her grandfather bought her a pair of skates and at the age of seven she won her first competition, encouraging her to pursue the sport further. In the years that followed she would face many personal challenges. She was ten when both her grandparents died and three years later she was left with no family when her mother passed away. To make matters worse, her coach Stanislav Korytek left for Canada. It was then that the renowned coach Galina Zmievskaya, who had guided Viktor Petrenko to the Olympic title in 1992, took the young Oksana under her wing. The teenager moved to her new coach’s home in Odessa, Russia, and made dazzling progress under her tutelage, combining her natural talent on the ice with the technical qualities that would take her to the pinnacle of the sport.
An ice queen at 15
In the lead-up to the 1993 Worlds in Prague, Baiul crashed into the boards while training and damaged her neck and back. After secretly receiving medical treatment she decided to compete despite her injuries and the fact that she had to wear skates with crooked blades, since she didn’t have time to change them. However, none of that prevented the 15-year-old star from producing a magical free programme, and she became the youngest women’s figure skating world champion since Sonja Henie in 1927.
Gold at Lillehammer
Most of the media attention leading up to the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer was focused on the bitter rivalry between American figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, with Baiul going very much unnoticed. At the end of the short programme at the Hamar Olympic Amphitheatre the Ukrainian was lying second behind Kerrigan. During training on the eve of the free programme, she collided with the German skater Tanja Szewczenko and suffered a gash in her left shin, which required three stitches. The mishap was forgotten when the 16-year-old world champion took to the ice for her free skate routine, lighting up the arena with five perfectly executed triple jumps, performed to the sound of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Scoring especially high marks for artistic impression, with seven of the nine judges placing her first, she took the gold ahead of Kerrigan and China’s Chen Lu. Explaining the secret of her success, she said: “I don’t feel the pressure. I love competition, and I love skating and seeing the crowd’s reaction.”
Ice in the blood
Following an international amateur career lasting just two years, Baiul moved to the United States and turned professional. In the years after her Olympic triumph she took part in a number of ice dance shows and events, while also developing her own line of figure skating apparel and accessories. “Figure skating is something I love and I will continue to do it all my life,” she once said. She remains to this day the only Ukrainian, male or female, to have won gold at the Olympic Winter Games.