It’s easy to realize that we have been mistaken for quite a while. A single word is spoken repeatedly, at a volume that is hard to miss. Though it is usually a mournful sound, there is no mistaking it. The word is why. She says it as if she is a child, cradling their injured knee on a playground.
The video of the scene, which will be replayed on the news in the following weeks, depicts her saying the word three times until her father comes to take her away, embracing her and shielding her face with his arm. She is wearing a delicate white outfit and appears to be a nervous bride being taken over a threshold that she is unsure of entering.
An image of the magazine Newsweek is depicted, with its logo in the center.
From the many hours she has dedicated to the public arena before and after this particular moment, she has remained composed and in control. She was already prominent for her athletic and entertainment abilities, but this incident of distress will make her a legend. Newspapers, magazines, television announcers, family members conversing in their vehicles, at the breakfast table, and on the couch while watching her on the small screen will repeat her words, both now and in the future–or so they believe they are quoting her. But they will always say the one thing she never said: “Why me?”.
After two decades, this query still remains to be answered. This begs the question, what else have we been wrong about if we misheard something as straightforward as this for such a long time?
On January 6th, 1994, Nancy Kerrigan left the ice after a public practice session at Detroit’s Cobo Arena, where she was to compete in the US Figure Skating Championships the following day. She reported feeling someone running up behind her and then being hit on the lower thigh with some kind of object.
In her exclusive interview with Jane Pauley, Nancy reflected that she was thankful the person had missed her knee, which would have prevented her from skating in the Olympics. The public, however, had already begun to characterize the incident as a criminal act, while speculating the weapon used to be anything but a collapsible police baton. When it was all said and done, Nancy would be remembered not for anything she was involved in currently, but for her reaction to the assault. There was only one image of her that the public had chosen to remember.
Nancy had been attacked by the time the cameras arrived, capturing the assailant as a fuzzy black blob making its way out the Plexiglas doors of the arena. After the attacker had gone, the camera turned to the victim, who was lying on the ground, crying and being attended to by medical personnel. When asked what the attacker had used to hit her, she answered with a distressed: “I don’t know, a really hard black stick. Help me. I’m so scared. It hurts so bad.”
The following day, Nancy, unable to skate, observed as Tonya Harding achieved the national championship title for the second time.
She had won the honor for the first time in 1991, becoming the first American female to do a triple axel in a competition. Since then, her success had been diminishing after her inadequate performance at the 1992 Olympics, when she began to have trouble executing her renowned triple axel in competition. After that, she had come in sixth place at the 1992 World Championships, and fourth in the 1993 US Championships, not even making the American team for Worlds.
Her only successes, including a bronze medal at Skate America a few months prior, seemed to come about when Nancy wasn’t present, and this time was no exception: with Nancy absent from the competition, Tonya gave an even better show than she had in recent memory. “I know a lot of people who think I’m a failure,” she told the press. “Tonight, I have something to prove.”
Tonya still had not achieved the triple axel, but she completed an impressive triple lutz. Her spiral sequence, Nancy’s specialty, displayed an impressive level of both flexibility and grace. Tonya had arrived at past competitions appearing worn out and out of shape, but this time she was dynamic and dedicated, displaying the powerful turns that had earned her high marks since she first entered senior-level skating in the mid-᾽80s. Her performance showed not just a return to form, but a noticeable maturity, as if she was no longer attempting to battle the sport and was instead remembering her former love of it. Commentator Peggy Fleming commented, “For those who thought Tonya’s peak had passed, I think she has proven that even without the triple axel, she is still a winner.”
At the time of the competition, figure skaters were rated by nine judges, each giving marks in both technical merit and artistic impression, with 6.0 being the highest possible. Tonya had previously earned 6.0s and at the peak of her career, she had been mostly receiving 5.9s and 5.8s. On this night, her scores were even higher than those that allowed Nancy to win the national title the preceding year. It would be difficult for any observer to believe that Tonya was not able to perform as well as Nancy, even though she was a winner without her.
Was Tonya’s performance any better that night solely because Nancy wasn’t around? It’s possible. For the time they had shared the stage together, Nancy had come to embody qualities that Tonya seemed unable to match. Nancy’s style was exquisite despite her lower class roots; her skating was as elegant as Tonya’s was powerful. The public desired elegance and poise, which Nancy provided; although Tonya was great, it was evidently clear that she would not meet the required standards. With Nancy removed, Tonya was free to recall all that she was and execute the skate of her life.
The judges likely contributed to Nancy’s success; they not only liked her but had ways to show it. The technical score was based on deductions for errors and falls and was relatively objective, but the artistic impression was more flexible. This score was able to be influenced by factors such as the skater’s costume or appearance, or something intangible that the judges deemed suitable. An anonymous Olympic judge was quoted by Christine Brennan, saying that Nancy was “raised as a lady” and that “We all notice that.”
