When Oksana Baiul was only 3 years old, she received her very first pair of ice skates from her grandfather. Born in a factory town in the Ukraine, skating was a popular sport. (By just 7 years old, she’d already won her first big skating competition. The Ukranian Skating Federation quickly took notice!)
Though skating came easy, Oksana’s childhood wasn’t so simple. Her father left home when she was only 2, and her mom died of cancer 10 years later. When her grandparents on her mother’s side passed away soon after, Oksana was all alone. In fact, the 13-year-old considered herself an orphan since her dad had disappeared years before. For a short while she was homeless, sleeping on a cot at the ice rink where she practiced.
Thankfully, Oksana’s coach Stanislav Koretek took her in. But in 1992 Stanislav and his family moved to Canada, and Oksana found herself alone again. When she found her new coach, Galina Zmievskaya, she moved into her small home in Odessa. There, she shared a room with one of Galina's daughters. In 1993, Oksana - who had never even competed in a junior world competition - skated away with the World Championship title.
Then in 1994, Oksana entered the Norway Olympics. That year the world witnessed the biggest skating scandal ever, when skater Tonya Harding tried to “take out” fellow American teammate and Olympic favorite Nancy Kerrigan. Despite injuries of her own, Oksana was triumphant! She’d gotten three stitches after a collision with another skater the day of her long program, but still triple axeled her way to a win. Talk about a crazy competition year!
Though capturing Olympic gold was exciting for Oksana, conditions in the Ukraine were worse than ever. Because there was no way to finance her skating in her home country, she moved to the United States with her coach. She spent several years touring and skating in professional competitions and events.
In 2003, Oksana returned to her hometown of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine to meet her grandmother and father for the first time. Her story was featured on ABC’s “20/20” and featured in “People Magazine.” It was then she discovered her grandmother was Jewish!
“I am getting closer to Jewish culture, starting to learn what Judaism is all about," Oksana said after her Jewish ancestry was confirmed. "I’m exploring Judaism now. I’m just at the beginning. I’m taking it one day at a time, opening myself to the experience. It’s happening slowly but it feels good."
Since her days as an Olympian, Oksana has settled into a more stable, happy life. She’s acted and skated in productions such as “Broadway on Ice,” and “Cold as Ice” – a story of six skaters from Canada, Russia, and the United States preparing for the Olympics while dealing with demanding coaches and stage mothers. Plus she’s turned her love for fashion into a career, and is re-launching a clothing and jewelry line this year.
But dedicating herself to causes she believes in is currently one of Oksana’s favorite ways to spend her time. In 2005, she became a trustee of Tikva Children’s Home, an educational institution for Jewish orphans in Ukraine. Of her charity work for the orphans Oksana says, “I can share myself with the kids. I can raise money for them and go there and spend time with them. It’s perfect for me." Now that deserves another gold medal!