At the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, the 16-year-old Baiul gained international attention when she captured the gold medal in women's ice skating - that year, she was named ďOne of the 10 Most Fascinating Personalities of 1994Ē by Barbara Walters.
The only child of divorced parents, Baiul was raised by her mother and was introduced to skating by her grandfather, who gave her a pair of ice skates when she was three years old, apparently because she was too young for ballet. A natural on the ice, she became one of the top female skaters in the Ukraine at an early age, although personal tragedy made things difficult for the young skater. At the age of ten, her grandparents died (mother's parents), and then three years later, her mother died of ovarian cancer. She considered herself an orphan since she did not know her father and after her coach emigrated to Canada, found herself alone, telling the New Jersey Jewish News, "I basically grew up on my own."
Following her Olympic triumph, Baiul moved with her new coach to the United States and began to compete professionally. Yet, she also found trouble and due to alcohol abuse, she entered a rehab clinic in 1997 - when she returned to skating, it was covered nationally. She continues to tour and skate professionally, and in 2003, Baiul decided to return to the Ukraine and reunite with her father (it was covered on 20/20 and by People magazine), where she discovered that her grandmother (his mother) was Jewish.
Raised Russian Orthodox, Baiul had heard rumors of her Jewish ancestry and when confirmed, her Jewish fiancee, Gene Sunik, a Russian Jew was happy to learn he was not intermarrying. In an article in the New Jersey Jewish News, Baiul stated, "I really liked hearing that [she was Jewish] because I am sharing my life with a Jewish person. I am getting closer to Jewish culture, starting to learn what Judaism is all about." She continued by saying, "Iím exploring Judaism now. Iím just at the beginning. Iím taking it one day at a time, opening myself to the experience. Itís happening slowly but it feels good."
Baiul has started her education slowly, although in 2005, she became a trustee of Tikva Childrenís Home in Odessa, an educational institution for Jewish orphans in Ukraine. Emily Lehrman, Director of Strategic Development of Tikva, contacted Baiul because of the parallel between the Ukranian children serviced by Tikva and Baiulís own history and was thrilled with Baiul's willingness to participate in Tikva (Lenny Krayzelburg, Olympic swimming gold medalist also sits on the board). Baiul stated that, she generally does not participate in "something if I donít really understand what it is, just to throw the name around. Iíd rather have something good I can really put my heart into...Now I can share myself with the kids. I can raise money for them and go there and spend time with them. Itís perfect for me."
Birth and Death Dates:
b. November 16, 1977
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