Judges’ decisions were not as dependable as people outside the sport thought they were. With no access to instant replay or slow-motion analysis, these judges–some of whom were former skaters and some who had dedicated their lives to the sport–had to judge a program as it happened with no chance for a second look. Because of this, the most objective portion of the score was quite unreliable.
It had become a common practice for the judges to “leave room” in the scores, which meant that if a skater performed great at the beginning of the competition, they would not get the same score as someone who performed well later on so that the later skaters could have a chance to win.
Additionally, judges monitored practice sessions and scored skaters based on their skill over a period of time, not just the performance on the night of the competition. Also, these judges tended to raise the scores of skaters they knew were strong, even if the performance was average.
Had Nancy Kerrigan competed at the US Championships in the same manner as or slightly worse than Tonya Harding, it is thought that she would have won, not due to a better performance but because she was more dependable, more respected, more fitting with the sport’s values, and above all, she was viewed as the most likely American skater to win Olympic gold. This was known to the judges, Nancy, and Tonya. The only question left was who had kept Nancy Kerrigan from competing and for what reason.
That night, nothing mattered more than the fact that Tonya had won the gold medal with a wide margin. She was now off to the Olympics, and Nancy was also going, due to her value to her country, even with her injury preventing her from taking part in the US Championships. Nancy never had to demonstrate her worth, unlike Tonya.
When Nancy Kerrigan did not receive the necessary protection at the US Championships, Tonya Harding was given Shawn Eckhardt for her defense. At the age of twenty-six, he had a mustache like Errol Flynn and a body of three hundred pounds.
His resume was filled with false information of counterterrorism and espionage and his company, World Bodyguard Services, was located at his parents’ house. Shawn was a high school friend of Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband of Tonya. According to Shawn, when Tonya came back from the NHK Trophy in December, Jeff proposed a way to keep Nancy out of the Games.
Subsequently, Tonya asserted that the plan had been completely motivated by Jeff’s avarice, and that she had only been cognizant of it following the event. She declared that she had not come forward due to her fear of being killed by Jeff if she did. On the other hand, Jeff maintained that it was Tonya’s notion from the start and that he had just acquiesced to her desires so he could help make her aspirations come to fruition. The public, given the chance to pick which story appeared to be the more logical – and more exciting – narrative, overwhelmingly chose the latter. It seemed that nothing was more compelling, either in prime time or in reality, than a sinister scheme with a manipulative female as the leader.
Shawn’s search for someone to commit the assault led him to Derrick Smith, a Phoenix man wanting to create a paramilitary survival school in the Arizona desert. Derrick proposed his 22-year-old nephew, Shane Stant, a weightlifter, steroid user, and martial artist. After Christmas, they met with Jeff and Shawn at World Bodyguard Services. Shawn secretly taped the discussion and it captured his suggestion to hire a sniper to kill Nancy, and Jeff’s reply, “What can we do less than that?” Jeff, having knowledge of figure-skating, proposed breaking her landing leg, and Shane accepted the offer for $6,500 with Derrick as the getaway driver.
The world soon became aware of what had happened, though the identity of the perpetrator remained a mystery. Not for long, though.
Police officers in Detroit and the public started to suspect that Tonya and Jeff were linked to the incident, but had no substantial evidence until an anonymous woman called the Detroit police and suggested that Tonya, Jeff, Shawn, and a few other men were responsible. Moreover, she mailed letters to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as KOIN-TV and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office in Portland, Oregon (where Tonya lived) expressing the same suspicions. Eventually, the woman was identified as Patty May Cook, who was an acquaintance of Shawn’s father, Ron. He had phoned Patty a few times to talk about his troubles and sometimes tried to start a phone sex conversation.
She was hardly paying attention as he boasted about his son’s espionage activities, but when she turned on the TV the next day, she was horrified to find that Shawn’s plan had been carried out.
After the attack, however, the gang started to break up. Shawn, who perhaps began to feel guilty, shared the tape of their planning session with Eugene Saunders – a 24 year old pastor in his community college paralegal class. Saunders reported the information to both the FBI and the Oregonian, and the news was picked up by reporters. Those same reporters soon began to surround Tonya and Jeff’s home, and the number of TV cameras at Tonya’s practice sessions began to approach the amount that would be found at the Olympics. The FBI began observing their house, and the evidence against them began to accumulate, though not as quickly as the public’s opinion.
On January 18, 1994, Tonya Harding reached out to the FBI due to her fear of Jeff and divulged all the information she had.
