She will be forever remembered as a tough-talking, hard-living athlete who would do anything to become an Olympic Gold Medalist. But was Tonya Harding a misunderstood girl from the wrong side of the tracks? Did her raw talent and burning ambition trip her up? How far was she willing to go to beat her greatest rival, Nancy Kerrigan?
Award-winning sportswriter Joe Layden and bestselling author Frank Coffey go past the bright lights of the rink to find the truth behind Harding’s public image. Despite a nightmare childhood of poverty and abuse, a troubled marriage, and a disastrous divorce, Harding became one of her generation’s greatest figure skaters. But did she reach her sport’s ultimate goal fair and square? How deeply was she involved in the stunning attack on Nancy Kerrigan? How did she really feel about her rival? Throughout the controversy that derailed her career, Harding held her head high and stayed true to herself. Fierce, undaunted, uncensored—this is the true story of Tonya Harding.
Includes 10 revealing photographs!
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About the Author
Joseph Layden is an award-winning former sports editor for the Albany (NY) Times Union and the author of numerous nonfiction books.
Read an Excerpt
Outside Cobo Arena, winter tightened its grip.
The snow fell hard and fast, enveloping downtown Detroit in a shroud of white. This was Thursday, January 6, 1994, and it was not a particularly nice day for a drive in the Motor City. It was not a particularly nice day for much of anything in the Midwest, where folks were reeling from the effects of what was shaping up as one of the nastier winters in recent history. Detroit's traffic slowed to a crawl; mass transit schedules were thrown hopelessly out of whack; pedestrians lowered their heads, leaned into the elements and cursed under their breath, the steam rising with their words in a feeble display of anger and rebellion. It was a cold day. A mean day.
Nevertheless, a few hundred people had gathered in the stands at Cobo to watch the final day of practice prior to the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) championships. They were zealots, mostly–little girls in pigtails who had been rising before dawn to work on their compulsories, and their parents, who had paid for lessons and skates and ice time and sequined outfits ... plus an everpresent band of hardcore fans.
These were the people who truly understood the magnitude of this event, who could appreciate the dedication and sacrifice and pain that had gone into simply qualifying for the Olympic Trials. Maybe some of those little girls would make it themselves one day. Maybe. For now, though, they were content to watch, dreamily, as their idols cut up the ice. They cheered and applauded and begged for autographs.
Outside the storm raged on, but in here it was warm. In here it was another world, apart and separate, governed only by the rules of fair competition.
During the course of the week their jaws had dropped as they watched the likes of 23-year-old Tonya Harding of Portland, Oregon, Kerrigan's chief rival the past few years, and 13-year-old Michelle Kwan of Torrance, California perform their artistic wonders.
But their favorite–America's favorite–was Nancy Kerrigan. At once strong and elegant, the 24-year-old from Stoneham, Massachusetts, was the picture of athletic grace and beauty on the ice, yet soft-spoken, almost delicate, when distanced from competition. In fact, that delicacy had occasionally been a source of distress for Kerrigan in the past. After winning the nationals in 1993, she had fairly bombed at the world championships in Prague, finishing fifth when it was expected that she would contend for a gold medal.
Kerrigan was a bundle of nerves then, a world-class athlete suffering from a devastating case of performance anxiety. Oddly enough, coming off her victory in the nationals, she seemed to lack confidence. Even in the relative privacy of practice she would deliberately omit certain moves from her long program. Maybe she feared injury. Maybe she questioned her own talent. Whatever the motivation, whatever the source of the emotion, it was clear that Kerrigan was scared, and the result, predictably, was a hugely disappointing fifth-place finish.
On that day in March, after finishing her program and while awaiting the inevitable modest scores from the judges, Kerrigan broke into tears. "I just want to die," she said to her coaches, Evy Scotvold and his wife Mary. A microphone picked up the words and a national television audience swelled with sympathy.
Life had been better for Nancy Kerrigan since then, though. In the months following, she rededicated herself to the sport of figure skating. She worked harder than ever. She lifted more weights, skated longer and harder in practice, increased her aerobic capabilities. She enlisted the services of a sports psychologist–someone who, presumably, would be able to peek into her mind and fortify her fragile psyche.
The poor performance at the world championship trials notwithstanding, endorsement offers were flooding into the offices of Kerrigan's agent, Jerry Solomon of ProServ. It was no surprise, really; she was, after all, a stunning beauty, with a bright smile and high cheekbones that prompted some to label her "the Katharine Hepburn of figure skating." Kerrigan turned down many of the offers, though. She wanted to concentrate on skating. She wanted to prove something to herself and to the world.
"She's never worked this hard before," Kerrigan's longtime coach, Evy Scotvold, told Sports Illustrated during the nationals. "She's never done the run-throughs she's doing now. Double runthroughs. Going for perfect run-throughs. She's in fantastic shape. Her power is incredible. When she skates she looks like she needs a bigger ice surface."
