The new movie I, Tonya recounts the bitter rivalry between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, America’s top competitors on the 1990s figure-skating scene. It also chronicles the shocking denouement of that rivalry, a moment New York Times reporter Jere Longman dubbed “the most horrifying, embarrassing and ultimately beneficial moment in the history of the sport.” He was referring, of course, to the January 1994 day when a hitman, hired by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, clubbed Kerrigan in the knee with a police baton during a final practice before the U.S. Women’s Championships in Detroit.
The perpetrator’s purported goal? To incapacitate Kerrigan so she wouldn’t be able to compete against Harding in the following month’s 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Norway. (The athletes had also competed in the 1992 Games, with Kerrigan taking home the bronze and Harding placing fourth).
The attack didn’t pan out quite as anticipated, but the entire debacle and its aftermath – crudely dubbed “the whack heard round the world” – was a sports scandal the likes of which America had never seen. The media latched onto it as a petty catfight gone criminal; “the evil witch vs. the snow queen,” as Nanette Burstein, director of the ESPN documentary The Price Of Gold, said in 2014.
“The media couldn’t wait to tell this story of [Harding as] a hard-knock kid from a hardscrabble background who belied the stereotype [and] went against all the norms of what a world-class skater should be,” recalls Ann Schatz, a Portland sportscaster who covered the case. “It didn’t work out the way we envisioned.”
Harding became, instead, the jealous villain from the wrong side of the tracks; Kerrigan was the triumphant survivor who could do no wrong. The reality was more layered, of course, and both skaters’ lives were irrevocably altered in the aftermath of the incident. Here’s the backstory behind one of the Nineties’ most enduring, sensationalized news stories.
The competitors couldn’t have been more different
Harding and Kerrigan had been competing against each other for years by the time of the attack in 1994. Though both women hailed from blue-collar backgrounds, Kerrigan, of Stoneham, Massachusetts, grew up in a more stable environment. Naturally shy, she subscribed to demure figure-skating norms: she wore designer costumes, used classical music as her soundtrack, and played up her swan-like stature and traditional good looks. Her skating was regal, like dancing on ice, and companies like Reebok rewarded her with endorsement deals. “She was raised as a lady. We all notice that,” an Olympic judge once observed to sportswriter Christine Brennan. Harding put it succinctly in ESPN’s Price of Gold: “She’s a princess, I’m a piece of crap.” (Both Kerrigan and Harding declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Harding was a powerhouse, though – fearless, athletic and raw on the rink. She excelled at jumps and spins, but critics argued that she lacked artistry. She was considered an outlier not just because of how she skated but because she didn’t bother trying to adhere to the prototypical ice-princess mold: Harding’s costumes were homemade, she skated to ZZ Top and Tone Loc, and she smoked, played pool, hunted and drove a pickup.
In her autobiography, The Tonya Tapes, Harding claims that the U.S. Figure Skating Association pressured her into taking back ex-husband Jeff Gillooly because her 1993 divorce didn’t reflect the image of domestic tranquility the organization preferred for its female skaters: “They said I had a stable life when I was with him – married, settled down,” she said. “They wanted to make sure I was still going to be that way to go to the Olympic Games.”
Harding had a tough start
Tonya Maxene Harding was born in 1970 and grew up in Portland, Oregon to parents LaVona Golden, a waitress, and Al Harding, Golden’s fifth husband, who worked in a rubber company. In a documentary on E!, Al Harding recalls the family living in a trailer, and notes that though he was close with his daughter, his wife was alcoholic and abusive. “My relationship with my mom is really bad,” then-15-year-old Tonya says in a clip from Price of Gold. “She hits me and she beats me and she drinks. She’s an alcoholic.” (Golden has disputed her portrayal as a villain in the upcoming film, saying that she has never been abusive.)
A natural athlete, Harding began skating at age three, was referred to esteemed local skating coach Diane Rawlinson by age four, and started landing complicated jumps by ten. “Tonya’s a remarkable talent. With financial support, she could become Olympic material,” Rawlinson once said of Harding. (The coach provided many of her lessons to Harding for free, or had them covered by “financial angels.”) Harding saw skating as not only her passion but as an escape from her troubled home life; fellow skaters and their parents reported seeing Golden hit and yell at Tonya during practice. Golden once observed that “[Tonya would] be nothing, absolutely nothing” without the sport, and Harding dropped out of high school at 15 to pursue professional skating because “it was either skating or school,” as she put it. “It was so hard to survive – moving so much, not having many friends. But I loved my skating,” Harding says in The Price of Gold.
Despite her tumultuous upbringing and lack of financial resources, Harding was beloved in her local community as her star rose throughout the 1980s. “This was a young lady who grew up in the Portland metro area, and she had never copped an attitude or gone down an egocentric road with local media,” says Ann Schatz. “When the [Kerrigan] story broke and she became a person of interest, people around here weren’t mocking and scorning her [as much as] looking critically and carefully at her childhood and background.”
Harding won her first major title at the Northwest Pacific championships as a teenager, but 1991 was her breakout year, as she became the first American woman to land a triple axel at 1991’s U.S. Nationals. “When she had that magical moment [with] the triple axel. Boom – she was a player,” recalls Schatz. “Folks around the globe [recognized that] she was a global Olympic contender.” Harding remembers that moment through tears during the documentary Anything to Win: “For the very first time, I just knew I was the best.”
When she was 15 Harding met Jeff Gillooly, and she married him at 19. Their volatile relationship allegedly spiraled; a 1991 police report stated that Gillooly “threatened to break his wife’s legs and end her career,” per the New York Times. Harding filed at least two restraining orders against him throughout their marriage, which lasted from 1990 to 1993.
