Coined the 'trailer trash' figure skater, Tonya Harding was accused of masterminding an attack on her Olympic rival. But, as a new film reveals, poverty and domestic abuse took their toll long before her fall from grace
Tonya Harding now lives a relatively quiet life, but she was once embroiled in arguably the biggest scandal to ever hit the figure skating world.
The scandal has now inspired an upcoming movie starring Margot Robbie as Tonya. I Tonya (out in the U.K on 23rd Feb) tracks the early life and skating career of Harding and the explosive relationships that plagued – and eventually destroyed – her career. But who is the real Tonya Harding, and where is Tonya Harding now?
The real Tonya Harding
By Michelle Davies
Thursday, 6 January 1994 is a date recorded in sporting history – despite no event, heat or race being staged that day. In fact, it was the eve of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, a competition to decide which skaters would compete at the Winter Olympics in Norway, seven weeks later.
Nancy Kerrigan, 24, was the favourite to win and left her practice session at the Cobo Arena confident of qualifying. But, on her way to the changing rooms, a man stepped out of the shadows and clubbed her right leg with a baton before fleeing.
Kerrigan slumped to the ground in agony and, in footage broadcast in the aftermath, was heard screaming, ‘Why, why, why?’ as she clutched her injured leg.
It was a question that reverberated around the world. Figure skating was the most genteel of sports, celebrated for its sequin-trussed, Disney-like enthralment. Why would anyone want to hurt Kerrigan, the talented, princess-pretty athlete with a megawatt smile?
When the FBI went in search of a culprit, they looked no further than across the ice – to Kerrigan’s rival and the sport’s black sheep, Tonya Harding.
Today, 24 years on, the biopic, I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie, is re-examining the events surrounding that day. The film explores Harding’s actual complicity versus the media narrative – that she was mastermind of ‘The Whack Heard Round The World’, as the attack on Kerrigan became known.
Who is Tonya Harding?
Tonya Maxene Harding was born on 12 November 1970 in Portland, Oregon. Her upbringing was unstable: her father, Al, flitted from job to job; her mother, LaVona, was an alcoholic married four times previously with three older children. By the age of 11 Harding had moved 13 times and at one point lived in a trailer on her grandmother’s driveway. Eventually, the family settled in Clackamas, a town 16 miles from Portland. Skating was a refuge for Harding – the one constant in her life.
She was only three years old when she first took to the ice, but she showed immediate potential. ‘Tonya’s a remarkable talent. With financial support, she could become Olympic material,’ her first skating coach, Diane Rawlinson, told The Enterprise Courier in 1976, when Harding was still just five.
LaVona became invested in her daughter’s career, taking Harding to the local rink at 4.30am every morning to practice. But that was not without its problems – as well as being an alcoholic, LaVona was verbally and physically abusive, too.
‘She used to beat me in front of everybody. Hit me with a hairbrush. Drag me on the floor by my hair into the bathroom,’ Harding revealed in her 2008 biography The Tonya Tapes. Rawlinson tried to intervene but LaVona (who is played by Allison Janney in I, Tonya) told her in explicit terms to mind her own business.
Harding’s parents divorced in 1987 when she was 17. By then she was making the podium in major domestic competitions and narrowly missed out on selection for the 1988 Winter Olympics. In 1989 she won Skate America.
In 1990, aged 20, she married a local man named Jeff Gillooly, who she’d met five years earlier when he watched her skating in Clackamas.
She saw marriage as a way of escaping her abusive mother – only to discover her husband, two years her elder, was even worse. ‘Being stupid and young and naive – [I thought] my mom hit me and she loved me; he hits, he loves me. It is just the way life goes,’ said Harding.
Hiding her bruises under stage make-up, Harding continued to excel on the ice and at U.S. Championships in 1991 proved what a supreme athlete she was by becoming the first American female skater to successfully execute a triple axel jump in a competition.
The jump is as intricate as it is strenuous – a forward take-off and three-and-a-half mid-air rotations before the skater lands perfectly on one blade – but Harding nailed it to win gold.
In bronze position that day was Kerrigan. The two skaters were opposites: Kerrigan was tall, balletic and graceful on the ice; Harding was short, muscular and powerful.
Kerrigan’s family, while no means rich, was tight-knit and loving; her costumes were designed by Vera Wang, a former competitive figure skater herself. Harding’s background was fractured and impoverished; her costumes handmade.
Yet, according to Harding, the girls were friends who often roomed together at competitions. ‘Sure, we were competitors against each other,’ she once said, ‘but we were just friends out there trying to do the best that we could do at what we do.’
Harding might have dismissed the so-called rivalry between them, but it appears the skating world was pitching her as the Wicked Witch to Kerrigan’s Snow White long before the events of 6 January 1992.
‘[Harding] was a fireball, not a princess,’ said fellow skater and Olympic silver medallist Elizabeth Manley. ‘She was always struggling for acceptance and approval in the skating community. Tonya had incredible talent and an amazing ability to jump but she didn’t have the look that the United States Figure Skating Association [USFSA] desired. They wanted the wholesome, girl-next-door image for their champion. Tonya didn’t fit that image and she knew she never would.’