The fear, apparently, was gone, the apprehension melted away. Kerrigan was poised to defend her title and, more importantly, move on to Lillehammer, Norway, site of the 1994 winter Olympics.
In Kerrigan's mind, that was the way it would work. Her fans envisioned the drama unfolding in similar fashion. And so they stood and cheered wildly when she skated onto the ice that afternoon in Detroit, looking so perfect, so feminine, so athletic, in a white lace dress and pearl earrings, her hair tugged back in a ponytail.
It was the first of two scheduled practice sessions for Kerrigan; a second was planned for 11:30 that evening. But because the weather was foul and the hour was late, Kerrigan fretted over the possibility of not getting back to Cobo for a second workout. She opted to stay late during the afternoon session; she was, in fact, the last skater to leave the ice.
For reasons that have not been adequately addressed, security at Cobo Arena that day was far from tight. Members of the media wore official press credentials and thus had access to most areas of the building. Unfortunately, so did just about everyone else. Fans and sociopaths alike could leave their seats high above the ice and stroll casually to the edge of the rink, where they could then stand an arm's length from the object of their affection–or their disdain–for several minutes at a time.
Eventually, a security guard or usher would come along and shoo them away, but in the meantime they would get their brush with fame, their glimpse of stardom.
"You could walk through anywhere without showing a badge," noted Frank Carroll, Michelle Kwan's coach. That observation was supported by San Francisco Examiner columnist Joan Ryan, who told the Associated Press that security throughout the entire arena was, in her opinion, unusually lax.
It was in this unintentionally permissive environment that a large man in a black leather coat, black hat and khaki pants was able to position himself for what seemed at the time to be a random act of senseless violence. The man, with what appeared to be a legitimate credential of some sort draped around his neck, was spotted first by Kathy Stuart, a skating coach. In an Associated Press story published the following day, Stuart said the man appeared to be videotaping Kerrigan's practice session. She also observed that he was "sweating a lot."
Frank Carroll told Sports Illustrated that the same man had approached him and, pointing in Kerrigan's direction, had asked, "Is that Nancy Kerrigan?"
Carroll said that it was, but also thought to himself, "This is strange."
"He was an odd man. He was jittery, sweating," Carroll said. "He had a camera and he was taking pictures very fast. I didn't see where he went or whether he was the man who did it, but the next thing I knew, Nancy was on the floor, screaming."
At 2:40 p.m. an announcement had come over the public address system signaling the end of the afternoon practice session. Kerrigan walked off the ice and headed for her dressing room. She passed through a blue curtain into a hallway leading to the locker room.
The hallway, carpeted in red, was supposed to be a private area, accessible only to athletes, coaches, security and administrative personnel. Reporters were not to be admitted. Clearly, though, security was something of an afterthought, for when Kerrigan reached the hallway, she was intercepted by a woman named Dana Scarton, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Scarton wanted to fire a few questions at Kerrigan, and the skater obliged.
As they spoke, the man in the black leather jacket appeared from behind. He ran at them, silently, assuredly, as if on a mission. Quickly he wedged himself between Scarton and Kerrigan and swung what appeared to be a black metal rod at Kerrigan's right knee. The blow struck with such force that witnesses would later say the crack could be heard outside the hallway, in the stands.
Kerrigan fell to the floor and screamed–three times. Those screams, like the blow to her leg–the leg (not coincidentally, as it turned out) that is most vital to a skater's performance [she pushes off on her right leg when she jumps, and she lands on her right leg] could be heard throughout the arena.
"I heard screaming when I was walking away from the ice," Scotvold said. "All I could think of was, 'Where's Nancy?' I thought she was OK because she was not on the ice. But sure enough, it was her." He added sarcastically, "Great security."
A video camera captured the aftermath of the assault, captured in vivid images the sad and sorry spectacle of America's once and future ice queen lying on the ground, moaning in pain and fear.
"It hurts so bad," Kerrigan said through her tears. "Please help me."
As the crowd around Kerrigan quickly grew, security guards took off in pursuit of her assailant. For a moment, when he reached a Plexiglas door, it looked as though he might be stopped before he had a chance to leave the building. He would be captured, arrested, locked up, and revealed as the loony he was.
But this was a big man, six feet tall, 225 pounds. A strong man. And he was clearly not out for publicity, not interested in seeing his face on the evening news. He had no intention of getting caught, and so, he lowered his head and crashed through the Plexiglas door. He tumbled out into the street and was instantly lost among the hundreds of people who were in the area for an international auto show being held next door. He then sprinted away, into the snow, presumably never to be seen again.
Back inside, Nancy Kerrigan remained on the floor, weeping, wondering who could have done this to her. Why would anyone do this to her? Kerrigan's father, Dan, was at her side now. He gently picked up his daughter and cradled her in his arms, as if she were not a grown woman, but rather his little girl again.
"I'm so scared," she sobbed. "Why me? Why now?"
