Adam Carlson
December 06, 2017 12:04 PM

Tonya Harding has made headlines for years — first for her Olympic-level figure skating and then for her connection to an assault engineered by her ex-husband and others against her rival, Nancy Kerrigan.

The real-life, weirder-than-fiction saga is returning to the spotlight with I, Tonya, opening in select theaters on Friday, with Harding herself making a surprise appearance at the Los Angeles premiere Tuesday evening.

Starring Margot Robbie as Harding, the retelling of her rise and fall will put figure skating back in the national conversation only months before the sport gets perhaps its biggest showcase, at the Winter Olympics.

Jen Lowery / Splash

“It was a dark chapter in figure skating history and this movie coming out, it definitely is bringing attention back to figure skating and that’s not a bad thing,” Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Wagner tells PEOPLE of the attack on Kerrigan in January 1994, during practice for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

A man later identified as Shane Stant struck Kerrigan in the knee with a baton after she walked off the ice. Though she was injured and briefly withdrew from competition to recuperate, Kerrigan was well enough to compete in the Olympics.

Fueled by the scandal, the Olympic figure skating competition captivated American audiences. Further reporting about Harding’s hardscrabble life — and the domestic abuse she had faced — complicated tidy assumptions about Harding as a victim or perpetrator.

“It’s a shame that it’s being brought back for ancient negativity. But at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as bad press,” Wagner says. “I think it’ll be good to have people talking about figure skating again.”

Her opinion appears to be common among the skaters hoping to make it to February’s Winter Games in South Korea.

Tonya Harding (left) and Nancy Kerrigan in February 1994
Andreas Altwein/AP
Nancy Kerrigan (center) immediately after being attacked at practice for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January 1994
INTERSPORT TELEVISION

Wagner, like other skaters who spoke about Harding and the film with PEOPLE, acknowledge the scandal’s place in the collective Olympic memory — and its power to draw people’s focus to figure skating itself.

“I think it’s a positive just to have something else shining on something we spend every minute of our lives thinking about,” says Knierim’s wife, Alexa, who competes with him in pair skating.

“It was maybe one of the biggest media, fan-grabbing moments in history,” says ice dancer Zach Donohue, who skates with Madison Hubbell.

He continues, “It’s a part of our history, and if we want the sport to continue to be noticed and to grow in the eyes of the world as a very serious sport and something we want to spread to a much more massive population of fanbase, I think it’s something that needs to be told.”

But they aren’t as unanimous in their opinions about Harding.

“I know we’ve heard little stories here and there from different coaches that were around and competing in that era,” Chris Knierim says. “But it’ll be interesting how they portray the movie.”

“It was an unfortunate series of events, but I think she’s made the most of it and she’s like the perfect example of the comeback kid,” says Mirai Nagasu. “There are so many outlooks on life and she gets up and keeps going.”

Though Harding was not charged in the attack itself — which was arranged by Gilooly, along with her bodyguard Brian Sean Griffith and his friend Derrick Smith, who drove the getaway car — she pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution of those responsible.

Tonya Harding (left) and Nancy Kerrigan in 2009 and 2017, respectively.
Donald Kravitz/Getty; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty

The four men involved, including Stant, who wielded the baton, all ultimately served prison time; Harding received a fine, probation and community service.

She finished eighth in women’s singles at the 1994 Winter Olympics, while Kerrigan, only weeks after being assaulted, took home the silver medal.

That summer, Harding was stripped of her most recent national championship title and banned for life from U.S. Figure Skating, the sport’s governing body in America, after their investigation found she “had prior knowledge [of the attack] and was involved prior to the incident.” (Harding denied this.)

“I was young [when that happened], but now I’m like, ‘Oooh all that drama with Tonya Harding,’ ” Nagasu says. “I’m really excited to see her movie, because who doesn’t want to get a look into her life?”

“I think it’ll be good to have people talking about figure skating again,” Wagner says. “And beyond that, I think it’s just about believing in what you’re actually trained to do and not taking any extra measures beyond that to do anything.”

Harding herself has repeatedly addressed her infamy in the decades since, telling Oprah in 2009 that she believes she has apologized enough.

Speaking to NBC in 2014, for a retrospective documentary, Harding reportedly said of Kerrigan: “I have apologized so many times, she is not worthy of my time anymore. I proved my innocence, yet people still think I was involved.”

Speaking to Oprah in 2009, however, she took a different tone. Asked what she would say to Kerrigan if she were there, Harding replied: “If she’d let me, I’d love to give her a hug and just tell her how proud I am of her.”

The Winter Olympics begin Feb. 8. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.   

• With reporting by JOHNNY DODD

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