Jeff was then taken into custody. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) informed Tonya that they were reviewing her status, prompting her to hire her coach’s husband, a renowned Portland attorney, to file a twenty million dollar damages lawsuit in case she was prevented from attending the Games. On February 13, the USOC made the controversial decision to keep Tonya on the Olympic team. The morning after Valentine’s Day, she left for Lillehammer and gave an in-flight interview to Connie Chung during her transatlantic voyage. She mentioned feeling “really lucky,” and for the first time in her life, she was traveling in first class.
In 1991, Tonya Harding became the second female in the world to land a triple axel, earning herself the US championship, with Nancy Kerrigan standing beneath her, smiling shyly with a bronze medal around her neck. Weeks later, Nancy again earned a bronze medal at the World Championships, this time Kristi Yamaguchi winning gold and Tonya silver, after performing a more impressive axel than at the US competition. This was a historic moment in American ladies’ figure skating, as it was the first time one nation had dominated the podium at the Worlds. It also gave each competitor their first taste of fame, and prepared them for the pressure and scrutiny they would face at the Olympics the year after. Unfortunately, for Tonya, the 1992 Olympics marked the start of a decline in her career. But for Nancy, it sparked an equally swift and perhaps terrifying rise to fame and fortune.
At the Games, Nancy’s skating was not up to par, however her image was still successful. Even though she was unable to perform a clean skate as Kristi Yamaguchi had, Nancy still managed to land some solid and ambitious jumps.
This was likely due to her costume, which was an all-white leotard that matched her physique and had a sweetheart neckline. Vera Wang, a former figure skater, had designed the costume for free and Nancy had also gotten her teeth fixed, though she never felt comfortable with the cameras on her. Her performance was not a display of athleticism, but of image-making.
She was seen as “lovely,” “ladylike,” “elegant,” and “sophisticated” by the commentators and the audience. Wang had based the costume off a dress from her bridal boutique and when Nancy skated to the soundtrack of Born on the Fourth of July, it was as if she was presenting herself as America’s hopeful young bride.
Despite her lack of competitive experience, Nancy was still able to exude a sense of innocence and sincerity, making her beautiful without being sexual, strong without being intimidating, and vulnerable without being weak. In the end, she represented the contradictions that dictated the success of female athletes and ended up with the bronze medal. Tonya, who was close behind in fourth place, went home with nothing.
As the 1994 Games approached and Nancy’s figure skating improved while Tonya’s deteriorated, leaving her as America’s sole serious contender following Kristi Yamaguchi’s retirement, Nancy secured endorsement deals from Campbell’s Soup, Reebok, Northwest Airlines, Seiko, and Ray-Ban.
It seemed like the rewards of Olympic victory had already been given to her: she was expected to triumph, and even if she hadn’t yet, she appeared triumphant. Somehow, she had made an exception for herself to the long-standing rules of the sport: years of work and deprivation with a reward only if the gold medal is earned. Everyone else had to follow these principles, but Nancy did not. She didn’t require the gold medal around her neck, as long as her neck was lovely enough to deserve it.
The idea of a female figure skater achieving greatness, fame, and wealth was something that Peggy Fleming had exemplified with her historic gold medal victory at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics. As an American athlete, she was well-received upon her return home, being crowned America’s sweetheart. This was a new spin on an old theme, as it had not been seen before. Not quite twenty-five years later, her feat was still remembered.
Following her gold medal win at the 1956 Olympics, Tenley Albright went on to greater fame than ever before, despite not continuing in the sport. She instead attended Harvard Medical School and became a surgeon. Carol Heiss, on the other hand, skated in a few ice shows and acted in a Three Stooges movie after her 1960 Games win, retiring from the sport in 1962 but coming back as a coach in the 1970s. In contrast, Peggy Fleming had no need for such strenuous work, instead making a living by being–and selling–herself. She appeared in advertisements for a variety of products including L’eggs and Hanes pantyhose, watches, shampoo, gas, gum, Bell Telephone, the United States Postal Service, cereal, and Equitable Life. During a visit to the White House, Peggy met Lyndon Johnson and she also visited Vietnam veterans in the hospital. She was announced as the Associated Press Athlete of the Year and returned home in a convertible, wearing a smart skirt suit and carrying a bouquet of red roses. She looked as serene as Jackie Kennedy had before the first gunshot in Dallas.
In 1973, Janet Lynn had unsuccessfully pursued the gold medal and America’s sweetheart title at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, ending with a bronze. The same year, Peggy Fleming starred in an hour-long special titled ‘Peggy Fleming Visits the Soviet Union’. This event was occurring during a hazardous period in the United States’ recent history. The issue of Life magazine featured her on the cover, looking radiant after her gold-medal success. The magazine advertised two headlines, one about her and one about the Battle of Khe Sanh. Some people would have had to look to the magazine to remember who she was, but the Vietnam conflict was well known. The cover of Life did not include any images of the battle, Tet Offensive, Saigon attack, or other prominent people and events that had an influence on the country that winter. Instead, a young woman was proudly representing her nation. This achievement was rewarded with recognition for the rest of her life.