That was the question of the day, and of the days to follow. Predictably, and not illogically, public response was one of outrage. It was presumed at the time that the attack on Nancy Kerrigan was merely another example of the decline of decency in Western Civilization–a brutal act of violence perpetrated on a lovely, charming young lady for no particular reason; a disgusting incident that lent credence to the theory that our society–America's–is the most violent on the planet.
This brutal act also sparked interest and debate and moral outrage on another level, most notably from sociologists and psychologists who specialize in analyzing the peculiar and frequently uneasy alliance between celebrities and their fans. Over the years, tales of twisted fans obsessed with rock stars and movie actors and television personalities have been all too common. A fan attempts to kill President Ronald Reagan to express his own deep and unending love for Jodie Foster. A woman breaks into the home of David Letterman–several dozen times. These are pathetic and depressing stories. And sadly, inexplicably, they are not unusual.
Until quite recently, however, such actions had been limited to the world of entertainment–fantasy entertainment. But in the months prior to the attack on Kerrigan, fan violence in its most bizarre, lurid form had moved squarely into the world of athletics. That should not come as a great surprise, actually, since athletes have become stars of the first magnitude. They earn millions of dollars, spend most of their professional lives in the public eye, and are supported, nurtured and molded by some of the best and most efficient publicity machines in the world. It was, then, probably inevitable that they would provoke the same sort of fanaticism previously reserved for stars in other areas of the entertainment industry.
So it was that in the minutes, hours and days after the attack on Kerrigan, speculation pointed to the likelihood that the assailant was a deranged fan. Images of a similar attack on tennis star Monica Seles in April, 1993 came rushing back, usually paired on television reports with pictures of the Kerrigan assault. Seles was stabbed in the back by a German tennis fan who was obsessed with Steffi Graf. It was his deranged mission to hurt Seles, then the top-ranked female tennis player in the world, so badly that she would be unable to compete for a lengthy period of time. (Incredibly Seles's assailant had the temerity to mount a defense of his actions: "On no account did I want to kill Frau Seles," Parch said at his trial. "I just wanted to hurt her slightly so that Monica wouldn't be able to play for a couple of weeks.") In that way, Graf, the number two-ranked player, would assume the top spot.
His plan worked, too: In January Seles announced that she would not be competing in the Australian Open, as originally scheduled, and that her return to competitive tennis had been postponed indefinitely.
There had been other strange examples of demented fan behavior, including at least two within the skating community. In 1992, two-time Olympian Katarina Witt of Germany was harassed by a man who repeatedly sent her obscene and threatening items through the mail. He was eventually arrested, convicted and sentenced to 37 months in a psychiatric facility. He also was ordered never to come in contact with Witt again. And there was a strange case involving Tonya Harding, who pulled out of a competition in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, in November, 1993, after she said she received a death threat.
"It's just horrifying," Kerrigan's sister-in-law, Tammy Moscaritolo, told reporters during an interview at Boston's Logan Airport shortly after the attack. "Why would anyone want to hurt Nancy?"
Kerrigan's brother, Michael, claimed that Nancy had never been stalked or harassed by anyone. She had never experienced anything but a warm relationship with the fans who came to see her skate. Still, the world responded to the news of her attack with the gigantic presumption of copycat fan violence. Kerrigan's twisted, weeping face appeared on the cover of just about every newspaper and magazine in the country. Columnists devoted thousands of words to the supposedly intertwined subjects of fan violence and inadequate security.
Generally, there was agreement that the world is a sick place and always has been a sick place and always will be a sick place–and this was just another terrible, distressing example of that sickness. For her part, Kerrigan tried to remain upbeat. "I'm not going to lose faith in all people or anything like that," she told ABC television. "It was one bad guy. I'm sure there are others and this kind of thing has happened before in other sports, but not everybody is like that.
"The people who were worried about me, wondering what happened, those are the people I want to tell that I'm OK. It's not the most important thing–skating–so if I can't [compete] I'll have to deal with it. It could have been a lot worse."
Kerrigan's sense of perspective was deemed admirable by all who heard her words. That measured perspective did not mean, however, that she had ruled out skating in the nationals.
After the assault, however, fear began to spread to other Olympic athletes. "We compete in crowded places," said track star Gail Devers, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist in the women's 100-yard dash. "There is a lot of trust we put in the fans that they aren't going to harm us. But you can't help but think about it after you see what happened to Nancy Kerrigan and Monica Seles."
Shortly after the assault, Kerrigan was examined by Dr. Steven Plomaritis, who determined that her leg had not been fractured, but "the discomfort could preclude her from participating at her capacity." Indeed, that is precisely what happened. On the morning after the attack, the swelling in Kerrigan's leg, caused by a severely bruised kneecap and quadriceps tendon, had not so much decreased as moved. It now resided in the anterior portion of her knee, which prevented her from bending the joint fully. Doctors injected the knee with a local anesthetic and removed some fluid.
Excerpted from "Thin Ice"
Copyright © 1994 TD Media.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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