Gold Mettle

updated 06/02/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/2003 01:00AM

The last time much of America saw Olympian Oksana Baiul she was skating on dangerously thin ice. Only four years after the teenage Ukrainian orphan won a gold medal—and the world's heart—at the 1994 Games, she had turned into a bloated, out-of-control alcoholic, hitting bottom while on tour in April 1998 with a humiliating falling-down-drunk incident in a Cincinnati hotel. "I just couldn't stop drinking," admits Baiul, now 25, who had tried to quit the previous year after crashing her Mercedes following a night of barhopping. "It made me feel so good, so far away from myself. It was my runaway place."

These days Baiul isn't running anymore. After years of putting up walls around herself, believing that any potential suitor was really interested in her money or her celebrity, she says she has finally found happiness with fiancé Gene Sunik, CEO of his family's skiwear business. And two years after hanging up her skates—"I said what's the point if I'm lonely?"—Baiul is now determined to reestablish herself as a world-class athlete. In February she began training in earnest, and last month she performed two numbers in a CBS skating special. "What I know now, I wish I knew when I began to skate as a professional," says Baiul, sober since completing rehab in August '98. "The older I'm getting, the easier it becomes to live a life."

Some of Baiul's fellow skaters aren't exactly triple jumping for joy, at least not just yet. "It's going to be hard—she's burnt a lot of bridges," says Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano, one of those who hasn't forgotten her disastrous postaccident comeback attempt in '98, when "she wasn't delivering and she was a pain in the ass to boot. People are expecting her to act bad," he continues, "and she is going to have to prove them wrong." Others seem more forgiving. "I'm glad she's getting it together—maybe she can enjoy skating at another level now that she has grown up," says Peggy Fleming, ABC skating commentator. "I always thought she had a wonderful heart and a beautiful, beautiful talent," says Olympic pairs champion Ekaterina Gordeeva. "I think maybe she's more stable now; she's found a very good man."

The start of that relationship was rocky, Baiul will be the first to admit. "I was pushing him away as hard as I could. I was torturing him," says Baiul, who met Sunik at a December 2000 Christmas party—and was delighted to discover he was only dimly aware of the skating world. When Sunik, raised in a Russian-speaking household in New York City, did learn she'd competed at the 1994 Olympics, he had only one question. "I asked her if Tonya hit Nancy or Nancy hit Tonya," says Sunik, 30. "I couldn't remember."

Talking until 3 a.m. that night, "we were a couple immediately," says Sunik. A month later they moved in together. Oksana the Olympic superstar became Oksana the housewife, cooking many of Sunik's Ukrainian favorites including cold cucumber soup. "They're happy together," Sunik's mother, Tamara, 53, says of the pair, who share a one-bedroom luxury condo in Cliffside Park, N.J., with their pooches. "When they're separated, they're always on the phone. They're soulmates."

For almost two years, Baiul says, she didn't miss the ice at all. Then the couple decided to go into business together to create a line of skating clothing—both insist it was Baiul's idea—and that began to change. She started training again, first once a day, then twice. She went on a high-protein, low-carb diet, getting her weight down from 130 to 122 lbs., with a target of 115 by fall, when she plans to skate in an NBC special headlined by Katarina Witt and to perform in exhibitions. By then Baiul—who has begun working again with Valentin Nikolaev, one of her coaches from her glory days—also aims to increase the technical difficulty of her routine to include three triple jumps. "I'm not really hitting them now, and it will be difficult to get them all back, but, hey," she says with an optimistic giggle, "I'm Oksana."

In the meantime Baiul has some unfinished personal business. Through contacts in Ukraine she was recently able to track down her father, who left the family when she was only 2. Baiul hasn't spoken to him yet, but she knows that he is an engineer and that he never remarried after her mother's death. "I wasn't ready before to find him," says Baiul. She hopes that she will meet him this summer. "Now I feel like I'm putting my life together. I feel it's my time."

Pam Lambert
Michael Fleeman in Colorado Springs and Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles

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