Tonya Harding: The ice maiden fights back

Ten years ago, Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked with an iron bar. The culprits? The redneck husband and associates of rival Tonya Harding. Ever since, the disgraced star has pirouetted from one sleazy disaster to another. Here she talks about Internet sex romps, family feuds and choreographing her sporting comeback - in the boxing ring
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I broke her legs and sat my beer on her head," writes Jeb, aged 34, of Oregon. "Then I smacked her one." Jeb is one of 3,000 contributors to the "Fantasy" section of tonyaharding.com, a selection of whose explicit messages I read on the flight to Portland. The tone is much as you'd expect from the popular image of Harding herself: desperate, cheap, and unremittingly vulgar. Bobby, 30, shares a vision of himself and Tonya, "nude, on skates, in the polar region" - a scenario whose implementation in the real world would test the stamina and dexterity of both.

"Although I am a 76-year-old fart," ventures Edward, more modestly, "I am fascinated by you."

Activity on the Harding site has been even more frenzied than usual in recent days: this week marks the 10th anniversary of "Skategate", the scandal that followed the attack on Harding's Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan. The assault, with a metal bar, was orchestrated by Tonya's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, who was jailed for 18 months. (Harding, who denied prior knowledge of the attempt to break her rival's leg, but admitted failing to inform police as soon as she might have, received a fine and community service.) Since then Kerrigan - "a woman," according to the LA Times, "who represents every American ideal: grace, innocence and dignity" - has made millions of dollars from film deals and endorsements for wholesome products such as Campbell's soup. Harding, banned for life from competitive skating in 1994, has an equally thick cuttings file, but hers is filled with the lurid recollections of treacherous ex-lovers, and stories about her drunken driving and violations of probation.

Like Satan in Paradise Lost, though, it's Tonya who has proved the more compelling figure. While Kerrigan was settling down with her agent and raising a family, her former rival separated from Gillooly and then a second husband, alleging both beat her; three years ago she attempted to assault a man called Darren with a hub-cap; and Internet sites offer graphic footage of her honeymoon night with Gillooly. Harding now rents a small house just outside Portland, in Vancouver, Washington, and, by her own account, is struggling financially. After attempting a variety of careers including drag-racing, rock singing and acting, she recently launched herself as a professional boxer. Like the "Fantasy" zone of tonyaharding.com, this latest initiative seems to in- vite one of the principal unanswered questions about Harding: is there anything that this woman won't do?

Tonya Harding has the distinction of belonging to an elite company of historical figures - others include Adolf Hitler and Oscar Wilde - who achieved a disgrace so comprehensive that it all but obliterated their first name from the mainstream of society. "Tonya" was a popular choice at US christenings until 1994, when reports of Harding's demise made the name synonymous with the term "trailer trash". It dropped 500 places in the girls' league table over the following two years. Since 1997, according to the US Actuary's office, "Tonya" has disappeared off the radar altogether, because only the top 1,000 names are listed.

When I walk into arrivals at the Air Alaska terminal in Portland, there is a woman at the meeting point who looks exactly like Harding. Her features suggest contradictory qualities: resilience and fragility; pride and low self-esteem; the capacity to punch or be punched. It's the classic face of domestic abuse. I think about speaking to her, then don't. It's three hours before my appointment with the ex-skater, in a gym outside the city; there are 1.5 million people in Portland, and this woman passes apparently unnoticed, which has never been Tonya Harding's strength.

I'm collected at my hotel by boxing promoter Paul Brown - "the biggest black man", as he describes himself, "in Portland", who is managing and training Harding. A likeable, good-humoured man, he drives me to the place where Tonya is working out. Brown, who has a serious reputation in boxing, has run training camps for Riddick Bowe, Michael Spinks and, most recently, British light-heavyweight Clinton Woods. First thing this morning, like every morning, he was down by the river, running five miles with Harding. He hands me his CV. Under "Hobbies" he's put: "Funeral services and creative financing." A former light-heavyweight, he is also a mortician - a career history, he confirms, with a reassuring smile, which means that, should I write anything inappropriate about Harding, he will be able to deliver "the full service".

Inside the gym, behind a forest of vacant exercise bikes, a familiar face is peering into a kit-bag, from which she removes a length of cotton strapping. Harding, who's wearing trainers, a white T-shirt and black leggings, winds the tape across her knuckles, then puts on her gloves. She's starting late today, she explains, because she was just out at Portland airport, meeting someone.

"Which terminal?"

Harding, who is still spat at by strangers and is understandably guarded about her movements, weighs up whether to reveal this.

"Alaska."

