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Famous for a knee-capping scandal rather than her skating technique, Tonya Harding nailed the first triple axel but never found a place in America’s heart

E.L. Hamilton
 (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Tonya Harding was the first American woman to land a triple axel in skating competition, but she couldn’t land a place in America’s heart. In glittery home-made costumes that showed off her powerful thighs, the working-class Harding fought hard with stunning athleticism for her place in the rarified world of figure-skating.

Her inability to break through skating’s snobbish elitism led her associates to try to break her competition—literally. Even to this day, the knee-capping of rival Nancy Kerrigan is a scandal shocking for both its small-mindedness and stupidity.

Born in 1970, Tonya Harding hailed from a working-class family in Portland, Oregon. When she began skating at age 3, her natural talent became quickly apparent. To continue in the expensive and time-consuming sport meant scrimping and saving; the family even collected cans and bottles for the deposits.

Young Tonya’s education wasn’t limited to figure 8s in a skating rink. Her father also taught her how to hunt, drag race, and change a flat tire, skills she’d call on later in life.

All was not happy in the Harding household, however. Tonya says her mother started physically and mentally abusing her when she was seven years old, as depicted in the recent biopic I, Tonya. (Margot Robbie as Tonya and Allison Janney as her mother both nabbed Academy Award nominations for their portrayals.)

Tonya’s mother, LaVona Golden, recently disputed those claims in an interview with ABC. “I didn’t abuse any of my children,” Golden told Amy Robach in the special Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story. “Spanked? Yes, spanked. Absolutely positively, you got to show them right from wrong.”

Golden also disputed the depiction of their family origins. “We were never trailer trash,” Tonya’s mother said. “We had a beautiful new trailer.”

With her dynamic athleticism, Tonya was able to power her way to figure-skating’s top ranks. In 1991, her banner year, she became the U.S. champion when she landed a triple axel—a jump that requires three-and-a-half rotations—and scored the first-ever perfect 6 score for technical merit. She executed it again in the 1991 World Championships, becoming the first American woman ever to land a triple axel in international competition.

Tonya Harding at the Portland International Airport returning from the 1994 Olympic Games in Norway Author: Andrew Parodi CC BY 3.0

Tonya Harding at the Portland International Airport returning from the 1994 Olympic Games in Norway Author: Andrew Parodi CC BY 3.0

Harding’s indisputable technical proficiency always outstripped what judges thought of her artistic interpretations. They even subtracted points from her score because they considered her home-made skating outfits to be of low quality. While other competitors skated to Rachmaninoff, Harding chose theme music from Jurassic Park.

“I hated the word ‘feminine,’ ” Harding recently told the New York Times. “It reminded me of a tampon or a panty liner.”

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Harding placed fourth in the 1992 Olympics behind her closest rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan likewise came from a working-class background, growing up in Stoneham, Massachusetts. Her father was a welder who drove the Zamboni at the local skating rink to help pay for his only daughter’s lessons. (Her brothers played ice hockey.)

Tonya Harding with guest at reception dinner for Tonya Harding at the Multnomah Athletic Club in 1994 shortly after the 1994 Winter Olympics. Taken in Portland, Oregon.

Tonya Harding with guest at reception dinner for Tonya Harding at the Multnomah Athletic Club in 1994 shortly after the 1994 Winter Olympics. Taken in Portland, Oregon.

But where Harding skated with pit-bull determination, Kerrigan embodied the more willowy, graceful ideal the Figure Skating Association preferred. She had the elegant wide-set eyes, high cheekbones, and toothy smile reminiscent of a young Jackie Kennedy.

The Harding-Kerrigan rivalry came to an ugly head in the early months of 1994, right before the Olympics. After a practice session preceding the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Kerrigan stepped off the ice and was clubbed on her right knee by an unknown assailant wielding a metal pole. Cameras on the scene showed her collapsed on the floor crying, “Why? Why? Why? It hurts! It hurts!”

Kerrigan’s knee wasn’t broken but it was damaged enough that she couldn’t skate in the championships, leaving Harding with an easy win. The Figure Skating Association decided to put Kerrigan on the Olympic team anyway, sending the two to Lillehammer to represent the U.S. (Third place skater Michelle Kwan was sent as an alternate.)

It did not take long for police to crack the kneecapping case, and within days, they had arrested a friend of Tonya Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. Before the Games even began in February, Gillooly and three other men had been arrested in connection with the crime. They implicated Harding, saying she’d known of the attack, but in the face of her fierce denials and threats to sue, the U.S. Olympic Committee allowed her to stay on the team.

In an elegant Vera Wang costume, Kerrigan skated well in Lillehammer. Harding did not. She floundered in the short program, falling on jumps she’d easily performed before. And in her long program, an astonished world watched as she struggled offstage with her skate’s laces, almost missing her ice time. A record 120 million tuned in to watch the Kerrigan-Harding face off.

“I’ve never seen anything like this!” commentator Scott Hamilton shouted to those watching on TV, referring explicitly to Harding’s delinquency to the ice and implicitly to all that had gone before. “Things like this just don’t happen!”

American Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, Author CC BY-SA 2.0

American Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, Author CC BY-SA 2.0

Harding wasn’t even a minute into her long program when she quit performing and skated over to the referees in tears, plopping her foot on the railing and pointing in distress at her laces. The judges allowed her to leave the ice, fix her skate, regain her composure, and skate later. To no avail. Harding ended up in eighth place, in what would be her last competition ever. Kerrigan took the silver medal behind the Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul.

In the summer of 1994, all of the four men involved in the knee-capping incident were sentenced to prison. Harding pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution and was sentenced to three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, and $160,000 in fines. The U.S. Figure Skating Association stripped Harding of her medals and barred her from competition or coaching for the rest of her life.

Since 1994, Harding has worked as a welder, a clerk at Sears, and an auto-mechanic. Briefly, she pursued a boxing career. She moved to Washington, got remarried in 2010, and now has a 7-year-old son.

Tonya Harding in Everlast boxing shirt, with BOGO from KIBZ 104-1 The Blaze’s Morning Show in Lincoln, NE. In the KIBZ studios for a promotion for a boxing event. Author: bobgo29 CC BY 2.0

Tonya Harding in Everlast boxing shirt, with BOGO from KIBZ 104-1 The Blaze’s Morning Show in Lincoln, NE. In the KIBZ studios for a promotion for a boxing event. Author: bobgo29 CC BY 2.0

Despite her ice-princess image, Kerrigan herself hit a few bumps after she left the Olympic ice. She was caught on camera before the 1994 awards ceremony rolling her eyes at what she thought was gold medalist Oksana Baiul’s delay. “Oh, come on. She’s going to get up there and cry again. What’s the difference?” (It was later revealed that the delay was due to organizers trying to locate the Ukrainian National Anthem.)

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In a subsequent Disney World parade, a microphone caught Kerrigan saying, “This is so corny. This is so dumb. I hate it. This is the most corny thing I’ve ever done.”

Kerrigan retired from competition, though she still skates occasionally, does color commentary, and appeared on Dancing With the Stars in 2017.