Harding, Tonya

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Tonya Harding


American figure skater

The pre-Olympic hype prior to the 1994 Winter Olympic Games intensified considerably when American figure skater Tonya Harding was implicated in a bizarre attack on her ice rival, Nancy Kerrigan . The now infamous incident occurred some six weeks before the Lillehammer Games were to begin as Harding and Kerrigan vied for top position on the women's team at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Michigan. As Kerrigan came off the ice one day, a mysterious man whacked her knee with a police baton, and then fled. Days later, Harding's ex-husband and three other men were linked to the attack. Kerrigan recovered and skated for a silver medal-win at Lillehammer, but Harding became the object of derision and ridicule. Her skating career effectively ended after Lillehammer, where she finished in eighth place.

Some of the intense media scrutiny surrounding the Harding-Kerrigan story seemed to be heightened because of the women's seemingly pitch-perfect story-book roles: Harding was an athletic, daring skater who came from an impoverished, somewhat rough family background. She struggled for years to pay for her skating lessons, costumes, and travel costs, and had emerged as a kind of folk-hero success story by the time she arrived in Detroit. Kerrigan, on the other hand, embodied what made figure skating such a popular spectator event: possessing classic New England cheekbones and flawless skin, she was elegant and poised both on and off the ice.

Began on Used Skates

Harding was born in 1970 and grew up in Portland, Oregon. Her mother, LaVona, had been married five times by the time Harding was born, and the family

moved often due to their reduced financial circumstances. "I changed schools just about every year, so I didn't have friends hardly at all," Harding told E. M. Swift in Sports Illustrated. "I was basically a loner." Harding was close to her father, Al, who taught her how to fish, shoot a rifle, and even rebuild a car engine. She began skating at the age of three, when her parents took her to a mall and she was fascinated by the skaters on the indoor rink. Enrolled in group lessons with a pair of secondhand skates, Harding proved such a natural talent that her teacher soon suggested private lessons. At the time, these were $25 a week, and her mother struggled to make enough tips at her waitressing job to pay for them.

Considered the sport of affluent youths, figure skating drains a family's time and resources immensely: costs for serious competition training can run as high as $30,000 a year. Harding's longtime coach, Diane Rawlinson, was supportive and empathized with the family's dedication to their daughter's love of skating. Rawlinson donated her lessons when money was tight, bought Tonya skates, and even found friends and business owners willing to sponsor her travel costs.

Rose in Sport Despite Hardships

Harding began dating Jeff Gillooly, two years her senior, when she was 15, partly to escape a troubled home life. Her parents' marriage was disintegrating, and her alcoholic half-brother expressed interest in her. She dropped out of high school during her sophomore year, and was living with Gillooly by the time she was 18. By then, Harding was already making a name for herself in U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) sanctioned events: she placed sixth in 1986 at her first senior national competition, and made a strong showing at the 1989 championship event in Baltimore. The next year, she defied doctors' orders and skated in the Salt Lake City nationals despite a case of pneumonia, and placed seventh.


1970Born November 12 in Portland, Oregon
1973Begins skating
1986Finishes sixth in first U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) competition
1990Marries Jeff Gillooly
1991Becomes first American woman to land a triple axel jump in competition; wins U.S. Figure Skating Championship title
1991Files for divorce from Gillooly
1992Finishes fourth at Winter Olympics in Albertville, France
1992Withdraws divorce petition
1993Fails to qualify for spot on U.S. team for World Championships
1993Divorce from Gillooly finalized
1994Places first in U.S. Figure Skating Championships after Kerrigan is injured
1994Finishes eighth at Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway
1994Enters a guilty plea in an Oregon court for the attack on Kerrigan
1994Banned for life from U.S. Figure Skating Association competitions and events
1995Debuted as a singer with Portland band called the Golden Blades
1996Marries Michael Smith in January
1996Files for divorce from Smith in April
1998Skates on Fox television special also featuring a performance by Kerrigan
1999Makes competitive professional skating debut at ESPN Professional Skating Championships, Huntington, West Virginia
2000Arrested for assaulting her then-boyfriend with a hubcap in February
2000Spends three days in jail for hubcap incident in May
2002Appears on Fox special Celebrity Boxing
2002Arrested on drunk-driving charge in Washington state
2002Serves ten days in jail for violating terms of probation