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan represented opposing schools, not just of skating, but of life. Nancy, from a stable working-class background in Massachusetts, skated elegant but conservative routines, wearing tasteful costumes, and scored highly on artistic interpretation. Harding - at 5ft 1in, 6in smaller than her rival - was a robust, muscular skater who stitched her own dresses. Kerrigan was described as "demure" and "swanlike" - adjectives that are never likely to be inspired by Harding, with her car (a pick-up), her dog (an English Mastiff) and her hobbies: pool, karaoke and fixing brake shoes.

Kerrigan's mother was a doting parent who was blind; Tonya's is a chronic alcoholic who abused her daughter in public. Nancy was one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People". Harding, a fortnight before the scandal broke, was elected "Honorary First Lady of Troutdale" (population 13,777), near Portland.

While Kerrigan occasionally obliges friends with a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game", Harding works out to "Never Scared" by Bone Crusher. She shadow-boxes with Brown for 20 minutes, then sits down, having worked up a light sweat. Tonya sweats, quite definitely, where Nancy might just begin to perspire. Whatever past careers she's taken lightly, boxing isn't among them.

"I'm going to get hurt," she explains. "I know that. I already broke my nose twice."

"You can't tell."

"Well, the first time it broke, it set crooked. The second time, it went straight."

Harding has won three of five fights, and has her next on 24 January, in Boise, Idaho. At 33, Brown says, she has a couple of years in her, and a real chance of a title in the US - where women's boxing is dominated by novelty contenders - famous daughters, disgraced athletes and ex-porn-stars.

His optimism is not universally shared.

"I would never question Tonya Harding's bravery, or commitment," says Steve Bunce, boxing correspondent of The Independent, who saw her victory on the Mike Tyson undercard in Memphis last year. "But I don't believe she has any hope of achieving anything serious in this sport. She quite literally, as the saying goes, can't stand up."

Nonsense, says Harding, who points out that she only recently came under the tuition of Brown. The trainer brought her down to bantamweight and told her bluntly that, in order to survive, she would have to re-learn her technique. "Paul's made me start again, right back with the basics," she says. "Idaho will be only our second fight."

The physical discipline, she says, has helped her mentally. Harding was sentenced to 10 days' imprisonment last August, after she breached a court order issued after she was found at the wheel of her truck, in a ditch, while drunk. So currently, under Oregon's draconian probation laws, she is barred from drinking alcohol. Since she began boxing, she's stopped taking anti-depressants, or any other drugs except medication for the severe asthma which has dogged her sporting life.

"I've been from the bottom to the top so * many times now," she says, "that frankly it's not funny. Boxing makes me feel good about myself. I'm doing something with my life."

Harding's disgrace, a decade ago, prompted an outbreak of one of the least attractive spectacles in world journalism: the British sportswriter in moral mode.

"Rude, abrupt, chippy," the Sunday Times wrote of Harding. "A stumpy gnome who could shoot before she could read... Miss Harding, one feels, would feel most at ease in a boiler suit." Her lips, the Daily Express claimed, "spew filth that would make a docker blush".

Well not any more they don't. Harding disliked interviews even before the ugly lynching she suffered at a press conference during the 1994 Olympics. She can be confrontational: truculent, withdrawn, monosyllabic. At the same time she laughs easily, sometimes at herself, and, in her more relaxed moments, has a generosity of manner I hadn't expected.

I can't believe, I tell her, that she's posted all that filth on her website. A stern look. "Tonyaharding.com?" she asks. "That's done by some local guy. He's made millions off of my name. What they write there is disgusting."

And an incitement to the people who've stalked her; the guys who put what she calls "stuff" into her mailbox.

"Stuff?"

"Dead rats. Rats, and..."

"And?"

"And... stuff. There are people out there who should be in a mental hospital. I have to deal with those people every day."

Why hasn't she sued the website?

"I don't have the money."

Harding reminds me that she's had "six-figure offers" to pose naked for Playboy and Penthouse, propositions which, unlike other skaters such as Katerina Witt, she declined.

"I told them to go to hell. If they want a picture of me, it's with my clothes on."

What about the honeymoon video, which Gillooly sold for $15,000 (around £10,000), and 30 million people saw on US television?

"I didn't know that tape existed," she says, "until after it was done. And then I was like, 'Oh, my God.' It was terrible, the most embarrassing thing that ever happened in my life."

And that's an accolade, some would argue, not easily gained. Last August, as she went to jail for 10 days for having a drink, Tonya told reporters: "This is going to put my past into the past. Then I can get on with my future."

