Nightmare on Ice: How Tonya Harding Became the Forever-Villain to Nancy Kerrigan's Olympic Hero in One Whirlwind Month of Madness

With I, Tonya looking to re-humanize the stranger-than-fiction headlines that preceded the 1994 Winter Olympics, here's what happened to earn Harding her place in pop culture infamy

By Natalie Finn Oct 21, 2017 1:00 PMTags

In the end, Oksana Baiul won Olympic gold in women's figure skating at the 1994 Winter Olympics, and Nancy Kerrigan settled for silver.

But considering the road Kerrigan took to get to the Games in Lillehamer, Norway, second place may have never felt so much like a victory.

On Jan. 6, 1994, just over a month before the Olympics were set to begin, Kerrigan was on her way to her dressing room at what is now the Cobo Center in Detroit when an assailant came up behind her and thwacked her multiple times around her right knee with what looked like a crowbar or tire iron. The person, whom a witness said appeared to be wearing a credential that would have allowed him to move around the venue freely, then smashed a plexiglass door and fled.

Kerrigan fell to the ground, holding her knee and crying. Her father, Daniel Kerrigan, picked her up and carried her into the dressing room, where she was examined and then taken to a nearby hospital for X-rays.

Miraculously, Kerrigan, who was supposed to skate later that day in the first round of the ladies' solo competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, suffered only cuts and bruises. 

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"It's not the most important thing, skating. If I can't, I'll have to deal with it," Kerrigan told ABC News at the time. "I won't lose faith in people. That's just one bad guy. I'm sure there are others because it's happened in other sports."

"It" being sabotage.

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Tensions had already been high in the sporting world.

The attack came less than a year after American tennis star Monica Seles was stabbed on the court, in front of an audience, by a fan of Steffi Graf's during a tournament in Graf's native Germany. In 1992, a California man had been sentenced to prison time for sending threatening letters to German figure skater Katarina Witt. And figure skater Tonya Harding, a native of Portland, Ore., had pulled out of a tournament in her hometown in November 1993 after, she said, an anonymous caller had threatened to put "a bullet in [her] back" if she competed, after which she hired extra security to protect her at home.

"She's really trying to be optimistic and be strong, but, initially, she was terrified," Kerrigan's coach, Evy Scotvold, told reporters. "She has to realize she is a visible person and that for the rest of her visible life she needs protection."

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Kerrigan, who had won bronze at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, was the defending U.S. champion but had only finished fifth at the World Championships. When she left the hospital limping, the U.S. Figure Skating Association convened a meeting to determine whether a spot on the Olympic team should be reserved for Kerrigan if she didn't compete for the 1994 national title.

Asked if she would mind Kerrigan automatically getting one of the two spots available, Tonya Harding told reporters, "It's not my decision to make. If they decided not to take me, I'd accept that." 

AP Photo/Lennox McLendon

Her knee swollen and sore, Kerrigan did end up withdrawing from the national championship. Harding went on to win the U.S. title on Jan. 8.

A week later, three men had been arrested in connection with the attack on Kerrigan, including Harding's bodyguard Shawn Eric Eckardt—who alleged right away that Harding was involved in the planning and subsequent cover-up of the attack. Meanwhile, the ultimately inept attack hadn't served its purpose, which seemingly was to sideline Kerrigan indefinitely. Instead, the 24-year-old skater joined Harding, 23, on the Olympic team.

"It's a rather monstrous thing to be involved with—the serious injury of a pretty young woman with a promising career," Eckardt's lawyer, Mark McKnight, told reporters on Jan. 14, 1994, after his client had posted bail. "He is certainly taking responsibility for his role in this." Harding's attorney, Robert Weaver, said his client was a victim of a "torrent of innuendo and suspicion" and was "physically exhausted" by the accusations.

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The two other men arrested were Derrick B. Smith and his nephew Shane Stant, both of Arizona; Smith was accused of hiring Stant, under Eckhardt's direction, to attack Kerrigan.

"I can't understand any explanation of why something like this would occur. I don't think I could ever understand the answer, because I can't think that viciously," Kerrigan told reporters in a news conference outside her parents' Massachusetts home, her first time speaking out after her case had taken a most unforeseen twist. Asked about the prospects of going to the Olympics with Harding, she said, "I have nothing to say about her."

