The footage of Nancy Kerrigan screaming in agony shocked a nation. On January 6, 1994, the champion skater was attacked in a corridor inside the Cobo Arena in Detroit after completing a practice session for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Lying on the floor, crying with pain, she clutched her injured leg. “Why?!” she sobbed. “Why?!”
The attacker – who immediately fled the scene – was an unknown white man dressed in a leather jacket. Using a bludgeon that Kerrigan described as “some hard, hard black stick,” he had assaulted her just moments after she left the ice. He struck her on her right thigh just above the kneecap. The man had clearly intended to debilitate her.
Police investigators soon traced the attack to one of Kerrigan’s rival competitors: Tonya Harding. Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, had in fact hired a guy called Shane Stant to injure Kerrigan and – all too literally – knock her out of the championship. The incident cast a dark shadow on figure skating. And as a cautionary tale about professional sporting jealousy, it remains highly relevant today.
Over the years, the media has tended to portray Kerrigan as a hero and Harding as a villain. “She’s a princess. I’m a piece of crap,” Harding said in a 2014 ESPN documentary entitled The Price of Gold. But this is lazy characterization; the rival skaters are far more complex than that.
For one thing, Harding had a rough childhood. According to Tonya, her mother, LaVona Harding, was an angry drunk who heaped physical and psychological abuse on her. Growing up, Tonya lived in numerous different homes, a trailer park among them. Meanwhile, her mother took on serial husbands – seven in total.
But there was a way out for Tonya: figure skating. In fact, she began skating at the local mall at the age of four. And after years of dedicated practice, she emerged as the title winner at the 1991 U.S. Championships, where her routine included a technically challenging triple axel jump. Indeed, only eight women have ever managed the move in competition.
As a skater, Harding was not especially graceful, but she was exceptionally powerful. It was said that she could skate faster than the members of Portland’s male hockey team. Unlike many female figure skaters, she was not, then, a portrait of dainty femininity. In her spare time she would hunt deer, drink, smoke, race cars and shoot pool.
By contrast, Nancy Kerrigan was a clean-cut girl from a solid working class family. Her father worked three jobs to sustain her skating, and her brothers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her in public. Kerrigan, then, appeared to be more popular than Harding. She was something of an all-American sweetheart.
The two skaters were, moreover, fierce rivals by the time of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1994 – a competition that would determine who went to the Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, that same year. In the 1991 Championships, Harding had won gold, beating Kerrigan into third place. Thereafter, though, Harding’s star had begun to fade, and Kerrigan was now regularly outperforming her.
Cutting back to the assault, the stick that Stant used to attack Kerrigan was an ASP telescopic baton. And while the blow did not break her leg, it did leave it bruised and severely swollen. A slightly higher strike may have caused Kerrigan’s thigh muscle to calcify; a marginally lower strike could have fractured her kneecap.
Ultimately, the injury was severe enough to prevent Kerrigan from competing in the 1994 Championships. Harding, meanwhile, went on to take gold – along with a place on the Olympic team. However, it wasn’t all over for Kerrigan; the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) decided to send her to Lillehammer, too.
Meanwhile, not long before the Games’ opening ceremony, Gillooly, Stant and two others were convicted for the attack on Kerrigan and sentenced to jail. Disturbingly, they implicated Harding, claiming she had known about their plans. However, Harding denied this and threatened the U.S. Olympic Committee with a $25 million lawsuit if they moved to disqualify her.
The competition continued as planned, then, with both Harding and Kerrigan going to Norway – and both subjected to close media scrutiny. In fact, some 400 journalists crowded the practice rink to photograph them awkwardly sharing “ice time” and trying to ignore each other. There were complaints that a media circus had taken over, but the two skaters competed nevertheless.
As things turned out, Kerrigan skated artfully and won a silver medal. Harding, meanwhile, failed to pull off her intended opening jump and burst into tears. After then complaining to the judges about a broken bootlace, she was allowed to skate again later. She finally finished in eighth place.
On March 16, 1994, Harding subsequently pleaded guilty to a count of conspiring to obstruct the prosecution of Kerrigan’s attackers. She was placed on probation, divested of her championship titles, made to pay a fine of $160,000 and ordered to do 500 hours of community service. Banned for life from taking part in USFSA events, she was finished as a professional skater.
Kerrigan, meanwhile, quietly retired from skating after the Olympics and went on to become a mother of three. “I always wanted to be a mom,” she told 60 Minutes in 2017. “Skating’s something I did, not who I was, so it was fun… Life moved on, and I became a mom. It’s the best.”
But has Harding moved on? Well, in 2009 Oprah Winfrey talked to her about the whole incident. “Do you feel like you’ve apologized enough?” Winfrey asked. “I believe I have,” replied Harding. “If Nancy Kerrigan were here today, what would you want to say to her about all of this?” Winfrey continued.
“Well,” said Harding. “I’d love to give her a hug. And just, you know, tell her how proud I am of her being able to, you know, go forward with her life and everything and stuff like that. And congratulations on her children.”
Sadly, however, Kerrigan appears to be far less conciliatory. “I don’t think I’ve ever really spoken to her,” she told Peter Stefanovic on 60 Minutes. “She may think she has [apologized]… She has said things like, ‘I’m sorry that happened to her.’ But strangers have said that to me, so yeah, it’s not really owning up to her part in it.”
Whether or not the two former skaters have moved on, though, their dramatic past entanglements are soon to be under public scrutiny once again, thanks to a big-budget Hollywood movie. On December 8, 2017, I, Tonya is scheduled for release. However, Kerrigan is unlikely to see it. “I lived it,” she told 60 Minutes.