It appeared to be Nancy’s time to take the throne. She had the same poise and grace, the same humility and fashion sense, and the same intense competitiveness as Peggy. She also had the same ability to conceal her athletic might beneath her girlish appeal, though this might be best left untouched. More relevant than her ability, strength, and influence on the sport was her capacity to make Olympic watchers feel proud to be Americans. Nancy Kerrigan was becoming more and more renowned simply for being Nancy Kerrigan. And she was coming to understand, much like Tonya, that the rules of the sport were sometimes not applicable. Being a successful champion made one lovable, yet having this kind of adoration could also be enough to make one a victor.
The Kerrigan family–Nancy’s devoted father, her blind mother, who only softened her tough Southie-accented voice when speaking of her daughter, and her two loud, hockey-playing older brothers–was as easy to love as any. When Nancy had to go to Albertville, her entire family accompanied her. When interviewed by the New York Times, her mother, Brenda, remembered Nancy’s hesitation to return to the Olympic Village with the other athletes: “She asked if it was alright. Of course it was; this was her time to be with the other kids. Nancy is always so apologetic. I don’t want to say she’s a perfect child…but she’s a caring one who loves her family.” The twenty-two year old Nancy still lived with her parents in the same humble green house where she was raised. On her trips for competitions, she shared a room with her parents. She did not have much time for friends or dating and she did not seem to want either, referring to her mother as her best friend. Nancy’s growing success was not only for her, or even the Kerrigans, but for the fading American, wholesome, hardworking class. A network profile captured Nancy brushing her mother’s hair and another showed them all sitting around the dinner table, toasting with glasses of milk.
The story of Nancy and Tonya was like a Horatio Alger story in reverse—with Tonya as the working-class hero and Nancy as her counterpart. A new form of sports journalism soon emerged, a type of Tonya-bashing that was easy to learn, like a Mad Lib. Authors enjoyed writing and reading about Tonya’s gaffes or problems, as well as the basic facts of her life. It was reported that her mother had been married six or seven times, she owned a .22 rifle by kindergarten, had moved thirteen times by fifth grade, dropped out of high school, smoked despite having asthma, raced cars, and was involved in a traffic altercation in 1992. She skated to songs like Tone Lōc’s “Wild Thing” and LaTour’s “People Are Still Having Sex.” At the 1994 Nationals, she was ordered to change her free-skate costume because it was deemed too risque. Her sister was a prostitute, her father largely unemployed, and so was her mother and ex-husband. All of these stories seemed to lead to the same conclusion: Tonya was going nowhere fast, and she had decided to take Nancy with her.
In the wake of the scandal, the public’s response to Tonya Harding quickly became something of a phenomenon. A Rolling Stone article from shortly afterwards captured a visit to the Tonya Harding Fan Club. There, the newsletter editor, Joe Haran, a Vietnam vet with white hair and a piercing gaze, shared his past of poverty and abuse with the journalist. The article suggested that Tonya’s troubled past was the primary reason for her not being accepted into the world she so desperately wanted to be part of.
When Tonya first achieved fame with her triple axel in 1991, the media was quick to portray her in a more positive light: as a spunky, all-American tomboy. One profile piece described her as “only five feet one inch… and weighing ninety-five pounds” with a “tomboy streak” that she was proud of, and “a young lady coming through in her skating and her personality.” In 1991, the skating world had no choice but to try to embrace her since she had done something no other American woman had, and if she kept improving as a skater and appeared more and more ladylike, she had the potential to make the US proud and make money.
At the peak of her career, Tonya was nothing short of spectacular. Midori Ito of Japan was the only other woman who had ever completed the axel, making it look effortless. On the other hand, Tonya’s axel was anything but effortless; it was a difficult task, yet it still proved her worth to her audience.
The axel is unique in that it is the only jump where a skater takes off from the front of the skate while facing forward. This puts an additional challenge on the skater to gain the necessary height, then complete the necessary half rotation while in the air, before finally coming back to the ice with the speed, power, and momentum needed to land it and move on with their routine. It is no simple feat to manage three and a half rotations in the air, but even more difficult is properly landing and continuing.
