Tonya Harding was a singles skater who is probably the most controversial figure skater in American history. Unlike most figure skaters, Harding was from a poor family, decidedly from the wrong side of the figure skating tracks. She hunted and fished, was an accomplished auto mechanic, played pool, smoked cigarettes, and was completely outside the skating establishment. But she started skating at a local rink, and her athletic ability made her a great jumper, one of the best in women’s skating history. In 1987, Harding had her first major podium with second at Skate America. At that competition, her jumping ability came to the fore, as she was the first woman to perform a triple axel in the short program, the first woman to do two triple axels in a program, and the first female to perform a triple axel combination (with a double toe loop). In 1989 she was third at the US Championships, but her big breakthrough year was 1990 when she won Skate America and the Nations Cup. In 1991 she won the US title and was second at the World Championships and the NHK Trophy. Harding was fourth at the 1992 Winter Olympics and heading into the 1994 season, her big rival was Nancy Kerrigan, a much more polished, traditional skater, but one without Harding’s jumping ability.
Beautiful, quiet, and classy, Kerrigan started to reap the rewards of the more traditional skating world, and received several commercial endorsements. Harding was getting none of this and she saw one way out. To get endorsements and money, she had to win the gold medal in Lillehammer and to her that meant eliminating Kerrigan as a competitor. At the time, Harding was then married to Jeff Gillooly. Gillooly contacted a friend, Shawn Eckardt, asking how a hit could be arranged on Kerrigan, disabling her for the Olympics. Eckardt eventually contacted Derrick Smith, who hired his nephew, Shane Stant, who agreed to attack Kerrigan and injure her leg. The group finally settled on attacking Kerrigan at the US Nationals in Detroit. Shortly before the competition, Kerrigan came off the ice after a training session, when a large man assaulted her with a solid-metal baton, hitting her just above the knee. The assailant was Stant, who escaped by running out of the arena to a getaway car. Kerrigan collapsed, crying out, “Why? Why me?” She could not skate at the Nationals.
Two days later, Tonya Harding won the 1994 US Nationals and qualified for the Olympic team. The US had only two spots for the ladies’ event in Lillehammer. The second spot could go to Michelle Kwan, who finished second to Harding. But the US figure skating authorities held the spot open for Kerrigan, if she could show that she could recover in time for the Winter Olympics. Kwan graciously stepped aside and Kerrigan did recover in time to be named to the Winter Olympic team.
Eventually Harding and her mob was caught, and she would be fined and sentenced to community service and she has had a difficult life since that episode. At Lillehammer, a media frenzy surrounded the women’s figure skating because of the “Kardigan Saga.” In Norway, Kerrigan skated beautifully, but lost out by the narrowest of margins to Ukrainian Oksana Bayul, earning a silver medal. Harding continued to be controversial in Lillehammer. In the free skate, she started but then noticed a problem with a skate. Approaching the judges in tears, she showed them her loose lace, requesting a re-skate, which she was granted. Harding finished eighth, but the lace incident was later famously re-created in a Seinfeld episode.
After the 1994 fiasco, Harding’s life has been difficult. Ostracized and banned by the figure skating establishment she could never skate professionally. To make money, she became a professional boxer, with a career record of three wins and three losses in 2003-04, and later was an announcer for TruTV.
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