Kerrigan was poised to be one of the greats
Born in 1969 to welder father Daniel and homemaker mother Brenda Kerrigan, Nancy also began showing promise on the rink at an early age. Her entree into skating came at age six, and after winning the Boston Open at nine, she threw herself into competition. Her dad worked two jobs and took out a second mortgage to support the family, and teenaged Kerrigan reportedly rose daily at 4 a.m. to practice before school at Stoneham High.
During her freshman year at Emmanuel College, she won the National Collegiate Championships, and began drawing more accolades throughout the 1980s. Kerrigan took home the bronze in 1991’s World Figure Skating Championships, where Kristi Yamaguchi and Tonya Harding respectively earned gold and silver. The following year she won a bronze at the 1992 Olympics and a silver at the 1992 World Championships. She later married her manager, Jerry Solomon, in 1995.
Kerrigan had her struggles, too; they just weren’t as widely dissected as Harding’s. Kerrigan began seeing a sports psychologist for help staying “poised [and] focused” after crying “I just want to die” following a poor, 5th-place performance at 1993’s World Games in Prague. (It was there that she first encountered 15-year-old Ukrainian skater Oksana Baiul, who would upstage Kerrigan not just there but at the Olympics the following year.)
Harding and Kerrigan never seemed to qualify as friends who confided in each other. But from most accounts they’d been professional acquaintances who exchanged pleasantries at competitions. After the attack, Kerrigan said she’d initially doubted Harding’s involvement in the plot because, as she put it, “We were competitors, but … we were friendly.”
Harding has always maintained that she didn’t know about the assault on Kerrigan before it happened, and there isn’t much direct evidence linking her to it. But at practice in Detroit’s Cobo Arena on January 6th, 1994, a hitman named Shane Stant approached Kerrigan and hit her in the leg with a collapsible baton, for $6,500. (Harding was napping in her room at the time.) Stant fled the scene as Kerrigan – in infamous video footage of the aftermath – collapsed to the floor, crying “Why? Why me?”
Though Harding went on to win first place at the U.S. Women’s Championships while Kerrigan was recuperating, Kerrigan’s injury healed quickly and she was able to move forward with February’s Olympics. Kerrigan ended up taking home a silver medal, while Oksana Baiul won gold and Harding, who broke a lace on her skate, placed eighth. Of course, that entire day was a madhouse, with both media and onlookers salivating for drama between the women. The tension was palpable when Kerrigan and Harding hit the ice simultaneously to practice beside each other, but the event’s most theatrical moment occurred when a weeping Harding begged the judges to let her fix her broken lace and skate again.
The plot against Kerrigan was reportedly conceived by Gillooly and Harding’s bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt. Harding has claimed that Gillooly designed the attack not to help Harding, but to punish her for only agreeing to return to their ill-fated relationship as a USFSA-directed publicity grab to help improve her chances at the Olympics.
Ann Schatz was the first reporter to nab a sit-down interview with Harding shortly after the incident. Schatz had received what she calls a “bizarre, anonymously signed” letter implicating Harding, Gillooly and the others, and immediately called Harding. “I think you’ll want to see this letter, it directly implicates you,” Schatz recalls telling her. After Harding agreed to come in for an interview, Schatz says, “It was clear [Harding] and Jeff had rehearsed what they would and wouldn’t talk about before sitting down. I remember him standing over my shoulder, glaring at her – I could see his image in the mirror – with this look I had never seen on him before.”
When Schatz asked if Harding had anything to do with the attack, “Her body language was something to behold. [She] forcefully looked back at me and said, ‘No, I had nothing to do with it.’ That’s up to people to believe or not,” Schatz notes.
If destroying his ex-wife’s career was, indeed, the reasoning for Gillooly’s plan, it worked. On February 1st, 1994, he agreed to testify against Harding for a plea deal. Gillooly was sentenced to two years in prison for racketeering, and Eckhardt, Stant and Derrick Smith (the getaway car driver) all ended up serving time for the assault as well. Harding pled guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of Gillooly and the others, and she served three years of probation, 500 hours of community service and paid a $160,000 fine. She was also banned from skating in any professional or amateur USFSA event for the rest of her life.
Both Kerrigan and Harding stopped competing after the 1994 Olympics. Years after the incident, Kerrigan’s former coach was still loath to revisit Detroit: “I never want to go to that city again,” Evy Scotvold told the New York Times.
Harding has gone on to get remarried (twice), have kids, and dabble in various careers, including celebrity boxing. But in interviews, she seems flummoxed by the turn her life has taken. “I’m not an educated woman. What am I gonna do for the rest of my life? I’m an athlete … And now I have absolutely nothing,” she says in the 2006 documentary Anything to Win. Kerrigan, for her part, has stayed busy with family (she has three kids) and various career turns, including working as a Winter Olympics correspondent in 2010 and 2014. Her husband and manager, Jerry Solomon, tells Rolling Stone that in addition to a recent stint on Dancing With the Stars, Kerrigan is working on a PSA about miscarriages (she’s had six), as well as a documentary about eating disorders in sports (she developed one herself following the attack in 1994).
On February 5th, 1998, Harding and Kerrigan sat down for an awkward joint interview on Fox, where Harding said, “I just ask forgiveness. She has her life, I have my life, I would hope we could just end it.”
While it’s unclear whether Kerrigan has or ever will forgive her former competitor, it’s clear she’s more than ready to put the dark ordeal to rest. “I would have chosen a different path, if I could,” Kerrigan says in the the NBC documentary Nancy & Tonya. “I would’ve liked to have just done what I had worked so hard for, and not have to be linked … to this horrific act.”