Tonya may have been small in stature, but her forceful presence on the ice was undeniable. Skaters were said to be “fighting for each jump”; Tonya seemed to fight the jumps themselves. Much was made about Tonya’s muscular thighs, which were large and strong. But this was simply the physique of an athlete. When Midori jumped, she appeared to float like a feather, while Tonya battled gravity. Time magazine mentioned this during the scandal in a negative light, but one must question why it was seen as deleterious. Wasn’t it a triumph to witness a female athlete exerting her strength and tenacity? Tonya refused to be passive and compliant; rather, she strived to jump and spin, to defy gravity, to fall and get back up again. For a while, her axel jump was enough to make her a star. It was the perfect time for her to shine, as America needed a skater to compete against Japan and she could be relied upon to win.
Tonya’s leaps were often a struggle, her strength often preventing her from properly controlling her movements in the air. Despite this, she frequently managed to achieve the necessary counterbalance needed to succeed in her landings and continue skating. Unfortunately, over time, it became increasingly evident that her ability to land the jump had diminished, until eventually it was out of her reach.
Right after the ’92 Olympics, Tonya had experienced two unsuccessful attempts at the axel–stumbling on the ice and getting 0.5 deductions from each adjudicator. From then on, she decided to focus on developing grace and artistry instead of her axel jump. In a later interview, she voiced her confidence that this would be enough: “My jumps (without the triple axel) are well-executed, and I have more style… So, if others can do it without the triple axel, why can’t I?”.
When Tonya couldn’t perform the axel, we lost interest. She wasn’t rewarded for any of her artistic expression, nor did anyone take notice of a triple lutz or a triple-triple combination that would have been applauded for any other competitor. She attempted to re-define her skating style, and maybe when it became evident to her that it wasn’t enough – that it was the axel and not Tonya that was the focus of people’s admiration – she began to struggle in competitions. It was straightforward for the skating world to deem her as a one-time promising former figure skater: the sport was packed with those types of skaters. Tonya put on weight and began substituting even her most elementary triple jumps with doubles. She started competing under the name Tonya Harding-Gillooly, later divorcing her husband in 1993, only to reconcile soon after. Afterward, when it came time to fit her life into the scandal’s narrative, reporters were happy to use this detail as evidence of Tonya’s tastelessness. In spite of her accusations of abuse, the restraining orders and 911 calls, and her statements that she was fearful for her life before and after the assault on Nancy, few words had the same impact, or were as enthusiastically suggestive as white-trash lifestyle and live-in ex-husband.
The press narrative about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan was swift and accepted, linking it to Tonya’s failure at the 1992 Games and her growing anger afterwards. People viewed her as a discard; someone who was trying to cheat their way to success and not caring about the hopes of others. It was an easy narrative to tell, and it had humorous elements which only added to its popularity.
It was not until 2008 that Tonya’s version of her life story finally became available to the public. Working with ghostwriter Lynda Prouse, a memoir was in the works for a period of time in the late ’90s, yet for various reasons, the project was ultimately abandoned. Eventually, The Tonya Tapes was released and had limited publicity and sales. Although it deviated from the public’s preconceived notion of her, the account within the book offered a plausible, and at times, shocking, perspective on the scandal and her involvement in it.
In the interviews, Tonya revealed her mother’s behavior towards her, detailing how her mother had shouted insults at her, drank heavily while driving her to the rink and using physical punishment as discipline.
She recounted her thought process of “My mom hit me, and she loved me. [Jeff] hits me, he loves me. It’s just the way life goes.” Tonya then explained her decision to marry Jeff, the only man she had ever dated, at just nineteen, mostly due to wanting to leave her mother’s house. She also discussed her half-brother, who was later arrested for child molestation, and his attempt to rape her when she was fifteen, accompanied by her mother’s refusal to let her testify against him.
Tonya then spoke of her relationship with Jeff, whose abuse was confirmed by her friends and police reports, yet was only used to further tarnish her reputation. She further recounted how she repeatedly left and returned to Jeff because he would always say the right things to bring her back. Media outlets painted Tonya as an extraordinary individual, however, her struggles were similar to so many other American women trying to escape or endure an abusive marriage. Although her relationship with Jeff became infamous for its explosive ending, it was no different than the millions of other such relationships that go without the spotlight.
In her book, Tonya professed her innocence in the planning of the controversial scandal and put forth an account that was as reasonable as the one that was widely taken as true during the affair’s coverage. She shared that after her split from Jeff in 1993, a USFSA representative asked her to try to reconcile with him “to get the marks” and make the Olympic team, since they believed she had a “stable life” when she was married to him.
In the world of figure skating, which is often criticized for its emphasis on physical appearance and rigid gender roles, it is not implausible that the USFSA would attempt to regulate a skater’s marital status.
This was the case for Tonya Harding, a petite, blond, white woman who was seen as a threat to the femininity of the sport. It would have been seen as a huge risk to the USFSA to believe Tonya’s claims of abuse, as she was a viable contender to match Nancy’s skill and maturity. The criticisms Tonya received, such as not being pretty enough or not being able to do anything right, mirrored the abuse she had endured her entire life.