Harding did far better in 1991 and earned her first mention in Sports Illustrated when she emerged the surprise first-place finisher at nationals. She stunned spectators, sportswriters, and figure-skating fans at the Minneapolis event when she became the first American woman ever to land a triple axel in competition. "Forty-five seconds into her routine, Harding stroked the length of the ice, coiled and sprang to an improbable height," wrote Swift. "Her pony tail became a blur as she spun. Upon landing, she cried out, 'Yes!' The crowd, recognizing history in this 5 ft. 1 in., 105-pound package of fist-clenching grit, roared." Only Midori Ito of Japan had ever landed the 3½-revolution jump under the duress of competition. Moreover, Harding's transcendence of her background into the rarified world of skating made her an interesting subject. "Harding shatters all stereotypes of the pampered and sheltered figure skater who has spent his or her youth bottled in an ice rink, training," the same Sports Illustrated article noted.

Back home, however, Harding endured personal problems over the next two years that seemed to keep her from skating in top form. Her relationship with Gillooly was problematic; the two divorced August of 1993, but moved in together two months later. Kerrigan, from the Boston area, had emerged as a formidable rival to Harding after a third-place finish in 1991. At the following year's nationals, Kerrigan took the silver medal, with Harding in third place this time. Kerrigan won the U.S. title outright in 1993. The next year, skating fans anticipated a showdown between the two at the Detroit championships, which would finalize their place on the Olympic team.

The Infamous Footage

On January 6, 1994, Kerrigan was attacked by an unknown figure as she came off the ice at Cobo Arena and headed backstage. When word spread, television crews rushed to capture a sobbing, hysterical Kerrigan on the ground, surrounded by people, clutching her jumping leg, and crying "Why, why?" Within days, two people contacted authorities and said they had listened to a tape of four people planning the attack. A friend of Gillooly's whom Harding had employed as a personal bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, was immediately implicated.

On January 11, both Harding and Gillooly proclaimed their innocence. That same day, however, Eckardtowner of World Bodyguard Service, whose only client was Hardingconfessed and said that he had hired two others to carry out the attack; he also implicated Harding and Gillooly in the planning and details, noting that Harding had provided information about Kerrigan's schedule. Eckardt, the baton hit-man Shane Stant, and getaway-car driver Derrick Smith were charged, as was Gillooly. Harding denied any involvement at first and at a press conference read a prepared statement in which she asserted that upon hearing about Kerrigan's attack, "My first reaction was one of disbelief followed by shock and fear," according to Shannon Brownlee in U.S. News & World Report. Harding also claimed that her first-place finish in Detroit had been an "unfulfilling" one due to Kerrigan's absence.

Linked to Odd Phone Query

On January 18, Harding was questioned by agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for more than ten hours. She claimed that her ex-husband was innocent. Meanwhile, Gillooly was implicating her in the attack, and four days later a part-time sports journalist from Pennsylvania who was friendly with Harding said that the skater had called her in December and asked questions about Kerrigan and where she trained in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Further investigation found that Stant had traveled to the area, but did not carry out the attack. Finally, on January 24, Harding admitted that she knew of the plot before her competition, but was too fearful to take action to stop it. On February 1, Gillooly pled guilty in a deal that involved a two-year prison sentence and a $100,000 fine. He claimed the plot against Kerrigan originated in December, when Harding returned from a Japan competition dismayed over what she believed had been the judges' bias toward Kerrigan. "In the end, Shane and Smith attacked Kerrigan for less than $5,000, in the grandiose hope that if Harding won a gold medal at the Olympics, they would become 'World Bodyguard Service' to the stars," wrote Brownlee in U.S. News & World Report. "Eckardt exulted, 'We're going to make a lot of money.'"

Awards and Accomplishments

1986Sixth place, U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) women's championships
1989Bronze medal, USFSA women's championships
1990Seventh place, USFSA women's championships
1991Gold medal, USFSA women's championships
1991Silver medal, World Figure Skating championships
1992Bronze medal, USFSA women's championships
1992Fourth place, Albertville Winter Olympics
1992Sixth place, World Figure Skating championships
1994Gold medal, USFSA women's championships (stripped of title later that year)
1994Eighth place, Lillehammer Winter Olympics
1999Second place, ESPN Professional Skating Championships

