Figure skaters are often delicate-looking young women. But Tonya Harding was not that kind of figure skater.
While her competitors floated gracefully through their programs, Harding skated with forceful strokes, like a hockey player.
Harding didn't grow up like many skaters -- in a fairy tale world with a close-knit, loving family present at every competition, cheering her every movement. Harding moved eight times before she was 18. Her parents divorced when she was 14. Her mother wound up marrying six other times. Her father Al worked as a truck driver, as an apartment manager and at a bait-and-tackle store. He taught his daughter to be tough. When she was five, he handed her a .22. He taught her to hunt. He taught her to fix a transmission.
Harding's grit enabled her to survive the turbulent upbringing, and helped her to emerge as a young figure skating star, a national champion, in a highly competitive, grueling sport.
Before she was 18, Harding moved in with her boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly. They married when she was 19. Fifteen months later, Harding filed for divorce. She also filed for a restraining order, saying Gillooly beat her, threatened her with a gun and told her he'd break her legs and end her skating career. But she kept running back to him.
After failing to qualify for the 1993 World Championships, Harding, with Gillooly, struggled to pay the bills. At one point, they were evicted from their Portland, Oregon, apartment. They were desperate.
As the 1994 Olympic Trials approached, Harding was at the crossroads. She had to perform well enough to make the team. She had to turn this triumph into endorsement opportunities and big dollars. If anything was going to happen in her career, it had to be now. Otherwise, it was likely over.
She decided she would do almost anything for Olympic gold, money and fame. Nothing, she vowed, would get in her way -- especially America's Sweetheart, Nancy Kerrigan, the elegant bronze medalist of the '92 Games. Kerrigan had a natural style and grace. People Magazine named her one of their 50 Most Beautiful People. Harding detested her.
Kerrigan was a primary threat Harding's chances of making the Olympic team, a threat to kill her gold medal quest and cash in on fame, on glory. So Harding, Gillooly and several others concocted a plan to erase Kerrigan, a chilling plan of assault that rocked the world.
January 6, 1994. The United States Olympic Trials, Cobo Arena, Detroit.
Kerrigan takes the ice for a practice session at 2 p.m., gliding along the ice. At 2:35 p.m., Kerrigan leaves the ice, followed by an ABC cameraman.
As the cameraman lays down his equipment, a man sneaks up and darts behind him, toward two security guards standing in front of a blue curtain. The man is Shane Stant, 22, a high school dropout turned bodybuilder, and an acquaintance of Gillooly. Acting as if he's media, Stant strolls past the guards.
As he walks behind the curtain, Stant spots Kerrigan in the hallway outside the dressing room. She is talking to a reporter, Dana Scarton of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Stant draws a black, aluminum, retractable police baton out of his belt with his right hand. In his left hand is a piece of a paper. The scribbling on the paper says that he is a madman seeking to destroy the careers of Olympic skaters.
As Kerrigan and the reporter chat, Stant storms between the two women, he takes the baton and strikes a frightening and violent blow to Kerrigan's right leg, just above her knee. He then runs away. Kerrigan falls to the ground and begins screaming, "Why? Why?"
"The guy ran by, crouched down, whacked her on the knee and kept on running," Scarton would say later. "Nancy just dropped and started screaming and sobbing, 'It hurts. It hurts so bad. I'm scared.'"
Within seconds, dozens of Olympic officials rush toward Kerrigan. Stunned and motionless, the reporter and a small group of people watch Stant run away, toward an exit.
With Kerrigan's screams echoing through the hallway, Stant drops the note and tries crashing through the plexiglas doors. To his surprise, the doors are chained, unlike the previous day, when he cased out the area, preparing to commit this crime of assault. Using his head as a ram, he crashes through the lower portion of the doors and falls onto the sidewalk. "Hey, somebody stop that guy!" a voice cries out.
Still brandishing his weapon, Stant stumbles back to his feet and runs crazily along a sidewalk crowded with people. Frantically looking behind him to make sure no one is chasing, Stant slips on a small patch of icy snow.
As a man walks in Stant's path, Stant slams right into him, knocks him down, flattening him. He then flings the baton away. It slides under a parked car. He glances over his shoulder again. People are watching this wild scene unfolding before their eyes, but no one gives chase, unaware of what's happening inside Cobo Arena, where Kerrigan is sitting on the cold floor, clutching her knee, screaming and crying.
Outside, Stant is running further away from the arena. Suddenly, a car pulls up and skids to a grinding halt, nearing hitting Stant. "Get in!" a voice in the car yells. Stant jumps in, tears off his jacket and gloves, and slips into a brown coat. He peers over his shoulder again as the car speeds away. No one is in pursuit.
Back inside Cobo, there is complete chaos. Kerrigan is helped up by officials and she hobbles down the hall.
Within an hour of the attack, Gillooly is awakened by a telephone call from Harding, according to later testimony. "It happened," she says. "They did it."
Newspapers across the country splash the Kerrigan assault all across the front page. Every TV and radio newscast, from Boston to Los Angeles, blast continuous news about the shocking attack. Police conduct an around the clock investigation.
Several days later, after an exhaustive investigation, police in Oregon arrest Shawn Eckardt, 26, Harding's bodyguard.
Rumors quickly surface that Harding was involved in the planning of the attack. The skating world, the sports world, is on the edge of it seat. Figure skating has never received such attention. Even people without the faintest interest in the sport read the stories and watch the news.
The day after Eckardt is arrested, Stant surrenders to authorities in Phoenix. As the days pass, the picture becomes clearer and the worse it gets for Harding.
It is learned through an affidavit that a few weeks before the Olympic Trials in Detroit, Harding made three phone calls from her home to Tony Kent Arena, Kerrigan's practice rink in South Dennis, Mass., trying to find out her practice schedule so Stant could attack Kerrigan there, where there would be far less traffic, people and commotion than in Detroit.
All the details of the attack fall together, one after another -- the entire plot, from beginning to end. The facts show that Harding conspired with Gillooly, Eckert and Stant to destroy Kerrigan and her Olympic career. Several weeks later, Norman Frink, chief deputy district attorney of Multnomah County (Ore.), says, "The evidence is clear that Tonya Harding was involved and participated prior to the assault, and we are prepared to go forward with charges on each and every crime we believed she was culpable for."
Harding is forced to resign as a member of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which prevents her from competing in the world championships in Japan. She is also placed on three years' probation, assessed $110,000 in fines and legal fees, sentenced to 500 hours of community service and forced to contribute $50,000 to the Special Olympics.