Tonya revealed that after she found out about Jeff’s involvement in the assault, her abuse only worsened. She thought that he had set the plan in motion because he was upset that he only reunited with her due to the USFSA’s request, and that she was planning to leave him after the Games. “He was enraged,” she said, “and threatened to ruin me.” It appears that Jeff certainly achieved his goal.
In the aftermath of the attack, Tonya opened up to her interviewer, Jeff, about how he had held a gun to her head, allowed two other men to rape her, and then proceeded to rape her himself, warning her that he would carry out her execution if she reported the incident to the FBI. Even if one is skeptical of this claim, Tonya’s previous experiences of mistreatment, her reasonable apprehension of not being believed by the higher-ups, and her understandable concern of how the public would react if she revealed her knowledge, all make her choice to stay quiet understandable.
Tonya’s assertions of innocence have been largely dismissed due to the dominant version of the story being propagated by Jeff.
This version, which has been familiar to us for the last two decades, appears to be the only plausible one, even though it is in opposition to Tonya’s. A pastor, Eugene Saunders, who had a confession from Shawn Eckhardt, revealed to the press that Shawn had made it seem as though Tonya had no involvement in the attack. This account is not as reliable as what the public has accepted, despite Shawn’s later retraction of the statement when he was being interviewed by the FBI.
The only evidence linking Tonya to the attack’s planning was weak and inconclusive. Jeff could have made a bet with Tonya as to where Nancy skated, and she could have found out what he needed without knowing what he planned to do with the information.
She could have been used to waiting around Shawn’s house while they plotted, and when questioned as to why she asked for Nancy’s room number, Tonya said she wanted to leave a poster for Nancy to autograph for a friend. This was plausible behavior for Tonya, who, in spite of the media’s portrayal of her, had always been friendly with Nancy.
In the weeks prior to the Olympics, Tonya was remarkably civil when dealing with the press, but her polite manner and upbeat attitude could be used to her detriment. People assumed that her desire to return to the Olympics meant that she was either willing to trample over others to do so or was completely oblivious. Additionally, her attempt to show kindness to Nancy by offering her a hug upon her arrival to the Olympic Village was poorly received.
The news outlets assumed this was yet another example of Tonya’s intimidating tactics, but to Tonya it was a sign of her innocence and a hope that she could still win over the world. Despite her efforts, Nancy declined the hug and the two never spoke for the duration of the Games.
Tonya’s tardy appearance to the Olympics in 1992 had been widely noted, but she arrived punctually in 1994. She was able to participate in the Games despite the suspicion surrounding her, which to those watching appeared to be a combination of an offense to decency and sportsmanship, as well as an unbelievable blessing. Something good was coming. In the span of six weeks since the attack, the media had painted Tonya as a ruthless person, but when she and Nancy first returned to the ice following the assault, the clicking of the cameras was like the sound of a deck of cards being shuffled.
Despite the expectation of a dramatic confrontation between Tonya and Nancy, the two former competitors only faced each other on the ice. This competition was so popular that it became the fifth most-watched broadcast in the United States with 45 million viewers. Tonya, in a red costume, did not deliver a great performance, while Nancy skated cleanly and looked content. At the same time, Oksana Baiul had an impressive showing. Even though the audience were not treated to a physical altercation, they went away with a display of female suffering which made the scandal so captivating.
When Tonya’s name appeared on the marquee signaling the start of her free skate, the audience was primed and ready, but Tonya was anything but. She had broken the laces of her specially-made skates during the warm-up, and was unable to find a suitable replacement due to her jumps requiring longer laces than the other female skaters.
As the clock ticked down and she attempted to make do with a regular lace, the arena audience were kept in the dark while the audience at home watched her backstage, surrounded by a growing crowd as her expression remained unreadable in the dim light.
Tonya made it to the rink with seconds to go before her performance began. She attempted a triple lutz but only managed to complete one rotation. Her body seemed to come apart as she was in the air, with her limbs seeming to reach in all directions. When she came to the ground, she looked at her skate and tried to carry on, but eventually stopped when her music ended. She then raised her skate to the judges, revealing her golden blades that were shining in the stadium lights. Tears started streaming down her face.
Tonya had done everything that was expected of her during the event: inform the judges of the problem she was having and request permission to fix it. People would later take this to mean she was trying to gain an undeserved second chance.
However, those who had seen her legendary performance at Skate America in 1991, in which she had pulled off two of her best triple axels ever, would know that she had experienced similar problems in the past. After completing her flawless free program, Tonya embraced her coach in joy and the last words the cameras caught of her before the commercial break were her unaffected musings of someone basking in their own success, “You know what? I broke my boot again.”
