The Tonya Harding Saga

The fierce rivalry between professional ice skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan took on a life of its own and secured a place in popular lore.
By John Calhoun ,

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in 'I, Tonya.'

(Photo: Neon/30 West)

Everyone who was around in the '90s remembers the tabloid saga of champion figure skater Tonya Harding and her competition on the ice with Nancy Kerrigan, an Olympic rivalry that turned violent. For several weeks in early 1994, the news was filled with the story, especially after Kerrigan was battered in the leg with a collapsible police baton by a mysterious assailant. Associates of Harding and her husband Jeff Gillooly were quickly implicated, as was Gillooly himself. The question that remained — and still remains — is the degree of Tonya’s involvement.

The Harding-Kerrigan affair exceeded its 15 minutes and took up a secure space in popular lore. As writer ESPN writer Jim Caple has written, “The scandal would become so notorious that it would inspire a novel, an opera, a parody in a ‘Seinfeld’ episode, lyrics in a Weird Al Yankovic song and even a 2007 campaign speech reference by President Barack Obama.” And now, it has also inspired a movie: I, Tonya, directed by Craig Gillespie, starring Margot Robbie as Harding.

Steven Rogers’ script for the film takes the form of dueling he said-she said accounts by Tonya and her ex-husband (played by Sebastian Stan). Gillooly, who has since changed his name to Jeff Stone, named his wife as instigator of the attack on Kerrigan shortly after he was arrested. Harding has always maintained her innocence of any prior knowledge.

Young Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) in 'I, Tonya.'

Neon/30 West

Where the truth lies in the stories of these two unreliable narrators will probably never be determined. But I, Tonya should at least fill in the undisputed details most people have likely forgotten about the case, even as they vaguely recall the attack, the media hubbub, and the competition that seemed as much about class and style as ability.

Tonya Harding was born in Portland, Oregon in 1970, in circumstances often called hardscrabble. Her mother, LaVona (played in the film by Allison Janney) worked as a waitress and her father, LaVona’s fifth husband, worked various blue-collar jobs. Tonya started ice skating at the local mall at age three and had a coach by the time she was four.

Everyone agreed that the little girl had remarkable ability, but through the years Tonya had to contend with obstacles that included poverty and abuse. Competitive figure skating is expensive (lessons, rink time, costumes) and money was scarce. Reportedly, Tonya and her mother scoured roadsides for empties and collected refunds to add to the till. LaVona was not a warm nurturer, to say the least: she would constantly berate her daughter and was not at all averse to physical punishment. In one instance, a friend witnessed LaVona whacking Tonya repeatedly with a hairbrush.

LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) and her pet bird in 'I, Tonya.'

Neon/30 West

But Tonya continued to excel, and started racking up titles at 12. At 16, she quit school to focus on her skating. In 1991, she made history by completing a triple axel at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and again at the World Championships, the first American woman to do so in international competition. That year, Harding won the silver medal, while Kristi Yamaguchi won gold. In third place for the bronze was Nancy Kerrigan.

Kerrigan, like Harding, came from a working-class background, but the two were otherwise a study in contrasts. Nancy fit the established mold of the female figure skater, extending one long leg up behind her in a portrait of grace, and flashing a perfect smile. She paid her way by easily attracting endorsements from the likes of Campbell’s Soup.

Tonya was a little (5’ 1”) ball of athletic energy and drive, performing her jumps and spins in decidedly unprincess-y fashion. Her hair was frizzy, her dentation was flawed, her outfits were homemade and tended to the garish. She skated to rap and the theme from Jurassic Park. No endorsements came her way. She had also traded in an abusive mother for an abusive husband, if the restraining orders she twice took out against Jeff Gillooly can be credited.

Kerrigan and Harding had both competed on the U.S. women’s team at the 1992 Olympics, ranking third and fourth, respectively. As the Winter Olympics approached in 1994 (after a decision was made to stagger winter and summer competitions rather than holding them the same year), all eyes were on the two. On January 6, 1994 the attack on Kerrigan occurred at Cobo Arena in Detroit, where she was practicing for the U.S. Championships. She was not able to compete, and Harding won the gold medal.

But then, the assailant (who had registered at a local hotel under his own name) was arrested, along with his getaway driver and Harding’s “bodyguard,” Shawn Eckhardt, who had hired them. Gillooly’s arrest soon followed. And Tonya admitted that she had discovered their involvement following the attack (though not before), and had not immediately reported it. Gillooly, in a plea deal, put the blame squarely on his soon-to-be-ex-wife.

So would the Olympics, set for seven weeks later in Lillehammer, Norway, have to go on without Tonya and Nancy? Not a chance — whatever their differences, these were two determined women. Kerrigan, whose kneecap was badly bruised but not broken, embarked on a rigorous physical therapy regime and recovered rapidly; Harding, initially barred from competition, sued the U.S. Olympics committee and was reinstated. In Lillehammer, the nonstop media coverage captured the two rivals occupying the ice in practice at the same time.

As it turned out, a distracted Tonya badly bungled her routines and placed eighth, while Nancy nailed hers and won the silver medal. (Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul took gold.) Harding came home to face charges for hindering prosecution, pled guilty, and was sentenced to three years’ probation. The United States Figure Skating Association stripped her of her 1994 championship and barred her for life from competition (either as skater or coach).

So where are they now? Nancy Kerrigan retired from amateur competition following the Olympics and performed for several years in ice shows. She married in 1996, raised a family, and has mostly remained silent about the events of 1994.

Tonya Harding is not the sort to stay silent; she even collaborated on a tell-all 2008 memoir, The Tonya Tapes. Some may recall that she had a brief boxing career. She remarried and divorced, married again, and gave birth to a son in 2011. In the 2014 ESPN documentary The Price of Gold, Tonya expressed some bitterness: “I lost everything….Skating was put on the map, supposedly from me. Everybody made a life and a livelihood, except me.” And she continued to maintain her innocence.

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