Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, 20 Years After 'The Whack Heard Round the World'
On Jan. 6, 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was hit in the leg by a baton-wielding attacker – what happened next was skating's biggest scandal
In the carefree, pre-O.J.-trial era, it looked like it was going to be the ultimate tabloid scandal of the ’90s: On Jan. 6, 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was hit in the leg by a baton-wielding attacker hired by the ex-husband of rival skater Tonya Harding shortly before figure skating’s National Championships, the winners of which would go on to the Lillehammer Olympics.
The assault was catnip for the media, and despite their similar backgrounds, Kerrigan and Harding were perfectly cast for their respective roles. Kerrigan, the innocent victim, triumphing over adversity; Harding the scheming, white-trash cheater.
When both women competed against each other in the 1994 Winter Olympics a few weeks after the attack, the country was spellbound, and the women’s skating competition became one of the most-watched programs in American history. (Kerrigan, her leg healed, won the silver medal; Harding placed eighth.) But 20 years later, what’s become of America’s most infamous figure skaters?
In 1994, Kerrigan was widely assumed to be the person to fill Kristi Yamaguchi‘s vacant place atop the U.S. women’s skating hierarchy. Though the baton attack left her unable to compete in the Nationals competition, Kerrigan’s teammates voted to send her to the Olympics instead of second-place finisher Michelle Kwan.
In Lillehammer Kerrigan performed a nearly flawless routine, finishing a fraction of a point behind Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul. But though the attack had made Kerrigan America’s sweetheart, the media quickly turned on the silver-medalist, asking whether she was "Snow White or Grumpy." (A hot-mike gaffe at Disney World didn’t help matters.)
Later that year, Kerrigan retired from competition and turned pro, appearing in a variety of ice shows, and making a cameo in the Will Ferrell ice-skating vehicle Blades of Glory. In 1995 she married her agent, with whom she has three children. She refuses to speak to Harding to this day.
The self-described "Charles Barkley on ice" seemed to be on the downslope of her career before the 1994 Nationals. Harding had been the first American woman to land a triple-axel in 1991, but at the 1992 Olympics she lost the move, and gained in turn a reputation for erratic behavior. As The Believer notes, Harding only seemed to skate well when Kerrigan wasn’t around.
Following the attack Harding absolutely nailed her Nationals routine, winning gold and guaranteeing an Olympics slot. It was the last high point of her skating career.
In the days following the assault on Kerrigan, suspicion turned to Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, and soon to Harding herself. Though she maintained she only knew of the attack after it occurred, and didn’t report the crime because she feared what Gillooly would do to her, the taint of scandal was irretrievably affixed to Harding. At Lillehammer, she went from villain to punchline thanks to a broken bootlace. After the Olympics, it got worse: Harding was stripped of her National Championship and barred from competitive skating.
Unable to compete in the sport she’d given her life to, Harding began a succession of odd jobs. She released a sex tape with Gillooly and faced off against Paula Jones for Fox’s Celebrity Boxing. She became a talking head for a truTV show about dumb criminals and wrote a book in which she accused Gillooly of raping her at gunpoint. She now lives with her husband and toddler son in rural Oregon. According to USA Today, she works intermittently as a woodworker.
“She was the best figure skater that ever lived,” Gillooly, his name now Jeff Stone, told Deadspin in December. “We decided to do something really stupid there, and it ruined her.”
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