It was evident that this was something the athlete had been struggling with for many years, understanding that her gear was not made to handle the extent of her capabilities. At Skate America, this did not make a difference. Despite her worries that her boot would not be able to withstand her triple jumps due to the broken eyelet, she still accomplished a perfect performance and was rewarded with two 6.0s in technical merit and a gold medal. On that night, everyone was cheering her on and hoping for her success. Unfortunately, two years later when Tonya returned to the rink, the world was now expecting her to fail.
Tonya was unable to take her original spot in the lineup due to her skate lace being too short, so the judges let her to go backstage and fix it with a longer lace provided by her coach. In her stead, Josee Chouinard graced the ice with her Fosse-inspired pink leotard and gloves, yet the cameras could still not be taken away from Tonya as she sat backstage, coughing and staring at her skate. When she finally took to the ice, Tonya was met with jeers, but the audience still wanted to see her perform her role of being trashy, shameless, greedy, lazy, and above all entertaining.
Consequently, everyone hoped that something would happen – that she would attempt to find an excuse to get off the ice, cry again, or fall multiple times; maybe she would even hurt herself.
Tonya had had a history of poor performances, even falling during her axel. This time, however, she was letting people down by skating well. She had allowed the fear and anger of the past six weeks to overwhelm her and make her a spectacle of pain, just like Nancy had before her.
Nevertheless, Tonya pulled herself together and completed a perfect triple lutz and some of the same grace and maturity she had shown in the US Championships. Knowing she would never be able to land her triple axel in competition again, nor ever compete again, she took her time and enjoyed her last moments on the ice, doing the thing she had always been great at and that had always loved her in return.
Christine Brennan stated that Tonya Harding had every right to compete in the Norway Games. However, due to the belief that she was shameless, it was assumed that she should have backed out. Tonya did not accept this, and instead decided to use her supposed shamelessness to her advantage. As in her career, she could not control other skaters, but she could control her own performance. She chose to skate the way she wanted and finished the Games in eighth place, giving her a win on her own terms.
The media highlighted the fact that Tonya Harding had chosen the theme from Jurassic Park for her free program, with the New York Times remarking that “she may have felt that if fictional dinosaurs can be resurrected, so can her career.” Despite the unfavorable implications, Katarina Witt faced no criticism for skating to the music from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, wearing a tunic and breeches and including a mimed bow and arrow in her choreography.
In Women on Ice, an anthology on the scandal released the following year, Stacey D’Erasmo gave a more compassionate viewpoint, noting that “as Tonya walked barefoot through the corridor while the other women were in their sparkly garments, and then skated to the tune of Jurassic Park, a movie about extinct creatures, it felt like I was seeing the last act of an American tragedy.”
In spite of D’Erasmo’s viewpoint, the Olympics that night were not just the conclusion of Tonya’s career but the beginning of the end of a whole era of female figure skating. Tonya was like a T. Rex, causing mayhem and disrupting the evening’s organised display of female power, while Nancy was similar to a velociraptor, hersing out of repression as young women filled the rink. Nancy skated beautifully, with poise, tension, and flawless technique. However, it was the performance of an adult, and the gold medal and the audience’s admiration went to the sixteen-year-old Oksana Baiul, clad in pink marabou. Despite the public’s attempt to portray Tonya and Nancy as antagonists, they were actually united in representing the old guard of the sport, when skaters could still be viewed as women and not as girls.
Once Nancy had completed her performance, she was thrust into the limelight, a situation that was as unexpected as it was unfamilar to her. She was ready to receive her medal, but Oksana was still backstage. It was later discovered that the Ukrainian National Anthem was missing, but Nancy had been informed that Oksana was getting her makeup done, causing Nancy to complain, “Oh, come on. So she’s going to get out here and cry again. What’s the difference? It’s stupid.” Was Nancy’s competitive nature coming out? Or was it something else? Was she being not just competitive but bitter?
Nancy was obviously upset due to her defeat in the Games, and it appeared that her displeasure was directed not only at her loss, but at us as well. At a parade at Disney World, where Nancy had a float with a Mickey Mouse-costumed employee and wore her silver medal with a tired grin, she declared: “This is so corny. This is so dumb. I hate it. This is the most corny thing I’ve ever done.” Unfortunately, the rules of Mickey’s costume prevented him from saying anything, and the rules Nancy had to follow limited her words as well.
The public had a powerful incentive for their new-found disdain: Nancy had not managed to secure the silver medal. Instead, she had missed out on the gold. Despite her miraculous recovery from her supposedly trivial injuries, her intense training, and the admiration of her homeland (if not the world), she had failed. She was skating not just for herself, but also for the Middle Americans, as a symbol of virtue, sportsmanship, ideal femininity and all the desires we had for her. Wasn’t that enough?
