The skater in question: Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were never a matched pair. Nancy has bruised knees; Tonya has a bruised soul. Her story almost beggars belief, so does her life. Robert Sullivan reports

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
In the centre of the ice, in the middle of a mall in Oregon, Tonya Harding begins to skate backwards, faster and faster. The music is from the film Jurassic Park, and it is a dark selection: the bass notes stalk, the trombones hint at trouble - all together conjuring up a picture of Boris Karloff waiting fiendishly in the shadows to pounce. Posters scream 'We believe in Tonya' and 'Home of Tonya Harding'. In the mall's mirrored ceiling Tonya is almost a blur. Her arms tense as she races towards the wall. Then she jumps - and falls. The 2,000 people, lined three-deep in front of all the neon-signed fast-food counters, break into a consoling applause.

'It's that Jeff,' says a fan, referring to Jeff Gillooly, Harding's exhusband. On that morning, Gillooly has pleaded guilty to hiring a man to injure the landing leg of Nancy Kerrigan, Harding's arch-rival in the American figure skating world. And he has fingered Harding as the person with whom the conspiratorial buck stopped. Gillooly's accusation, the thinking at the rink goes, has upset the already troubled figure skater; that's why she falls.

Mostly, there are stiff upper lips. 'I can't comment on what Jeff has said,' says Vonnie Reifenrath, a three-week member of the Tonya Harding Fan Club (membership has grown from 400 to about 800 in the past month). 'What I will say, though, is that it doesn't change our mood at all. We are extremely positive. We all know that she is innocent. And you always support your superstars. They're always innocent until proven guilty.'

But a few people gloat. 'I fish with her uncle, Harold Harding, and he says that she's as guilty as hell,' says Mike Gillmor, not a fan club member. 'He says that all those people she hangs out with, they're such a small little world that she had to know what was going on. And I've known Tonya since she was a little girl. Well, I haven't known her but I've seen her grow up. And I bet she did it.'

The saga began in Detroit on 6 January, when Nancy Kerrigan was struck on the right knee with a collapsible baton as she left a practice for the US national figure skating championships scheduled to begin the next day. In tears, Kerrigan, the favourite, withdrew from the competition and Harding easily won. The ungainly, scuffling challenger had beaten the graceful anointed one (Kerrigan had already been appearing in television commercials). Against the odds, Harding once again seemed to be out ahead. 'I've proven myself worthy,' she said at her press conference.

But over the next two weeks, Harding began to look more like a loser than a winner. First, Shawn Eckardt, Harding's 300lb bodyguard and a self-proclaimed international security expert - headquartered at his parents' home - confessed to orchestrating the attack. Next, he claimed Harding and her husband were involved. Harding was interviewed by the FBI for 10 long hours late one night. At the press conference immediately afterwards, she said she was not involved in the plot (as she has repeatedly since) and announced her separation from Gillooly. A few days later, she amended her statement to say that she had known about the plot but not until Kerrigan had been hit. The latest shot was fired by Gillooly on Tuesday. He described the particular point on the interstate highway where he says Harding said, 'Go for it.'

America has become familiar with Tonya Harding's life story. It begins with a childhood she apparently never really had. Her mother, LaVona Harding, had seven different husbands; as a child Harding lived in seven different homes, including a trailer park. She began skating when she was four, at the rink inside the Lloyd Center in Portland, one of America's first malls. Within a year, she won her first ice-skating championship in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Skaters who remember practising with the young Tonya talk about LaVona shouting at her daughter, calling her 'bitch', 'stupid' or 'scum'; one skater remembers LaVona beating Tonya with a hairbrush when Tonya performed poorly, though no one can recall Tonya ever giving up. At 15, Harding introduced herself to Jeff Gillooly, three years her senior, while he was on the ice at Clackamas Town Center, the mall where Harding still practises. Three years later she married Gillooly and in a few weeks separated from him for the first time. Over the next year they would file for divorce, reconcile and separate again. On one occasion she filed for a restraining order against him, fearing for her life after hearing that he had purchased a shotgun; on another she allegedly inquired about having him killed. It is said that Harding was close only to her father. He taught her how to shoot, how to fix cars. She boasted of killing her first deer at 13. As opposed to the lovely Nancy Kerrigan, whose brothers stand at her side, whose father took another job to pay for her skating, whose mother, legally blind, presses her teary face to the television to watch her lithe and white-toothed progeny perform, Tonya's father eventually moved away.

At 5ft 1in, weighing 7 stone, often wearing crimson fingernails, Harding became a tough broad in a sport where people preferred to think of more feminine titles, like princess. She skated hard, not daintily. The company that makes her skates has had to reinforce them specially, and she is said to be capable of out-sprinting the Winterhawks, Portland's men's hockey team. In her spare time, she likes to drag race and roller-blade, and she tends to be photographed smoking, drinking and playing pool. When she was criticised for threatening someone with a baseball bat at the scene of a car accident, she replied dismissively that the bat was only plastic.

In a western setting of strip malls and fast-food restaurants, in the neighbourhoodless blocks of apartment complexes too rural to be called urban and too low-class to be called suburban, skating was Tonya Harding's only way to anywhere. And as she rose through the ranks, winning became the only thing that mattered. She came home from the 1990 Olympic games disappointed after performing with the flu. But in 1991 she became the first woman in history to land a triple axel in competition. Then she seemed to stumble. Asthma, injuries, coaching problems: the road to her dream of 1994 Olympic success seemed to be getting tougher. She seemed to be losing it. Before Skategate, as the controversy has inevitably come to be known, she was talking about a comeback. Before Skategate, her fan club was complaining in the local press that she didn't get the media attention she deserved.

It's still not clear if Harding will be arrested or charged with a crime. The Multnomah County prosecutor's office has indicated that another indictment could be made soon, but the speed at which prosecutors are working implies that they are either short on evidence or extremely long on care.

If it turns out that Harding did plot to maim Kerrigan, then it will be a measure of just how stupid she is and just how badly she wanted to achieve her dream. If it turns out that she didn't, and that, say, her twice-estranged husband arranged the plot on his own (to win back her love or to share the endorsement money, so the theories go), then she will have been screwed again by her family.

Her fans will probably never give up on her. And it has been a trying time for them. One club member recently had to check into a hospital because of stress. Others have been appearing on talk shows and news programmes speaking on Harding's behalf. Last week, fan club members Linda and Greg Lewis released a song called 'Tonya's Turn'; it includes the lyrics, 'You've worked hard to get where you are, Tonya.' The Lewises describe themselves as Christians. 'We didn't want the message to be sent out to children in broken homes that they can't follow their dreams,' Greg says. 'Otherwise you're telling them to do drugs and steal cars.'

As Harding's practice was ending the other day, Vonnie Reifenrath was asked if there was a quality about Harding that inspired such devotion. She nodded her head. 'I know what you're saying,' she said, 'You're saying she's a human being. And you're right. There's something more lovable about her. There's something more connectible. You can connect with her and she's real. That's what it is about her, I think. She's real.'

(Photographs omitted)

Comments