05/26/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT
Glide through Tai Babilonia's airy, split-level L.A. home and you'll see tons of photos of a good-looking dark-haired guy. No, not her fiancé, comedian David Brenner; it's the other man in her life. And Brenner insists he's not at all jealous. "Look, she'll always have him," says Brenner of Babilonia's longtime skating partner Randy Gardner. "They're always going to be a pair."
Even now, as they retire after 40 years of spectacular success—two Olympics, world and national titles, performing in ice shows far and wide—Tai and Randy are still in perfect sync. The two are genuine friends, rare in a sport where pairs often see skating as a marriage of convenience. Why retire? The ravages of time and a serious neck injury Gardner, 50, sustained last September. "You don't want to go out on the ice and look silly," says Babilonia, 48. "But it's been a wild journey, and I wouldn't change a thing."
Indeed, they've seen each other through enough drama—failed romances, substance abuse, a suicide attempt, family secrets revealed—to populate a prime-time schedule. "And they've been there for each other through thick and thin," says skating champ Scott Hamilton.
The two first met in 1968, when Randy was 10 and Tai was a shy 8-year-old who had to be bribed just to hold Gardner's hand as they practiced together in a Culver City, Calif., ice rink. "I was the quiet one and Randy was the outgoing, popular kid at the rink," says Tai, whose exotic looks are inherited from her Filipino father and African-American mother.
They started winning titles as teenagers and collected five senior national championships leading up to the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. "Tai was the first African-American female skater to succeed at that level," says Hamilton. "The public loved them."
Perhaps their most indelible skating moment took place in Lake Placid. As millions watched on TV, Gardner collapsed on the ice with a leg injury, forcing the gold medal contenders to withdraw.
Babilonia helped him through it. "Some skaters would have gotten mad. But Tai hung in. She never said, 'You blew it,'" says Gardner now. "I was lucky to have her." Ironically, given the fall, "people embraced us more than if we had won," says Babilonia. (They never did win an Olympic medal.)
They turned pro after Lake Placid, skating in ice shows. Babilonia, then 20, was woefully unprepared for the money and fame. "I couldn't balance a checkbook," she says. "I was just floundering. I was young and naive." She had relationships with singer Andy Gibb and actor Christopher Knight. (She later married and then divorced producer Cary Butler; they have a son, Scout, now 13.) She partied hard, using amphetamines and alcohol. Now it was Gardner's turn to keep his partner upright. In the fall of 1988 she took a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills. "I was overworked. It was a cry for help," she says. "I woke up in the hospital and Randy was sitting next to me with my mom," Babilonia recalls. "I thought, 'What a friend, even through all my dysfunction.'"
She was there at his bedside when Gardner had his career-ending injury last year. Perhaps more significantly, she helped him deal with the emotional turmoil when he learned from a relative he had been adopted. Though fearful he would offend his adoptive parents if they found out, he quietly located his birth mother, Dottie Baca, an Idaho grocery store clerk. In 2001 he invited Dottie to a performance in Branson, Mo. The night before the show, he nervously pulled Tai aside to share his secret. "I thought he was going to come out to me as a gay person," says Tai. "Silly boy, I knew that."
They put on a special performance for Baca, who was sitting front-row center. "Tai treated Dottie like my mom," says Gardner, who has gotten closer to Baca since his adoptive parents died. "I've taken it slow and Tai was supportive of that," he says. Gardner, who revealed he was gay in a 2006 magazine article, recently traveled to Idaho and introduced Baca to his partner of 10 years, Jay Gendron, a Warner Bros. TV executive.
As for Babilonia, she met comedian Brenner, now 72, at a West Hollywood restaurant in 2003. It was love at first sound bite. "There wasn't laughter in the relationship I was in, and I kept hearing this laughter. I turned around and saw David," she recalls.
Sitting at Babilonia's dining room table, Tai and Randy talk of the future: She is designing a clothing line for skaters and writing a skating magazine column, while Gardner is penning his memoir and working as a choreographer. "We're still Tai and Randy," she says. "And we'll still be around the ice, just without the blades."