True Story of I, Tonya – The Rise and Fall of Tonya Harding
In early January 1994, one of the best female figure skaters in the United States was brutally attacked after practice while training for the Olympics. The accused? Her bitter rival and fellow American skater, Tonya Harding. Set for release in February, the scandal has been recently depicted in Craig Gillespie’s film, I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie as the bad girl of ice skating.
But what really happened to Nancy Kerrigan? Was Tonya Harding involved at all? And how were their career’s affected by the scandal? We discuss all and more in the True Story of I, Tonya – The Rise and Fall of Tonya Harding.
Tonya Harding was raised in Portland, Oregon and began skating at the age of three. Though Harding herself describes her childhood as ‘troubled’ – with Harding mother, LaVona Golden, accused of mental and physical abuse – Harding quickly became one of the most promising figure skaters in the country.
By the age of 16, Harding had placed 6th at the 1986 US Figure Skating Championships, and she continued in an upwards trajectory placing 5th in 1987, and 3rd in 1989. By 1991, Harding was one considered the best ice skaters in the United States when she landed her first triple axel at the US Championships and won the title with the event’s first 6.0 ever given to a single female skater for technical merit.
The next month, Harding became the first American woman to complete a triple axel in an international event at the World Figure Skating Championships in Munich. That same year at the Fall 1991 Skate America, she become the first woman to complete a triple axel in the short program, the first woman to execute two triple axels in a single competition, and the first woman ever to execute a triple axel combined with a double toe loop.
But despite her undoubted talent, Tonya Harding had gained a reputation for being tough and prickly, often receiving lower scores for her perceived lack of grace on the ice rink.
Nancy Kerrigan first reached ice skating prominence in 1987 when she finished 4th at junior level at the US Figure Skating Championships. By 1991, Kerrigan had begun to find success at senior level, placing 3rd at the 1991 US Championships behind Harding who won Gold.
At 1991 World Figure Skating Championships, Kerrigan won the Bronze medal, finishing behind teammate Kristi Yamaguchi and Harding won Gold and Silver, respectively. It was the first-ever clean sweep of the women’s medals by a single country at the World Championships.
Yamaguchi retired from competition in 1992, leaving Kerrigan and Harding as the two best skaters in the country. Both ladies were making big names for themselves, but a bitter rivalry was beginning to fester. Harding was considered the slightly better skater, but Kerrigan had the far more coverage and sponsorship deals thanks to her perceived warmer persona.
The Attack on Nancy Kerrigan
By 1994, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan had shared titles and victories, with both heading into the year hopeful of success at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
On 6th January 1994, Kerrigan and Harding were practicing at the Cobo Arena in Detroit for the US Figure Skating Championships, which were set to begin the next day and would decide who automatically qualified for the Olympic Games the next month. Having just finished a practice session, Kerrigan was walking off the ice when she was struck in the right knee with a baton by an unknown assailant.
A video of the immediate aftermath was recorded by a local news station:
The assailant fled the scene. It was later discovered that Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, had paid a man called Shane Stant to carry out the attack.
1994 Winter Olympics
Though the attack had clearly meant to injure Kerrigan, her leg was not broken. She did, however, suffer a bruised bone and the injury kept Kerrigan from competing in the National Championships the next day, which Tonya Harding won, guaranteeing her a spot on the Olympic team.
After the win, Harding stated, “I’m really happy, but it won’t be a true crown until I get my chance with Nancy, and that’ll be Olympics and let me tell ya, I’m gonna whip her butt.”
Suspecting she was in on the attack, the US Olympic Committee attempted to disqualify Harding from competing in Lillehammer but backed down when Harding filed a $25 million lawsuit.
Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were both selected for the 1994 Olympic team, set to take place just weeks after the attack. Kerrigan’s leg had fully recovered from the attack and she took the Silver medal controversially behind Ukrainian Oksana Baiul. Harding finished in 8th place, having to stop halfway through her routine to plead with the judges to allow her to fix a skate lace that had come loose.
Before Harding and Kerrigan competed in the 1994 Winter Olympics, Gillooly, Eckhardt, Stant getaway car driver Derrick Smith were arrested and sentenced. In March 1994, Harding was also charged but avoided prosecution and a possible jail sentence by pleading guilty on conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers. She received probation, 500 hours of community service, and a $160,000 fine. All men involved claim Harding knew about the attack before it was carried out.
Following her arrest, Harding was forced to resign from the United States Figure Skating Association and withdraw from the 1994 World Championships. She was banned from figure skating, including coaching, and was later stripped of her 1994 US Championship.
Kerrigan retired from active competition later in 1994 but still continued to skate in various capacities. In 2006, she participated on Skating With Celebrities, and was even in Blades of Glory with Will Ferrell. She also competed on Dancing With the Stars – the US version of Strictly Come Dancing.
To this day, Tonya Harding claims no prior knowledge of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.
I, Tonya (2017)
In March 2016, it was announced that Margot Robbie had been cast as Tonya Harding for an upcoming biopic on Harding’s life and the attack of Nancy Kerrigan. Craig Gillespie, best known for helming Lars and the Real Girl, was announced as the film’s director with the movie focusing on her fractured and dysfunctional relationship with her mother as well as the attack.
Allison Janney plays LaVona Golden, Harding’s mother, while Sebastian Stan plays Jeff Gillooly, her assailant boyfriend. Caitlin Carver is cast as Nancy Kerrigan. The film has been praised for its humour and storytelling, while Margot Robbie and Allison Janney have been nominated for Leading Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively, at the 2018 BAFTA Film Awards.
I, Tonya is set for release in the UK on 23rd February 2018.
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