The True Life Story Behind 'I, Tonya' : Inside the Figure Skating Scandal That Shocked the World

The scandal surrounding Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan was immortalized in I, Tonya (2017)

It was the sports scandal that rocked the world.

Seven weeks before the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, Tonya Harding's skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was clubbed on the knee by an assailant.

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.

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan on the ice.
Andreas Altwein/AP

Decades later, Margot Robbie immortalized the infamous skater in I, Tonya — a 2017 biopic that offers a surprisingly sympathetic view of Harding's life before, during and after the shocking event.

Margot Robbie in "I, Tonya" and the real Tonya Harding.
Neon; Focus on Sport/Getty

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 Albertville, France, where Kerrigan took the bronze medal just one step ahead of Harding, who came in fourth place.

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.

Kerrigan moments after she had been attacked in 1994.
Kerrigan moments after she had been attacked in 1994. INTERSPORT TELEVISION

The Attack

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 series episode 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 eighth place after having trouble with her laces.

Following the attack, media speculation surrounded Harding and Gillooly, and they eventually blamed each other in interviews with the FBI. Gillooly accepted a plea bargain in exchange for his testimony against Harding and spent six months in prison. Stant, Eckhardt and getaway car driver Derrick Smith also served time in prison for the attack.

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.

The Aftermath

Kerrigan was later inducted into the Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2004 and served as a special correspondent during several Olympics. The former skater 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 for an attempted suicide. But in 2010, Harding wed Joseph Jens Price. The couple welcomed a son the following year, and Rogers said Harding lights up whenever he's mentioned.

Premiere Of Neon's "I, Tonya" - Red Carpet with Tonya Harding next to Margot Robbie.
Rich Fury/Getty

Harding surprised fans — and even Robbie herself — when she attended the Los Angeles film premiere of I, Tonya. The former skater was seen wiping away tears as she posed with Robbie on the red carpet.

Like Kerrigan, Harding also competed on Dancing with the Stars. Appearing in season 26, a four-week event in 2018 that featured only athletes, Harding was paired with pro dancer Sasha Farber and placed third overall.

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."

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