The February, 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games were imminent by this point, and a major debate raged in the media over whether or not Harding should be allowed to compete. The New York Times editorial page and even President Bill Clinton pointed out that Harding was, essentially, innocent until proven guilty, and she had not yet been fully implicated in a court of law. Others argued that Olympic athletes should be held to a higher standard of ethics. Other pundits decried the overblown media attention surrounding the Harding-Kerrigan story, claiming it was, in the end, unnewsworthy and salacious. Some corners threw their support to Harding simply as the underdog in a sport that seemed to be less about athletic ability than telegenic good looks and a demure demeanor. Pat Jordan, writing in The Sporting News, claimed that Harding epitomized the "Dirty White Girl." Such women, Jordan explained, "wake in the morning to apply new make-up over the old, have a Mountain Dew and a Clark's bar for breakfast, then go to work as a waitress. They talk tough, smoke cigarettes, have tattoos, and usually spend their weekends drinking with their boyfriends in a country-and-western bar before drag racing on the street." The sportswriter recalled the time when Harding placed sixth in her first national competition, and phoned home with the news. "Her mother told Harding she had choked and was a loser," wrote Jordan. "Harding tried to explain, but her mother wouldn't listen. When she hung up the phone, Harding turned and said, 'What a bitch! Let's order some food.' Like a proper DWG, she did not cry."

Jordan noted that such "DWG" skaters are usually far more daring on the ice than their nice-girl counterparts, taking risky jumps and skating with a great deal of verve. Kerrigan seemed to hold back in competition, but had nevertheless earned several lucrative endorsement contracts already. Just before the Detroit attack, she appeared in her first commercial for Campbell's Soups. Harding, of course, had no endorsement contracts. "Harding has been burdened all her life by the Nancy Kerrigans of the world, and if guilty, finally she must have snapped," Jordan concluded.

Banned for Life

In the end, Harding was allowed to skate at Lillehammer by the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Lillehammer Games Administrative Board, but the media frenzy seemed to finally unnerve her. Banks of television cameras lined up for her practice sessions, and she skated poorly in the events themselves. At one point, she botched a jump, and skated over to the judges to show them the broken lace on her skate, which she claimed caused her misstep; they allowed her to do it over. Harding finished in eighth place overall, with the Ukraine's Oksana Baiul taking the gold medal and Kerrigan earning a second-place silver.

Harding and her personal life continued to be the source of tabloid fodder and water-cooler jokes. Gillooly sold a private videotape of their wedding night, in which Harding appeared topless in her wedding dress, to the television show A Current Affair. On March 16, 1994, she entered a guilty plea in a Multnomah County, Oregon courtthe jurisdiction in which the Kerrigan attack had been plannedand admitted to lying to police and hindering prosecution efforts. She was saddled with a $100,000 fine and equally onerous court costs in addition to her own legal bills. A $50,000 donation to the Special Olympics as well as 500 hours of community service were also part of her sentence. Her community service sentence was the largest ever meted out in Oregon, and at one point Harding petitioned the court to have it reduced, but the judge refused. Her obligations included serving meals to the elderly.

In June of 1994, a USFSA disciplinary panel stripped Harding of her 1994 national championship, and banned her from skating competitively for life. She worked thereafter as a landscaper and enjoyed a brief career as a celebrity manager for professional wrestlers. She remarried and divorced once again, attempted without success to skate for another country's Olympic teamboth Norway and Austria declinedand skated in a Fox television event with Kerrigan in February of 1998. They did not appear on the ice together, but made a brief joint studio appearance. One of its producers, David Krieff, told People writer Michael Neill that Harding seemed to want to make amends with Kerrigan. "She had nothing to lose," Krieff said. "She'd lost it all already."

Attempted Comeback

Harding moved to a town in Washington, just across the river from Portland, after her probation ended in 1997, and attempted to return to skatingthis time as a professional, which skirted the USFSA banin October of 1999. She competed in the ESPN Professional Skating Championships in Huntington, West Virginia, but fell twice in her program. She finished in second place overall, earning polite applause from the crowd each time. Yet even on the professional circuit, Harding was cold-shouldered by other skaters, and claimed to have been blackballed entirely in the sport.

Harding's troubles with the law had not ended. In February of 2000 she was arrested on assault charges filed by her then-boyfriend, who claimed she hit him with a hubcap. There were two witnesses to the incident, and Harding entered a not-guilty plea, claiming she meant to hit his motorcycle. She served three days in jail and ten days on a work crew.

Where Is She Now?