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Harding's former agent Michael Rosenberg expressed disbelief to the Washington Post that the skater could be involved in any way. That being said, "if Tonya surfaces, has a press conference and...apologizes to Nancy, I think then the American people would basically take her back," he added.

But already Tonya Harding was being painted as the classless wannabe to Kerrigan's dignified champion, a bad girl who couldn't seem to stay out of trouble, who had filed two restraining orders against ex-husband Jeff Gillooly while they were married (in 1991, per a police report obtained by Sports Illustrated, Gillooly threatened to break her legs and end her skating career) and had her own run-ins with the law. Back in Oregon after the national championships, she and Gillooly—the pair having reconciled and moved back in together—had reporters and cameramen on their tail whenever they ventured to leave their house in Clackamas.

AP Photo/Shane Young

And then, on Jan. 19, Gillooly was arrested on suspicion of being involved with planning the attack. Court documents stated that Eckardt had told investigators that Gillooly implicated Harding in the "scheme to injure Miss Kerrigan," saying she had twice called a skating rink in Massachusetts to inquire about Kerrigan's practice schedule. The alleged plan unfolded as such, per information provided by Eckardt, Smith and Stant and compiled in court documents: The four men who'd been arrested met at Eckhardt's parents' home in Portland in December 1993 to plan the attack—which Gillooly said should target Kerrigan's "landing leg." Smith and Stant were going to be paid $6,500 to attack Kerrigan in Cape Cod but they didn't get a chance, so they went to Detroit. On Dec. 27, Gillooly gave Eckardt $2,000 in cash, which Eckardt gave to Smith. Eckardt then wired $750 to Smith on Jan. 4. Smith got another $1,300 from Gillooly via Eckardt on Jan. 6.

It turned out the weapon was a collapsible metal police baton. Stant admitted to committing the attack, while Smith drove the getaway vehicle.

"My skating is my life, and that's the only place I'm getting enjoyment at all," Harding told reporters after a practice session one morning. "My life is on the ice. My life out of skating I don't think I will see it for a while."

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After denying multiple times that she was involved in the attack in any way, calling the idea "ludicrous" in one interview, on Jan. 27, 1994, Tonya Harding tearfully admitted to learning the details of the attack after it occurred, after which she did not report what she found out to authorities. "Many of you will be unable to forgive me for that," she said. "It will be difficult to forgive myself. I know I have let you down, but I have also let myself down. Despite my mistakes and rough edges, I have done nothing to violate the standards of excellence, of sportsmanship, that are expected in an Olympic athlete."

That didn't seem like enough of a confession for some people who assumed she was, if not the ringleader, then definitely more involved in the attack than she let on. Still others, particularly in her native Oregon, rallied behind the overnight tabloid queen, reminding the interlopers from the national (and international) news media that their hometown daughter was innocent until proven guilty. Yet even her supporters, including the people wearing "We Believe in Tonya Buttons" who got up early to watch her skate in the morning, attributed whatever happened—guilty or innocent—to Harding's abusive, impoverished upbringing and other factors that could've contributed to any bad decision-making on her part.

Still others complained about the glut of reporters jamming up their town and how the Harding-Kerrigan saga was stealing attention away from real news.

Throughout, Harding remained on the Olympic team, while U.S. Olympic Committee officials not-so-secretly hoped she would drop out on her own.

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At the same time, across the country in Massachusetts, Kerrigan's agent was fielding dozens of offers for the rights to his client's life story, and fans packed the sidelines to watch her practice sessions as she gracefully bounced back from the attack. She signed a $1 million deal with Disney. Unlike Harding, she grew up in wholesome Stoneham, Mass., and had a picture perfect family: Her father, Daniel, was a welder; mom Brenda was legally blind but diligently kept up with her daughter's career; her older brothers Michael and Mark had grown up playing hockey and were a couple of all-American boys.

AP Photo/Kevin Wisniewski

All the while, reports swirled that Gillooly, who had denied wrongdoing, was ready to tell all—and that included implicating Harding in some way. All of this, and the start of the 1994 Winter Olympics was just over two weeks away. Other athletes were supposedly preparing for it, but no story was bigger than Harding and Kerrigan heading into the international sporting extravaganza.

