The True Life Story Behind I, Tonya: Inside the Figure Skating Scandal That Shocked the World
The scandal surrounding Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan is being immortalized in I, Tonya
It was the sports scandal that rocked the world.
Authorities soon determined that Harding was involved and that her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, had allegedly hired the attacker. For the media, the narrative was perfect: Kerrigan was the pretty, poised, innocent victim. Harding was the rough-around-the-edges assailant from the wrong side of the tracks.
Almost 24 years later, Margot Robbie is immortalizing the infamous skater in the highly anticipated I, Tonya — a biopic that offers a surprisingly sympathetic view at Harding’s life before, during and after the shocking event.
The Lead Up
Ahead of the 1994 attack, the rivalry between Kerrigan and Harding was gaining steam. The two competed in the 1992 Olympic Games in the Albertville, France where Kerrigan took the bronze medal just one step ahead of Harding, who came in 4th.
Harding was the favorite before the 1992 games after she made history by becoming the first American woman to land the triple axel in competition during Fall 1991. She was never able to perform it in competition again after that year.
Kerrigan, on the other hand, became America’s Sweetheart after the 1992 games and went on to the sponsorship deals and public acclaim that eluded Harding. The two competed against each other leading up to the 1994 games as they vied for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
Less than two months before the games, Kerrigan was attacked at an Olympic practice session in Detroit as the cameras rolled. It was later found out that the assailant, Shane Stant, had been hired by Harding’s ex-husband Gillooly and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, though Harding denied knowing him in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the attack.
The attacker meant to break Kerrigan’s right leg to keep her out of the competition, but merely bruised it. Despite her injury, Kerrigan famously went on to compete in the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where she nabbed the silver medal while Harding came in 8th after having trouble with her laces.
Following the attack, the media speculation surrounded Harding and Gillooly and they both eventually blamed each other in interviews to the FBI. Gillooly accepted a plea bargain in exchange for his testimony against Harding and spent 6 months in prison. Stant, Eckhardt, and getaway car driver Derrick Smith all served time in prison for the attack as well.
Harding long disputed her involvement, but was eventually convicted of hindering the investigation into the incident. She received three years probation, 500 hours of community service, and a $160,000 fine — and was ultimately banned from the U.S. Figure Skating Association for life.
Kerrigan was later inducted in the Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2004, and has even served as a special correspondent during several Olympics. Now 47, the former skater has recently returned to the spotlight, competing on season 24 of Dancing with the Stars. The married mom of three – who danced alongside Artem Chigvintsev – made it to week seven in the popular television competition.
Gillooly changed his name to Jeff Stone and receded from the spotlight, though I, Tonya screenwriter Steven Rogers told PEOPLE he agreed to be interviewed for the first time since the incident for the movie. Eckardt, who later changed his name to Brian Sean Griffith, died in 2007 from natural causes at the age of 40.
For Harding, life post-scandal proved difficult. According to a 2008 PEOPLE profile, Harding was arrested twice, once for a DUI, and once attempted suicide. But in 2010, Harding wed Joseph Jens Price. The couple welcomed a son the next year, and Rogers says Harding lights up whenever he’s mentioned.
Harding is now getting ready to be back in the spotlight and surprised fans — and even Robbie herself — when she attended the Los Angeles premiere of the film on Tuesday. The former skater was seen wiping away tears as she posed with Robbie on the red carpet.
And although Harding continually denies her involvement in the scandal, she has remorse about the Kerrigan scandal. “Of course I feel guilty for what happened,” she said in the 2008 profile, “But I can’t dwell. I have to go on living.”