However, Nancy’s failure to stick to her role was quickly forgotten: somebody had to take the role of the victim, and television was not going to leave a gap. Tonya and Nancy returned to their usual positions in the sight of the public, and for the following years, their names would appear in newspapers and tabloids with less regularity. However, each time they did, they were kind enough to do what was expected from them.
Nancy carried on with ice shows and TV specials; Tonya, on the other hand, was prohibited from the activity. Nancy tied the knot and had two children; Tonya, on the other hand, married her second husband and then divorced him again. Nancy created the Nancy Kerrigan Foundation and was chosen to be the face of the Foundation Fighting Blindness; Tonya finished the mandated five hundred hours of community service that was given to her. Their sport continued on without them and teenagers kept coming to the rinks.
After the Olympics, Woody Allen actually considered Tonya for a role in Mighty Aphrodite , but abandoned the idea when he found out that her probation didn’t allow her to go beyond the West Coast. Consequently, Tonya ended up taking part in a low-budget 1996 thriller named Breakaway, for which she earned ten thousand dollars and a lot of mocking from the press. The movie wasn’t a hit, but Bill Higgins, who was assigned to look after Tonya, still got the story published in Premiere magazine.
He recollected Tonya’s on-set diet of fifty-nine-cent Taco Bell bean burritos, orange soda and Benson & Hedges 100s; her amazement at Aaron Spelling’s colossal fifty-four-thousand-square-foot mansion; her desire to go to Disneyland; and her unawareness of the future, even after she was given a lifelong ban from competitive figure skating and an informal ban from exhibition skating and ice shows.
She said acting was “really fun”, and the action scene where she had to beat up a man twice her size was “really cool”. Nonetheless, she wasn’t keen on taking it up as a career: “I had, and still have, my career” she said, “and that’s skating.” She then downgraded her ambitions and said, “If they make a movie about my life, I would like to just do the skating. Nobody skates like I do.”
Tonya Harding was the second female to pull off a triple axel in competition in the last two decades, and since then, only four others have managed to replicate her feat: Ludmila Nelidina of Russia, Yukari Nakano and Mao Asada of Japan, and Kimmie Meissner of the United States, who succeeded in landing the triple axel at the 2005 US Championships held in Portland, Oregon. Women who followed in Tonya’s footsteps found it difficult to take advantage of their strength in a sport that had not fully accepted them, nor did they gain the fame they anticipated from attempting the triple axel.
Meissner placed sixth at the 2006 Olympics, but was forced to end her career due to recurring injuries, while Mao Asada attemped a record-breaking two triple axels in her free skate at the 2010 Olympics, but was unable to beat Yuna Kim, who had already become a millionaire in her home country prior to the games. Asada ended up with the silver, but those familiar with figure skating knew that she had not won the silver, but had lost the gold.
Though the Portland metropolitan area has seen a great deal of growth in the past couple decades, Clackamas County, Oregon–the place Tonya called home in her youth–has remained largely the same. From Happy Valley to Estacada, mini-malls and farmland still exist, as do the old-fashioned ranches, ranch houses, and towns with names like Boring and Needy. Even today, farm stands and U-Pick berry establishments dot the roadsides, brightly announcing their BLACKS AND BLUES for all to see.
This is an area of highways and struggling neighborhoods, as well as temporary living. However, it also has stunning natural beauty, safeguarded rivers and forests, and an amazing view of Mount Hood. For a young girl who has been made to feel inferior, this is the perfect place to find solace and joy in activities such as fishing, hunting, and fixing cars, and demonstrate her capability, which is equal to any boy’s. Here, she can depend on her skill and ambition as opposed to her appearance. This may be the most natural environment for an Olympic athlete to develop in. If any upcoming athlete from this region is not as adept at being in the spotlight, posing for photos, and masking the dedication and effort they put into their sport, hopefully they will not be punished as their predecessor was.
The rink at Clackamas Town Center, where Tonya Harding developed her skating skills and which was famously mentioned by Susan Orlean in her writing on the scandal, is no longer there. The Town Center removed any trace of the Olympic contender. However, if you visit Portland’s Lloyd Center mall, you will still find the rink where Tonya first skated. She was only three years old and recalled fondly, almost thirty years later, an archway with bars over a rink below. After a fit and Tonya’s insistence, her mother put skates on her and she got up and skated around. She then declared that this was what she wanted to do, and had her first skating lesson on her third birthday. Over the next twenty years, Tonya spent hours perfecting her craft and smiling for audiences, but her instinct never changed: to disrupt the ice’s pristine surface and make her mark.