In a whirlwind of activity that spanned the first half of February, after Gillooly cut a deal and pleaded guilty to racketeering and then Harding admitted to knowing about the attack after the fact, USOC attempted to suspend her from the team, resulting in her filing a $25 million lawsuit. The day after the Olympics opening ceremony in Lillehammer, Harding was reinstated and she dropped her complaint.


"The USOC has the right and obligation to oversee and discipline certain conduct of its Olympic athletes. Tonya Harding has the right to a fair and impartial hearing regarding claimed ethical violations and the right to prepare adequately for same," wrote the Oregon judge who signed the order that allowed Harding to compete. However, the assault on Kerrigan was "not only an attack on the athlete, but an assault on the basic ideals of the Olympic movement and sportsmanship. The attack was designed to cripple her, alter the competition, and could have ended her career. We remain concerned about this incident."

"I finally get to prove to the world I can win a gold medal," Harding, who remained under investigation in Portland and by the United Stated Figure Skating Association but hadn't been charged with any crime, told reporters.

Kerrigan said at a press conference, "It seems now that for the moment, and as it relates to the Olympic competition, the matter has been resolved. Regardless of my opinion on the ruling, the Olympics have begun, and it is time to skate.''

She and Harding declined the option of practicing at different rinks and they were housed in the same building at the athletes' village.

Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

And so the 1994 Winter Olympics progressed, with women's individual figure skating—always a banner event at the Games—not set to begin until Feb. 23.

Medals were handed out, anthems were played and then, finally, all eyes turned to the de facto "main event."

Kerrigan, wearing crisp black and white and skating to a specially composed instrumental called "Desperate Love," was perched atop the field in first place after the short technical program, while Harding ended up in 10th place. 

Two days later, Feb. 25, 1994, Harding suffered a bizarre meltdown in the free skate, dissolving into tears and stopping mid-routine to tell the judges that the laces on her skates were too short, the ties being a last-minute replacement after her original laces snapped in practice. She was allowed to start over, and ended up placing seventh in the free skate and eighth overall, an anticlimactic ending to her fraught Olympics journey.

Kerrigan, wearing a sparkling costume by Vera Wang, started off nervously. She pulled back on her opening triple flip and only pulled off a double, but she quickly found her footing and turned in a championship-caliber performance.

"A true test of courage that she passed with flying colors," one of the TV commentators said as she raised her arms in triumph, beaming at the applause.

At the end of the night, however, it was Ukraine's Oksana Baiul—second to Nancy coming into the free skate—who narrowly landed atop the leader board, sobbing with joyful disbelief.

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"I'm excited with how I did," the perennially smiling Kerrigan, back in jeans and a cozy winter sweater, told CBS Sports' Pat O'Brien in a rink-side interview afterward. "I can't have any disappointment, that part's up to judges and I skated great—considering where I was a month and a half ago, it's unbelievable."

Asked how she was able to clear her mind of everything and focus, she shrugged and said she believed in herself. "I knew I was capable of doing the job that I did out there, so it wasn't that hard," Kerrigan said.

O'Brien asked if Harding stopping her program was a distraction to her or others, Kerrigan said, "From the reaction I watched, it was just like, 'Again?'" She giggled. "It just happens every time, you know? Something."

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With the 1994 Winter Olympics officially behind Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, so began the aftermath of everything leading up to their last meeting on a competitive stage.

Kerrigan was the belle of the ball back in the States, hosting Saturday Night Live, going to Disney World, signing a book deal, making countless TV appearances and. And of course there was a TV movie, Tonya & Nancy: The Inside Story. Kerrigan married her agent Jerry Solomon in 1995 and they welcomed the first of their three children together in 1996.

Harding, while also a household name, had a different sort of onslaughtto deal with when she returned home. On Feb. 1, Gillooly had agreed to accept two years in prison and a $100,000 fine in the deal he struck with prosecutors in return for his help in convicting Smith, Stant and Eckardt in the conspiracy to attack Kerrigan. Harding had broken up with him again on Jan. 18, when she was questioned by the FBI after he implicated her in the lead-up to the attack.

A week after arriving back in Oregon, Harding reported being attacked while walking through a Beaverton park to a friend's apartment complex. The assailant pushed her from behind and grabbed her, she said, leaving her with bruises and a sprained wrist.

