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Oksana Baiul: Confident, Comfortable with Stardom

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When Ukrainian figure skater Oksana Baiul moved to the United States a year ago, she says her English vocabulary consisted of two words: ''hi'' and ''bye.''

Now the reigning Olympic champion confidently conducts telephone interviews with American journalists, as she did with this reporter the other day, sans translator, from her Simsbury, Conn., condominium.

Some expressions still are lost on her. Take this exchange:

Oksana: ''I cook a lot. I love to cook.''

Reporter: ''What is the specialty of the house?''

Oksana: ''I don't know. Probably my bedroom, which is where I keep all my stuffed animals.''

There is an endearing innocence to this soon-to-be 18-year-old, a quality that, coupled with her superior skating talent, has catapulted her into international stardom within the space of just a few years.

Four years ago she finished 12th in the Soviet championships. Two years later she was the world champion, and then at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, she was reduced to tears after edging out American Nancy Kerrigan for the gold medal.

The media latched onto her heart-tugging story, which was as uplifting as the infamous Tonya Harding-Kerrigan affair was sensational. Hers was a feel-good fairy tale: An orphan at 13, she trains in an inferior ice rink under a coach who adopts her. She wins Olympic gold and skates happily ever after.

And as she rises each day, what prospects most occupy her thoughts?

Most immediately, it's a hectic performance schedule that saw her skate in a made-for-TV competition called ''Ice Wars'' last weekend on Long Island (it airs tonight on CBS) and this weekend places her in Albany, N.Y., for ''Skates of Gold III,'' an exhibition enlisting past and present Olympic champions. (It will be broadcast Nov. 16 on ABC.)

''I think about my life,'' she says. ''I like my life right now. I couldn't imagine three years ago that I could have a life like I have now.''

It is a life brimming with TV appearances, endorsement deals, a pick-of-performing options, more than a little money, and even visits to the White House (two so far).

It has also included an invitation for her, her coach Galilna Zmievskaya, and fellow Ukrainian Viktor Petrenko (the 1992 Olympic champion) to take up residence at the $7.5 million International Skating Center of Connecticut in suburban Hartford.

Despite the demands on her time, which soon will include a Nutcracker on Ice European tour and an appearance in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, Baiul doesn't view what she does as a job.

''Skating is my life,'' she says. ''Every event is important to me.''

Will one of those be the Olympics in 1998?

''Maybe, I'm not sure,'' she says. ''I have time to think about it.''


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