Even Kerrigan later acknowledged how difficult it was for Harding. ‘When you see someone struggle from the beginning, that’s hard and I feel for her,’ she said.
By 1993, Harding was suffering a major dip in form that left her fearing she wouldn’t make selection for the 1994 Winter Olympics. She had separated from Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan in the film) due to his abuse, but the stress of divorce left her struggling to perform.
Worst still, Kerrigan was eclipsing her off the rink too, securing lucrative pre-Olympic endorsements while Harding struggled to make ends meet.
It was at that point she reunited with Gillooly – apparently on the orders of the USFSA, which thought it would look better if she appeared happily married. ‘I had an ultimatum. I had to take my chances [with Gillooly],’ said Harding. ‘It was the stupidest thing I could ever have done’.
Disgruntled by the spotlight on Kerrigan, Gillooly conspired with a friend, Shawn Eckardt, to stop Harding’s rival from competing. Gillooly claimed the original plan had been to send threatening letters to scare Kerrigan off the ice, but Eckardt paid an associate, Shane Stant, to ambush her, instead.
Thankfully for Kerrigan, Stant missed her kneecap and hit her thigh. She couldn’t walk for three weeks but fully recovered from the blow. ‘If I was hit just a little below, my kneecap would’ve been shattered; just a little above, the whole muscle would’ve been calcified,’ Kerrigan later said.
It didn’t take long for the FBI to track down Stant after he and his uncle Derrick Smith, acting as his getaway driver, were caught on CCTV. Stant implicated Eckardt, who in turn blamed Gillooly. Before long, they’d put Harding in the frame too, saying the plan to maim Kerrigan was hers.
To this day, Harding maintains she had no prior knowledge of the attack. ‘I just couldn’t believe what was being said… I didn’t even know the other persons who were involved,’ she added, referring to Stant and Smith.
Kerrigan was among those who initially refused to believe Harding was culpable. ‘I had people asking me, “Do you think she had anything to do with it?” My reaction was, “That’s ridiculous.” To me, this had to have been some random act.’
Harding was allowed to compete at the Olympics, despite the cloud of suspicion and endless slew of headlines painting her as the ‘trailer trash’ skater driven insanely jealous by her rival’s success. The broadcast of the event in Lillehammer was one of the most watched in TV history.
Buckling under the pressure, Harding finished eighth while Kerrigan took silver.
Then, two months after the attack, Harding pleaded guilty to hindering the FBI investigation – she admitted Gillooly had confessed his role in the attack but she hadn’t reported it. In her 2008 biography, Harding claimed to have been raped by him and two others, forcing her silence – a claim he denied.
While the others were jailed for their part in the attack, Harding was sentenced to three years’ probation, fined $160,000 (about £120,000) and stripped of her 1991 US Championship title.
Then, the judge handed down a more devastating punishment – a lifetime ban from competitive skating. ‘They choked off her way to make any sort of a living,’ her friend Sandra Lucklow told one interviewer. ‘There was nothing else she knew how to do.’
Indeed, one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in I, Tonya shows Harding begging to be sent to jail rather than be banned. She was only 23 and everything she’d worked for was collapsing around her ears.
‘My skating was my whole, entire life,’ Harding later reflected. ‘I had planned, after the Olympics, of being able to do ice shows and pro-competitions… that was my goal.’
Harding tried to stay in the limelight, cashing in on her notoriety by selling a sex tape to Penthouse magazine in 1994 and eight years later, taking up professional boxing.
In 2014 she took part in a ESPN documentary 30 For 30: The Price Of Gold, in which she refused to apologise to Kerrigan, saying she’d already done so. However, in the same programme, Kerrigan said, ‘She may think she has [apologised]… she has said things like, “I’m sorry that happened to her.” But strangers have said that to me, so it’s not really owning up to her part in it.’
Where is Tonya Harding now?
Today, Harding lives a quiet life in Yacolt, Washington, working as a gardener and living with her husband Joseph Jens Price and their seven-year-old son. She recently attended a private screening of the film and, Margot Robbie reported afterwards, loved how her story had been relayed.
‘She was incredibly understanding, more understanding than I could ever imagine being if someone made a movie about the most traumatic and triumphant moments of my life,’ said Robbie.
Needless to say, Harding and Gillooly no longer speak. He has since changed his surname to escape his own notoriety, but in a rare interview in 2013 said he regretted his part in destroying Harding’s career. ‘She’ll never be remembered for how wonderful a figure skater she was,’ he said. ‘She’ll be remembered for what I talked her into doing.’
I, Tonya hits cinemas on Friday 23rd February
Where is Nancy Kerrigan now?
Nancy Kerrigan is now 48 and a married mother of three. She recently appeared as a contestant on the U.S version of Strictly, Dancing With The Stars, making it to the seventh week of the competition.
Unlike Harding, who was ejected from the sport in disgrace, Kerrigan has both bronze and silver Olympic medals and has been inducted into the United States Figure Skating Hall Of Fame. Nancy Kerrigan’s net worth is reported to be around $8 million.