"I'm feeling OK," Harding told the reporters waiting for her outside the building. "Can't you guys get a life or something?"

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On March 16, the day before she was supposed to leave for the World Figure Skating Championships in Japan, Harding pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution, a felony, and agreed to retire from amateur figure skating, meaning her time with the USFSA was over. She was sentenced to three years' probation and 500 hours of community service and fined $100,000. The plea came as a complete surprise, not only because the grand jury hadn't come back with any final charges yet, but also because she had been practicing at a local rink just hours before appearing in court.

At the end of June, she was stripped of her national title and the USFSA banned her for life. She maintained that she knew nothing about the attack prior to it taking place. Her legal team stated that Gillooly's claims fed into his pattern of abusive behavior toward his ex-wife.

Eckardt, who like Gillooly had fingered Harding as a conspirator, ended up pleading guilty to racketeering, while Smith and Stant pleaded to conspiracy to commit second-degree assault; each one was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Gillooly was sentenced in July 1994 to two years in prison, ignoring the prosecution's request to cut it to one year because of his cooperation. "You are a prime example of how ruthless ambition and raw greed can disrupt, degrade and disfigure a sport of grace even to the height of the Olympics," Circuit Judge Donald Londer told Gillooly, who issued an apology to Kerrigan.

The judge said, "All that will be recalled is a band of thugs from Portland, Ore., tried to rig the national figure skating association championships and the Olympics by stealth and violence."

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Persona non grata on the professional skating circuit as well, Harding would go on to try her hand at acting, music, wrestling and boxing, all short-lived endeavors. She and Gillooly sold a sex tape they had made to Penthouse for a reported $200,000 apiece. 

Harding would remain a celebrity, however, for all the wrong reasons, forever the villain in Nancy Kerrigan's Cinderella story. And though she may indeed have gotten a raw deal from the media, stereotyped and categorized from day one when pitted against Kerrigan's wholesome image, Harding continued to perpetuate her own myth.

She was arrested in 2000 on suspicion of domestic violence for allegedly throwing a hubcap at her live-in boyfriend Darren Silver's face. At the time she was teaching figure-skating at a local mall near Portland. Her attorney told the court she had had an unfortunate reaction to mixing alcohol and Zoloft. She pleaded guilty to misdemeanor malicious mischief and disorderly conduct and, despite Silver's insistence that he had forgiven her, a judge sentenced her to three days in jail.

"You just get hit by everything all at once and you just want to crawl in a closet and say go away and leave me alone because you just don't know what is going on," Harding recalled trying to train for the Olympics in the aftermath of the attack, in the 2014 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary "The Price of Gold."

"Every time I'd jump [the cameras] would all flash, I would fall on my face and hurt myself a couple of times. It just started becoming really impossible just to even concentrate on anything."


Gillooly, meanwhile, changed his name to Jeff Stone after he was released from prison in 1995. When Deadspin caught up with him in 2014, 20 years after the attack, he had had two children with his second wife, who struggled with drug abuse and committed suicide in 2005, five years after they divorced. Their kids, Haley and Noah, lived with him and his third wife, a nurse named Christy Novasio, in Clackamas, just miles from where Harding used to practice.

"I have issues like any other person," Stone, née Gillooly, said. "The trick is, I think I've had it easy, compared to poor Tonya because she's never admitted to her involvement in it and I think people know that, and they always kind of make fun of her. And she does these interviews, and she tends to be the butt of the joke. It's kind of sad to me."

He reiterated that "of course" Harding knew about the attack beforehand.

"She was the best figure skater—women's figure skater—that ever lived," Stone said. "Still is, in my opinion. We decided to do something really stupid there, and it ruined her. She'll never be remembered for how wonderful a figure skater she was. She'll be remembered for what I talked her into doing." (Eckardt also changed his name, to Brian Sean Griffith, after prison. He died in 2007 at the age of 40 of natural causes.) 

Harding alleged in her 2008 autobiography The Tonya Tapes that Stone and two of his friends had kidnapped her and raped her in the woods; Stone told Deadspin he "kind of laughed at it" at the time. "I think most people did, to tell you the truth."

"It's a big [made-up] story," he added, "and obviously her accusations didn't carry much weight with any type of authority."

