February 14, 1994 12:00 PM

As a child, Tonya learned the high cost of failure

AL HARDING LEANS BACK AND CHUCKLES as he recalls one of his favorite stories about his daughter, Tonya. It was the late ’70s, and Harding, his wife, LaVona, and 7-year-old Tonya had piled into his pickup for the 15-hour drive from Portland, Ore., to Great Falls, Mont., where Tonya was to compete in a figure-skating competition. “Tonya had always wanted a fur coal like the other kids wore when they weren’t skating,” says Al, 60. “I had gone into debt to buy her a rabbit fur coal, kind of a black-and-gray color. One of the girls in the competition says to Tonya, ‘That’s a pretty coal. What is it?’ Tonya told her it was rabbit. Tonya says, ‘What’s yours?’ The little girl says, ‘Mine’s mink.’ Tonya says, ‘Well, mine’s paid for.’ The comeback was just perfect.”

If ever Harding, 23, needed another perfect comeback, it is now, as she stands accused by her former husband, Jeff Gillooly, 26, of participating in the plot to assault fellow skater and rival Nancy Kerrigan. But then, Harding’s life has always been littered with obstacles, some of her own creation. In interviews with family, friends, coaches and long-ago acquaintances, a portrait emerges of a young woman full of contradictions: sometimes charming and generous, sometimes spiteful and deceitful. By most accounts, Tonya’s life and career have been troubled from the very-beginning.

She started skating when she was 3 and within a year she showed enough talent to be referred to Portland coach Diane Rawlinson for private lessons. According to Al Harding, LaVona (now separated from fifth husband James Golden) directed the action from rinkside with hand signals as Tonya did spins and jumps to impress Rawlinson. Although Rawlinson didn’t teach skaters that young, she look the girl on.

Rawlinson had a prodigy in Tonya but frequently a problem in LaVona, a waitress, who was both Tonya’s skating-costume seamstress and her chief critic. Pat Hamil, whose daughter skated with Harding as a child, remembers LaVona slapping Tonya so hard one time that she knocked the little girl off her stool. Says Hamil: “My daughter would ask Tonya how to do things. Tonya would show her, but she’d get yelled at by her mother. She wasn’t allowed to be with other kids.”

LaVona, who denies beating Tonya, admits she challenged her daughter to skale her best. “A child sometimes wants to be corrected,” she says. ” ‘When I felt this, I gave her criticism. But sometimes she had to have praise too. So I’d say, ‘You’ll have a better day tomorrow.’ ”

What friends Tonya had she found at the rink, says her mother. The Hardings moved eight times during Tonya’s childhood. “She didn’t have any school friends to come to birthday parties, and she seldom got invited to their parties. They would beat her up and put stuff in her milk at school. They were constantly making fun of her. I guess they were plain jealous.” Money, too, was a problem. The Hardings economized by sleeping in the back of the truck on trips to competitions.

According to Al Harding, who was a factory worker and truck driver, Tonya turned to him as nurturer and pal. When she was 5, he bought her a .22 rifle. “The stock was too long,” he says, ” ‘so I took a saw and cut it off.” Al set up soda cans in the backyard for Tonya to practice on. “By the time she was 7, she could put five rounds from that .22 [in a target] the size of a penny,” he says proudly. He took her deer hunting when she was 3, and Tonya killed her first deer when she was 14. He taught her how to tune the family’s Toyota and Ford.

Friends say Al and LaVona’s divorce when their daughter was 16 was a turning point for Tonya. At first Tonya lived with Al, but when he moved to Boise soon after to take a job. she moved back with her mother and LaVona’s new husband, James Golden, 67. The mix of family members was combustive. Tonya called the police when, she said, one of her stepbrothers tried to kiss her. “Tonya is a spoiled brat,” says Golden. “She stayed for six months or a year after her dad moved. I couldn’t wait for her to get out, and she couldn’t wait to get out.”

At the same time, Tonya seemed desperate for a surrogate to replace her departed father. She found one in David Webber, who managed a restaurant at Clackamas Town Center, where Tonya skated, and whose daughter Stephanie is Tonya’s age. Webber and Tonya would talk each morning over coffee, and he would sell her sandwiches for half price. “One day,” says Webber, 52, “Tonya said, ‘If you have a daughter my age, then you could be my dad.’ It wasn’t long before she started calling me Dad.”

Unhappy at home, Tonya began seriously dating 19-year-old Jeff Gillooly and gradually withdrew from her surrogate parents. Gillooly had a VW Scirocco and his own apartment. “Tonya liked that because she couldn’t get along with her mother,” says former school friend Jenna Dumas, 23. But Dumas also saw a darker reason for Harding’s attraction to Gillooly. “He was just like her mother, abusive and critical. Tonya was so used to it. It was acceptable to her.”

Harding may have fell liberated from her mother and stepfather when she moved in with Gillooly shortly after her 18th birthday. Instead, she found another stormy relationship. They married in 1990, and over the course of their 3½-year marriage, the two separated at least twice. Two times, Harding was granted restraining orders against her husband, and she accused him of stealing her car. Mike Pliska, 26, a graduate student in physics whom Harding dated during her first separation from Gillooly in 1991, recalls a “hysterical” Harding phoning him once and reporting that Gillooly had threatened to break her legs and end her career. “She was screaming and crying,” says Pliska. “She was very-distraught.”

Gillooly seemed to want to control Tonya totally. “He was very jealous of our relationship,” says Dody Teaehman, who coached Harding from 1988 to 1992. “I had influence over Tonya. He wanted her to look to him.” Gillooly also resented Tonya’s stardom. When a local photographer tried to take her picture as she left for the 1992 Olympics in France, Gillooly grabbed her and threw his coat over her head. Says David Webber’s wife, Ruth: “He just squashed that. He wouldn’t allow it.”

Harding, of course, has a blemished reputation herself. On Jan. 27 she admitted lying when she said she had no knowledge that people close to her were involved in the assault on Kerrigan, and even those who know her well say she has often lied in the past. “She’d say that skating was her life and that she never partied at all,” says Pliska. “From her friends, I heard a much different story.”

One of those stories comes from Dumas, who used to go with Harding to a cruising hangout for high school kids. Dumas, now estranged from the skater, recalls an incident in which Harding made up an alibi for staying out all night with a young man. Dumas recalls that Tonya told her father she had been kidnapped. When Al mentioned the kidnapping, says Dumas, “Tonya stood there winking at me.”

Yet even as Harding’s reputation has suffered, and as pressure mounted last week to remove her from the Olympic team, she has found sources of support. Crowds wearing WE BELIEVE IN TONYA buttons swelled to 4,000 outside her practice rink. And Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, announced he would donate $25,000 to help the skater defend her right to a place on the learn. “If she wins and is guilty, you can lake her medals away,” Knight said, “but if in fact she is innocent and doesn’t get to skate, you can never repair that damage, ever.”

David Webber agrees. “If people just give her a chance and don’t be prejudiced, she’ll skate better than she ever did in her life,” he says. “The pressure at the Olympics is nothing compared to the pressure she’s going through now.”


VICKIE BANE and BILL DONAHUE in Portland and JANE SUGDEN in New York City

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