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20 Years Later: A Tale of Two Skaters

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan 1994

Last week’s announcement that Ashley Wagner was named to the U.S. Figure Skating team was big news. But outside the rink, the controversy over the choice of Wagner over fellow skater Mirai Nagasu barely caused a ripple. This was nothing like the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan figure skating incident 20 years ago that ESPN’s Sports Century named  as one of its most memorable sports moments of the 20th century.

Two decades later, the Harding/Kerrigan story still captivates:  a hardscrabble girl from a trailer park in Oregon brazenly tried to hobble her arch rival  as both skaters battled for Olympic gold and all the endorsement dough that goes with it.

According to figure skating coach Diane Rawlinson, who plucked Harding from a broken Portland home and gave her shot onto the ice in the mid-1980s, the teen girl would have had nothing in her life if it wasn’t for her skating. Proud of her blue-collar skills as drag-racer and mechanic, Harding burst onto the skating scene like some early-day slumdog millionaire. She never wore the silver spoon of her skating peers but she was incredibly talented – only the second woman in the world and the first American woman to land a triple Axel.

The performance styles of the two teen skaters reflected the divide: Harding blasted through technical routines while Kerrigan gracefully danced on the ice. One was all power; the other all polish. Kerrigan, elegant and highly sought for endorsements,  was third in the ’92 Olympics and had won the U.S. title in ’93. She arrived at the ’94 Olympic trials an obstacle in Harding’s path. In a plan hatched with Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, a henchman jumped Kerrigan at practice and delivered a whack to her knee that took her out of the competition.

It is not just Olympic historians who look back on the incident for its unprecedented impact. Television shows (Seinfeld, SNL, and every late night talk show), stage shows (Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera), a TV movie and songs (Loudon Wainwright’s Tonya Twirls), have all been influenced by these two skaters.

And it seemed like she was lying
About what she didn’t know
& then she started crying in the media side show
In practice she kept falling down more than the other girls
With their gliding & their sliding
& their picture perfect twirls

U.S. figure skating officials ultimately voted Kerrigan onto the Olympic team despite the fact she didn’t compete at the Nationals. Wails of “Why me” while clutching her clobbered knee may have contributed to the sympathy she was afforded.  Disciplinary action was considered against Harding, who responded with the threat of a $25 million lawsuit. Both backed down days before the Games, but the melodrama continued.

Harding arrived in Lillehammer Norway for the 1994 Winter Olympics out of shape, and immediately crashed out of medal contention by slipping to 10th place after the short program, while Kerrigan held first place going into the long-program final.

During the long-program climax,  Harding quit a minute into her routine but begged the judges for a Mulligan because her skate lace had broken. She exited in eighth place while Russia’s Oksana Bauil, via a controversial 5-4 judges’ decision, edged Kerrigan for the gold.

Silver medalist Kerrigan went on to marry her agent and is the mother of two boys and a girl. She appears in skating shows and acts as a skating commentator and was recently hired by NBC to report on figure skating at the Sochi Games. NBC will also air a documentary on Kerrigan and Harding, with Mary Carillo interviewing both, during the Olympics in February.

What happened to Harding? Since the Kerrigan attacks, the former skater has been regularly in the news, throwing hubcaps at boyfriends, being cited for drunk driving, serving time for tax evasion and starring in exploitation films and appearing on Celebrity Boxing.

While the sordid attack was reprehensible on so many levels, it was absolutely terrific for the sport of figure skating. On Feb. 23, 1994, the Harding-Kerrigan Olympic showdown on NBC caused nearly half of all television viewers to glue their eyes to their sets to watch the saga. It was the highest rated television program of the past quarter-century and it’s still the sixth highest-rated show in history.

A good story is never just black and white and almost always has more than two sides. Those who want to know more about what may have compelled Harding  should check out ESPN’s new documentary The Price of Gold  which airs tonight. The doc sheds new light on the narrative of how one American skater triumphed against adversity, while the other sank to the bottom. Part Greek tragedy, part tabloid cover-story, The Price of Gold  focuses primarily on Harding, whose quest to become the best skater in the world was so obviously tied to her desperate need for validation.

Was this incident one of the worst train wrecks in sporting history? Maybe. An anniversary worth celebrating? Not really.  But only something as weirdly true and impossibly real as the Harding-Kerrigan drama could remain newsworthy for 20 long years.


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