I have a special soft spot for underdogs: the trod-upon, the tired, the poor huddled masses yearning to just get a break. That’s just one reason why I am madly in love with Tonya Harding.
For those who either might have been a fetus or not yet conceived then, the Tonya Harding story was one of the most sensational media events of the early 1990s. This period in American history was magical: “Wild Bill” Clinton was president, business boomed, the country felt confident. Life in the US (in what I call the “Golden Age”) was a feel-good event.
But it wasn’t all bunnies and unicorns and Smurfs. O.J. Simpson was busy doing his thing out in LA. There was another rumbling in the sports world, too. Of all things, figure skating gained in popularity. But it exploded as a spectator sport and became a huge business thanks almost entirely to a bizarre series of events centered around one particular skater, Ms. Tonya Harding.
In brief, Tonya Harding was an Olympic-caliber figure skater. She worked her way through the ranks, and became a top-notch competitor. Tonya’s closest rival was Nancy Kerrigan, an almost diametrically opposed version of Tonya. Tonya was blond, Kerrigan brunette; Tonya, shorter and more robust in build, Kerrigan slighter. These weren’t the only differences, but their dichotomy made for interesting pairings when these two women faced each other on the ice.
It was this constant comparing and contrasting of these two women in the press that made me begin to love Tonya Harding (a torch I carry to this day). As I said, I love an underdog, and Tonya was definitely that in the public eye. Kerrigan, portrayed as the delicate ice princess; Tonya described almost in lumber-jack terms. Kerrigan, supposedly the fragile little flower; Tonya, the hard-drinkin’, tough lovin’ gal from the wrong side of the trailer park. The condescension the media held for Tonya (versus their precious Kerrigan) read as if the press didn’t seem to think Tonya deserved to even share ice with Kerrigan. But Tonya carried on and kept plugging away.
And then everything fell apart for Tonya. In Detroit on January 6, 1994, Kerrigan was knee-capped by an unknown assailant (later identified as Shane Stant, hired for the purpose) while she practiced for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships (an event in which she would compete against Tonya). Although her injury was not severe it temporarily removed Kerrigan from competition. Tonya went on to great advantage in Kerrigan’s absence from the ice. Later, Tonya and Kerrigan both found spots representing the United States in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.
But before the Olympics the assault case involving Kerrigan took an odd turn. The upshot was that Tonya Harding’s husband at the time, a real piece of work named Jeff Gillooly, in tandem with a dough-boy bodyguard of Tonya’s, engineered the assault on Kerrigan. This, ostensibly, was out of Gillooly’s love for Tonya and his wish to see her succeed on the ice (more on his motives later). Tonya became a person of interest because of the suspect nature of the timing of the assault – a criminal conspiracy charge was raised, alleging Tonya had collaborated with the two men to injure Kerrigan.
She did not conspire to have Kerrigan literally “whacked”. Tonya was not convicted of conspiracy in the act – this lay solely on the heads of her husband, her bodyguard, and Shane Stant (the real attacker). Tonya did, however, learn the truth of the assault circumstances and failed to report it to authorities; this earned her a hindering prosecution and accessory conviction. The press used this to vilify her, and she seemed to become a public enemy.
Despite all this muck she still made it to the Olympics. Kerrigan was her teammate. Here’s where my undying love for Tonya Harding solidified. One cannot begin to comprehend how agonizing it must have been, and how much courage it took, for Tonya to go ahead and compete, facing Kerrigan daily on the ice, knowing the world was watching her. Most people probably could not have faced the humiliation of the circumstances, but she did it. The tension between Tonya and Kerrigan must have been incredible, and frankly I don’t know how Tonya handled it psychically. In the end, Kerrigan placed far ahead of Tonya at the 1994 Winter Olympics; Tonya at least gave it her best shot. [As a side-note, Kerrigan turned out not to be such a darling princess after all. During the awards presentation she was clearly heard on camera making a snotty comment about Oksana Bauil, the Russian girl who won the gold medal. Later, Kerrigan would also be public about her disdain for Disney, a company paying her well to appear in its ads].
After the Olympics, Kerrigan married and quietly disappeared from the public eye, apparently living well. Tonya, however, wasn’t so lucky. She was sentenced to three years’ probation and huge fines and costs. Part of her punishment for her knowledge of Kerrigan’s assault was a prohibition from ever skating competitively or coaching again for the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Tonya and Gillooly divorced, and he moved away and changed his name to Jeff Stone.
Gillooly, Stant, and the bodyguard (died in 2007) each did a small stretch in the joint for their engineering of the Kerrigan assault. All motivations behind the Kerrigan attack may never be truly known, but one element is: the bodyguard was smitten with Tonya and to impress her had concocted the Kerrigan assault. This is a similar motive John Hinckley had for shooting President Reagan in the 1980s (to gain Jodie Foster’s attention).
As for Tonya’s then-husband Jeff Gillooly, that involves a different set of motives. Gillooly didn’t have much going for him. Tonya was certainly the star and cash earner in the household. A simple and plausible motive for Gillooly’s wanting Kerrigan out of the way was to keep from losing his meal ticket. Any allegation of his “love” for Tonya by working up the assault on Kerrigan is suborned by the simple fact that Tonya’s star would rise much more quickly with her strongest competition removed. This was not done out of love but of self-interest on Gillooly’s part.
It would be interesting to know how Tonya felt about her husband’s lack of faith in her talents. It is entirely possible, through fair competition, Tonya Harding could have beaten Kerrigan on any given day. For those who were not fetuses during this time, they need to remember that (regardless of anything else) Tonya Harding was an excellent competitor and skater. She also had a charisma and star power. She was very athletic, doing triple axels at a time when women didn't do them. When she skated she dominated the rink, powerful and hard-charging. Sometimes this translated into her looking less finessed or graceful than other skaters, but she was Olympic material. And she did deserve her spot on the Olympic team. With her overwrought blue eyeshadow and handmade skating costumes she was my darling on ice. And don’t forget those wondrous thighs!
After the Kerrigan debacle Tonya lost her livelihood. She was forbidden to professionally ice skate as part of her sentencing as an accessory. What to do, what to do? She tried “professional” wrestling (an oxymoron). She fronted a rock band for one performance. She tried boxing. None of these oddball gigs worked out. Tonya was a pariah for a long time, and the public was not kind during her exile. The unfairness of not skating seems a cruel-and-unusual punishment. Skating is what the woman does – why keep her from it?
Tonya Harding is tough, tough enough to bounce back. These days, she features on a video-clip show, “World’s Dumbest…” It’s a fun, irreverent program in which a group of B-listers and former child stars sit around in the backdrop, watch video clips of people doing really stupid things, and then make biting comments. It’s pretty funny in general, and Tonya Harding is a really good sport. She comports herself with a lot of self-effacing, and she is often the butt of jokes and gibes from her cast mates.
Tonya Harding is a little thicker in the waistline these days, and maybe she can’t crack walnuts with her thighs anymore. But her ability to prevail in the face of some really horrendous publicity over the years is why I am madly in love with Tonya Harding.