Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, once teammates on the U.S. Olympic team, look back 20 years later at the attack that rocked the sequined world of women's figure skating
The two women couldn't be living more different lives, except for their mutual disdain for what became known as "The Whack Heard 'Round The World."
Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, former U.S. Olympic teammates whose names are linked forever in one of the most bizarre dramas in the history of sport, don't like to recall the saga that started Jan. 6, 1994, when Kerrigan was attacked on the knee in a bumbling plot concocted by Harding's live-in ex-husband and a few of his friends.
Over the next seven weeks, a surreal story of jealousy, vengeance and deceit played out in the sequined world of women's figure skating, leading the network news and captivating the nation as the conspiracy was revealed.
It's an unforgettable tale sure to be revisited endlessly over the next two months, with the U.S. figure skating nationals in Boston next week leading to the Winter Olympic Games next month in Sochi, Russia.
"I really don't look back unless someone asks me to look back, and then I have to," Kerrigan, who won two Olympic figure skating medals, told USA TODAY Sports in a recent telephone interview. "Otherwise, why would I? I was attacked."
"It was 20 years ago and I don't remember lots and lots of it," Harding said in a phone interview this week. "I know it was a horrible time for everyone involved. It was a bad streak, going through all the crud, and I was able to rise above it. I think Nancy and I have good lives now."
Harding's knowledge of how Kerrigan is doing is not based on a mended relationship. Asked if she has seen or spoken with Harding, Kerrigan says, "Never. No. For what?"
At first, the attack was horrible. It eventually turned ridiculous, in large part because of Harding's histrionics, building to a stunning crescendo at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, leaving us with the world's most famous bruised knee and the sixth-highest rated television show in U.S. history.
Nearly half the nation — 48.5% of U.S. households — watched the women's short program Feb. 23, 1994, featuring both Tonya and Nancy, an event that had occurred hours earlier. The huge audience tuned in even though most fans already knew the results from listening live on the radio (yes, there was a live national radio broadcast of figure skating that day) or watching the 6 o'clock news.
Only the last episode of M*A*S*H, Dallas' "Who shot J.R.?", an episode of Roots and two Super Bowls had higher ratings.
Figure skating hasn't been the same since. For several years, the sport boomed in the wake of the monumental Olympic TV ratings, with tours crisscrossing the continent and made-for-TV competitions and specials airing practically every weekend. Then came the inevitable bust: ratings and interest have sunk so low that last year's world championships were not televised live on an easily accessible U. S. network.
Tonya-Nancy was a soap opera unlike any the nation had seen to that point, coming five months before the O.J. Simpson story and years ahead of reality TV. But it also was a sports event: Kerrigan recovered to win the 1994 Olympic silver medal while Harding's skate lace broke in a series of misadventures leading to a disappointing, but not surprising, eighth-place finish.
Now in their 40s, both women are married with children and have moved on in predictably different ways. Kerrigan lives in Boston with her three children and her husband, agent Jerry Solomon. She has built a successful life of endorsements, corporate appearances and skating shows. But her life centers on her family: nearly daily visits to her mother's nearby home, and her kids. She put down a book she was reading to her children on a recent family car trip to New York to talk for this column.
Harding, who is married with a nearly 3-year-old son, lives in rural central Oregon, where she joins her husband on his occasional woodworking jobs.
"It's hard times for everybody money-wise until this economy turns around, at least for normal people," she said.
All these years later, Tonya is still Tonya. Two decades ago, journalists covering the story guessed she would have a life of upheaval, and, sad to say, it came to pass. Over the years, Tonya tried boxing and acting, was booed off the stage in her native Portland when she started a singing group called the Golden Blades, claimed to be stalked by professional golfers and was kidnapped for a few hours by a bushy-haired man.
A few years ago, she had a job as a celebrity commentator for truTV.
"I commentate on the dumbest criminals," she told me in 2010. "You won't believe the dumb things people do."
I restrained myself from saying I might.
Four years later, she is trying to stay completely out of the limelight, reachable only through friends. Her son will turn 3 in February. "I just love being a mom," Harding, 43, said this week. She gives out his first name, then asks that it not be published.
"There are so many crazy people out there. You never know what people will do."
Kerrigan, 44, avoids recounting her ordeal for obvious reasons. It was she whose life was turned upside down. It was she who had to miss the national championships and rehabilitate her knee in time for the Olympics, where she missed the gold by one-tenth of a point on one judge's scorecard.
Ironically, growing up, the two skaters were more alike than they were dissimilar. Living on different sides of the country, each came from decidedly blue-collar backgrounds. Kerrigan was a welder's daughter, a feisty Boston tomboy who played hockey with her brothers.
When she was attacked, and news reporters and camera crews who had never spent a minute around figure skating began following her every move, more than a few depicted Kerrigan as a well-to-do ice queen. She was nothing of the sort.
Then, when she wasn't what they had built her up to be, never hesitating to speak her mind in the vortex of the scandal, they criticized her for that.
"I didn't ask for the special podium people put me on," she said. "I was put in the spotlight, and people looked at everything I did. I didn't ask for that, any of that."
Kerrigan has avoided controversy save a tragedy in 2010, when her 70-year-old father, Dan, suffered a heart attack and died shortly after an altercation with her brother, Mark. The family maintained Mark was not at fault, but in June 2011 he was convicted of assault and battery in connection with the death and sent to prison. He was released in 2012.
'Humorous at times'
What many don't know, or have forgotten over the years, is that Kerrigan and Harding represented the USA for several years together at competitions around the world before 1994. They were teammates even if they weren't friends, although Kerrigan always said she tried to invite Harding to team dinners in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Harding, mostly a loner, almost always declined.
So when Kerrigan was attacked at the U.S. Olympic trials in Detroit and rumors started swirling almost immediately that Harding could be involved, Kerrigan dismissed them.
"I think some people were saying (Tonya's name) before we left nationals," Kerrigan recalled. "I was like, 'Come on, that's ridiculous.' Then when we started to hear that it was in fact true, it was hard to put it in my brain. It was absurd and crazy, and I didn't get it. Why would someone do that? What did I do to her? Nothing."
PHOTOS: LOOKING BACK AT THE HARDING/KERRIGAN SCANDAL
Harding maintained she didn't know what former husband Jeff Gillooly and his friends were planning, not that anyone really believed her. She ultimately pleaded guilty to a felony of hindering the prosecution, paid $160,000 in fines and completed more than 400 hours of community service. She was stripped of the 1994 national title she won after Kerrigan couldn't compete and was kicked out of the sport.
While others have looked at the incident as more farce than fact, Kerrigan of course hasn't seen the humor in it. Except once.
"When we read the transcripts of the 10 hours of depositions they gave, you did have to laugh," she said. "It was definitely humorous at times. They came to Boston (to attempt the attack there) and forgot their IDs and money so they couldn't really get anywhere. You laugh in thankfulness that they were not as good at being bad guys as they had wanted to be. It all sounds ridiculous, which does make you laugh."
Through it all, they still have skating. Kerrigan and her children enjoy being on the ice and have even appeared on a televised skating special. Harding sometimes takes her nieces skating. But not her little son yet.
"He does love to jump around the house, so I guess he gets that from me," she said. "We haven't gone skating. Perhaps someday."