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Kerrigan, meanwhile, has had her own share of troubles since being sucked into one of the most scandalous moments in Olympic history.

Her father, Daniel, died in January 2010 and her brother Mark—an Army veteran who had struggled with mental health issues and substance abuse and spent time in jail for domestic abuse—was charged with assault and battery for a drunken, bloody attack on 70-year-old Daniel Kerrigan just hours before his death. Mark Kerrigan was barred from his father's funeral and ended up being charged with manslaughter as well; he was found not guilty of the more serious charge at trial in 2011 but was, however, found guilty of assault and battery.

"My family has never believed that my brother had anything to do at all with my father's death, and my dad never would have wanted any of this," Nancy said in a statement after the verdict. Mark was sentenced to the maximum penalty of two and a half years in prison, despite his sister's plea to the judge that he send Mark home to his family. He was paroled in 2012.

In 2013, Kerrigan continued to support her brother on Today, saying, "He shouldn't have been charged. My dad had a heart attack and that's that. Since then, we did the same thing we've always done—take things one thing at a time, and you get through it. Life's challenging and hard, and we stick together and move on."

She said that 1994 felt like "a lifetime ago." As a wife and mother of three boys, "I drive and cook and clean,'' she told Matt Lauer. "That's basically what I do now."


Kerrigan returned to the limelight last spring, however, as a competitor on Dancing With the Stars, where she finished seventh. Around that time she also opened up about battling an eating disorder for years after the Olympics and suffering "at least" six miscarriages after the birth of her first child, Matthew, making it eight years before she and her husband had baby No. 2. "I felt like a failure," she emotionally recalled.

Kerrigan also told ABC News in April that she had never received an apology from Harding, but, "does it matter at this point?"

Harding had told People in 2008, "Of course I feel guilty for what happened. But I can't dwell. I have to go on living." When Kerrigan's father died, she had recently lost her own dad, Al Harding, and she offered her condolences. In 2010 she married Joseph Jens, and they have a son, Gordon Jens.

Despite potential evidence of Harding's greater involvement that emerged in the making of a 2016 episode of the Reelz series Scandal Made Me Famous—police summaries of what the defendants said about Harding's whereabouts when they were plotting; an envelope on which Harding had scribbled the address of a rink in Massachusetts where Kerrigan practiced, which would align with Gillooly's story that she had made calls to find where her rival would be—Harding has never budged from her position that she did not know what her ex and the others were going to do.

The fascination with Harding has in turn refused to abate—in addition to being the subject of countless punchlines, Harding's downfall has been adapted for TV, the stage (in the 2008 musical Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera, in 2015's Tonya Harding The Musical and most recently in the play T., which premiered at Chicago's American Theater Company in June) and now for the big screen. 

Perhaps the most promising attempt yet to re-humanize the onetime champion who has become nothing short of a caricature is the upcoming I, Tonya, directed by Craig Gillespie and starring Margot Robbie as the troubled skater, Sebastian Stan as Gillooly and Allison Janney as Harding's abrasive mother, LaVona Golden, who's said to have been abusive and domineering.


Robbie said during the Toronto International Film Festival that she did meet Harding but only spent a few hours with her, to avoid having "too much empathy for her."

Moreover, the Australian actress told Vanity Fair that when she first read the script, she had no idea it was based on a true story.

"I thought it was entirely fictionalized, and our writer Steve [Rodgers] was so creative to come up with the quirky characters and absurd incidents," Robbie, who was about 3 1/2 during the 1994 Winter Olympics, said.

She's forgiven—the story is pretty unbelievable, the epitome of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction. Whatever that truth really is at the end of the day, exactly.

"I think it is a lot for someone to have the most traumatic events of their life encompassed in a two-hour film," Robbie continued. "I feel like you have to be very brave to let someone do that. I don't know if I could do that, and [Harding] handled it incredibly."

"I don't know what I was expecting, but I had spent so many hours watching her every interview and every bit of skating," the actress said of meeting the now 46-year-old pop culture legend. "I feel like I had done nothing but watch and listen to Tonya for the last year—so it was really weird to see that person literally in front of me. It was a bizarre experience. She was so kind. I was taken aback by how worried she was about me, weirdly. After all the things she has been through, she just kept asking if I was OK."

I, Tonya is due in theaters Dec. 8.