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The Bachelor Winter Games Bring Skating Icons to Television

A different kind of games on ABC.

Libby Slate

Not all the snow and ice action this month is taking place on NBC.

From February 13 through February 22, ABC aired its own version of the Winter Olympics (still airing On Demand and on abc.com), The Bachelor Winter Games, gathered former contestants from The Bachelor and Bachelorette global franchises at a Manchester, Vermont resort to compete in such sports as biathlon, speed skating and figure skating.

Ten countries are represented; joining U.S. host Chris Harrison are ESPN SportsCenter anchor and sports journalist Hannah Storm and KABC-TV sports anchor and correspondent Ashley Brewer.

Figure skating icons Nancy Kerrigan and pair team Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner are on hand for the finale episode, giving skating lessons and judging couples in a hybrid pairs skating-ice dancing competition. Naturally, there's also plenty of Bachelor/Bachelorette-style romantic coupling amidst the athletics.

"The tone of the show is really to have fun," says Robert Mills, senior vice president, alternative series, specials & late-night programming for ABC Entertainment. "And the sports helped with the romantic angle. The competition brought [the contestants] together."

The idea for such a show came about, Mills says, during a symposium with producers. "We were talking about the next season. We said, 'We should have a winter version of [summer spinoff] Bachelor in Paradise, in a different kind of locale.'" He took the idea to Andy Kubitz, ABC Entertainment's executive vice president, program planning & scheduling; The Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss came up with the concept.

The skaters enjoyed their two days of shooting in Vermont. "We had a great time," says Randy Gardner. "We trained one couple, and I was quite surprised – they did pretty well in the short amount of time we had to teach them the basics! Some people did lifts – the guys were strong. They did side-by-side moves, which are the most romantic. We encouraged that. And as judges, we were very kind."

In coaching the contestants, Gardner used an oft-used pairs metaphor that fit right in with a show where roses have a pivotal role: the partners should think of themselves as a flower, with the man as the stem supporting and presenting, and the woman, the blossom.

"The guys really protected their girls in terms of taking care of them," Gardner relates. "I told the boys to be strong, and the girls to show it off as much as they could, to bloom."

The contestants weren't the only ones to pick up new skills. "Chris Harrison and Hannah Storms are such pros," reports Tai Babilonia, who recently spent 18 months co-hosting a Santa Barbara television talk show, Ken Boxer Live. "I watched and learned. With Chris, it's one take, and he's off to the next scene. It's an honor to work with some of the best."

Los Angeles natives Babilonia and Gardner are marking their 50th anniversary of skating together, a celebration which includes a special presentation by Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell at City Hall on February 23.

They were eight and ten, respectively, when coach Mabel Fairbanks paired then up at a local rink. Their partnership yielded five U.S. National Figure Skating Championships (1976-1980), the 1979 World Championship title and membership on the 1976 and 1980 U.S. Winter Olympic teams.

In 1980, they earned worldwide sympathy when Gardner's injury forced them to withdraw from the Olympics during the warmup before their short program. Babilonia, who had no idea that the competition was in jeopardy, was left shocked and tearful.

"People wanted me to be upset, like, 'You ruined my Olympics,'" Babilonia recalls. "No. This is my best friend. He got hurt.

"Some things happen for a reason. They're not meant to be," she says. "People saw we were human. They embraced us like they were our own. Things break. Things don't always go as planned. We weren't supposed to win. We were supposed to touch people. That's a pretty powerful thing."

"You learn from those disappointments," Gardner says. "What was most frustrating and scary at the time was, was I going to be able to skate again? I had to go through physical therapy."

Happily, he was able to skate. The duo starred in Ice Capades and other productions, and acted in Hart to Hart and other shows.

Nowadays, Babilonia, who has an adult son, draws on her life experiences doing motivational speaking for the Ready, Set, Gold! nonprofit mentoring program, which sends Olympians and Paralympians to LAUSD public schools to educate and inspire students about health and fitness. "It's the best, most rewarding thing to teach the students about focus, and setting goals, and the proper diet," she says. "I love sharing my story."

Gardner has been keeping busy coaching and choreographing. "I'm very much into progressing the sport, and paying it forward," he remarks. And he has been starring in his own theater show, Go Figure: The Randy Gardner Story, created by Joshua Ravetch (the late Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking), who co-wrote with Gardner and directs.

With Babilonia and 1976 Olympic Champion Dorothy Hamill as special guests, the show played West Hollywood and Wilmington, Delaware in January. "It's a live autobiography," Gardner says, "based on my memoirs, which I've started to publish online. It's the hardest thing I've ever done. It's one thing to write a book, and another to play yourself and tell it live."

In the show, Gardner covers his skating career of course, but also talks about coming out as gay, discovering he was adopted and meeting his birth mother. "My goal is to get to off-Broadway."

Married to entertainment attorney Jay Gendron, Gardner adds, "What I'm proud of now is looking at the LGBT athletes coming up. I'm proud of them, and happy to see them."

Appearing on The Bachelor Winter Games was a chance to reconnect with Nancy Kerrigan; he had choreographed her shows Footloose on Ice and Halloween on Ice. Kerrigan recently acted on an episode of ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, and last year competed on the network's Dancing with the Stars.

In an email interview, Kerrigan said that her favorite part of the Games was "working with all of the contestants. They all had great attitudes and wanted to do their best."

Married with three children, Kerrigan has been back in the spotlight thanks to the film I, Tonya, which depicts the attack on her knee at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating National Championships, orchestrated by skating rival Tonya Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly in an attempt to keep Kerrigan out of the Winter Olympics. Kerrigan recovered and won a Silver Medal at those Games, adding it to the Bronze she had won at the 1992 Olympics.

Reflecting on her Olympic experience, Kerrigan says, "Sometimes the fact that I am a two-time Olympian seems like it was in another life. It's something that I look back on and often have to pinch myself, even today. So few people get the opportunity to go to the Olympics and represent their country, that growing up, I never really thought of it as a goal. It just seemed to be out of reach.

"Being an Olympian is a special thing that's actually hard to describe. It remains an honor to have represented the United States and more specifically, the people of the United States, who still thank me 25 years after I competed at the Olympics. To be part of the family of Olympians is something that I will always treasure."

Babilonia and Gardner also feel honored to have represented the U.S. "To be an Olympian is the pinnacle of a career," Gardner says. And, Babilonia points out, "It wasn't just Randy and myself. My whole family are Olympians, too. Without them, we wouldn't have gotten there."

As for the current Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Kerrigan believes that television viewers should keep in mind "how hard all of the athletes have worked to get to the Olympics. In most cases they are fulfilling a lifelong dream. There will be great performances by people the viewers have heard of, but there will also be great performances by people they have not heard of.

"And some of those performances will be by people who aren't on the podium. The Olympics, I think, usually brings out the best in those participating. That's what makes the Olympics so exciting."

As for The Bachelor Winter Games, there are winners of each sports competition and an overall winner. But, ABC's Mills reminds, tongue firmly in cheek, "The ethos of The Bachelor is about finding love. Those that win the competitions get gold-plated date cards. That's more important than a medal."