Harding lives in Vancouver, Washington and has had further legal troubles. She had been forbidden to drink alcohol as one of the terms of her probation in the 2000 hubcap-assault charge, but on April 20, 2002, just weeks before that injunction was set to expire, Harding's 1977 Dodge truck veered into a ditch in Washington. Both she and her 23-year-old male passenger were unharmed, but Harding failed a field sobriety test, and a blood-alcohol level test registered a 0.16 reading, twice the legal limit in Washington state. She faced two charges: violating the terms of probation and driving under the influence (DUI). Harding argued that the power steering had failed on her truck, but at an August 8 probation hearing she admitted that she had a drinking problem, and viewed the incident as a wake-up call. The court gave her a 30-day jail sentence, but twenty days were suspended in return for her completing twelve hours of special classes.

In March of 2002 Harding appeared on another Fox special, Celebrity Boxing, sparring with Paula Jones, the Arkansas woman who accused a then-Governor Bill Clinton of sexual harassment on the job. Again, she reentered the public consciousness as the butt of jokes, a figure who seemed to cling to her notorious celebrity for lack of any other viable career plan. Harding remains the sole skater ever to be implicated in a physical attack on a competitor, and though the incident seems tragiccomic in retrospect, it did serve to unmask a more vicious side of women's figure skatingless a sport, some pundits note, than a telegenically-driven competition for endorsement dollars.


Address: Tonya Harding, U.S. Figure Skating Association, 20 First St., Colorado Springs, CO 80906-3624.



Brownlee, Shannon. "Tonya's nightmare." U.S. News & World Report 116 (February 14, 1994): 44.

"But it started so well.." Time 147 (April 22, 1996): 99.

Davis, Alisha. "Old Habits Die Hard." Newsweek (March 6, 2000): 75.

Duffy, Martha. "End of the winter's tale." Time 143 (March 7, 1994): 62.

Duryee, Tricia. "Tonya takes on Tukwila and doesn't disappoint." Seattle Times (February 22, 2002): E2.

"Figure Skating: Norway Tells Harding to Try Austria." Seattle Post-Intelligencer (January 30, 1997): D5.

Frey, Jennifer. "The return of Tonya Harding." Austin American-Statesman (Texas) (October 23, 1999): D1.

"Harding concedes she drove drunk, admits problem." Seattle Times (August 6, 2002): C8.

"Jail gives Tonya time to 'relax.'" Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Australia) (August 25, 2002): 30.

James, Caryn. "And Now The 16th Minute Of Fame." New York Times (March 13, 2002): E1.

Jordan, Pat. "It's not ladylike to be a DWG." The Sporting News 217 (February 21, 1994): 12.

Kaufman, Michelle. "What ever happened to Tonya Harding?" Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (February 23, 1995).

Lopez, Steve. "Life after the glory." Time 151 (January 26, 1998): 64.

Luscombe, Belinda. "Tonya Harding in an affair to remember." Time 147 (January 8, 1996): 77.

Neill, Michael. "Melting the ice." People 49 (February 2, 1998): 117.

Nelson, Kathleen. "Figure skating is in enough of a mess without Tonya Harding's adventures." St Louis Post-Dispatch (August 10, 2002): 4.

Parvaz, D. "Skater Harding Making Breast of Bad Situation." Seattle Post-Intelligencer (June 11, 2001): E2.

Pollitt, Katha. "Subject to debate." Nation 258 (March 7, 1994): 297.

Reed, Susan. "On the ropes." People 42 (July 18, 1994): 36.

Roberts, Selena. "Possible Mob Link Stuns Skating." New York Times (August 2, 2002): D1.

Sandomir, Richard. "No Knee-Whacking, but It's a Ratings Spike." New York Times (February 15, 2002): D7.

Smolowe, Jill. "The slippery saga of Tonya Harding." Time 143 (February 14, 1994): 60.

"Stage fright." People 44 (September 18, 1995): 233.

. "Springtime for Tonya." Time 143 (March 28, 1994): 73.

Swift, E.M. "Not your average ice queen." Sports Illustrated 76 (January 13, 1992): 54.

. "On thin ice." Sports Illustrated 80 (January 24, 1994): 16.

. "Triple threat." Sports Illustrated 74 (February 25, 1991): 184.

"Tonya's fall earns her a 10days, that is." Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ) (August 10, 2002): 16.

Sketch by Carol Brennan