This notion - of unshackling herself from her history - is one she returns to constantly. The snag is that her celebrity depends entirely on the episode she's keenest to forget: the crime that had her on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and prompted the intervention of Bill Clinton, who urged that Harding's guilt shouldn't be assumed before any hearing.

Certain details of the attack on Kerrigan, on 6 January 1994, are uncontested. The culmination of a plot to eliminate her from the Olympic figure-skating event the following month in Lillehammer, Norway, the assault was conceived by Gillooly and his friend Shawn Eckardt. Through this pair, in the words of their trial judge, figure skating collided with "the world of trenchcoats and shadows".

Eckardt, a 200lb weightlifter and legal-affairs student at Pioneer Pacific College, acted (the former skater disputes this) as Harding's bodyguard. His physique lent credence to the story that, during police psychological tests, "they were expecting him to put the square peg in the round hole, but he didn't - he ate it".

Eckardt recruited fellow-goon Shane Stant, who travelled to Detroit, where his victim was practising for the 1994 National Championships - the competition on which Olympic selection was based. There, at rinkside, he used a $60 metal baton to deliver a single blow to Kerrigan's right leg.

The injured skater was ruled out of the Nationals, which were won (brilliantly, as it happens) by Harding. Kerrigan recovered to take silver in Lillehammer. Her alleged nemesis threatened the US Olympic Committee with a $20m lawsuit when they tried to stop her competing in Norway. She was now publicly under scrutiny from the FBI. Harding finished a tearful eighth.

The 1994 scandal inspired a number of books, including Women on Ice - Feminist Essays on the Tonya Harding Spectacle in which Lynda Zvinger "examines the threat which ice-skating poses to heterovisuality and analyses the desire for images consistent with the desires of heterormative culture".

Fire on Ice, another book about the affair, audaciously describes Harding as having attended a meeting where the attack was planned: an allegation she denies with some warmth.

"When did you learn about the plot to injure Nancy Kerrigan?"

"A few days after it happened."

"How did you find out?"

"I don't remember," she says. It's scarcely a convincing reply, but she refuses to elaborate.

"I just don't. It was a long time ago."

"Come on, Tonya," I suggest. "You knew. You must have. They did it for you."

"How could they have done it for me? I mean - I'm the one that lost, like $10m, out of this. Nancy Kerrigan? How much money does she have? I can barely settle my bills. I work for a living. I lost my house, that I was renting, because I couldn't settle my bills. What does everybody else out there have that I don't?"

"Well, what do they?"

"OK, let's see now. They are married. They got careers. They got children. They got money. What do I have? I rent a house. I am part-owner of my truck. But I do have dignity, and I do have pride, and I use my brains now. I use them every day."

It was suggested, but never proved, that Harding had called Kerrigan's home rink to establish her movements. Harding insists the scheme was Gillooly's alone, and devised to sell protection. (He and Eckardt composed an anonymous note threatening other skaters.) Central to her claim of innocence is the assertion that she had no need of chicanery to beat Kerrigan at the Olympics - a view shared by the majority of skating correspondents.

There are a number of misapprehensions that have arisen in the wake of Harding's disgrace. One - this is the Times - is that Harding "shattered the hitherto pristine image of women's skating". This remark brings to mind the 1930s Norwegian skater, and MGM star, Sonja Henie: a bulimic, drunken fascist whose favourite word was bullshit, and whose many lovers included Tyrone Power and, some believe, Hitler.

Of all these misconceptions, perhaps the most ill-founded is the idea that Harding, who is a year younger than Kerrigan, was a second-rate skater. In her relation to her sport, the figure she resembles more than any is the snooker player Alex Higgins. A turbulent, sometimes violent character (the Canadian Patricia Schmidt-Tilba says Harding once punched her and used to "growl at" other competitors), she drank, smoked and answered back and was generally unpopular with her sport's governing body.

Just as Higgins took the snooker table, quietly crafted to the requirements of the Victorian governing classes, and annexed it to his own, renegade agenda, so Harding, with her pugnacious, explosive style, looked all wrong in US skating rinks. "She was a fireball," says Elizabeth Manley, silver medallist in the 1988 games, "not a princess." Like Higgins, Harding's game plan tended to be recklessly bold, and often failed: she'd stumbled at the Albertville Olympics in 1992, finishing fourth; Kerrigan took bronze. But if she went for her jumps and got them, no American skater of her generation could live with her.

Harding was, and is, the only American ever to have completed a triple axel - three-and-a-half revolutions in the air - in a short routine at a major competition. Fire on Ice - written by US skating experts Abby Haight and JE Vader, who are hardly supportive of Harding - contains the following passage: "Unlike any other skater, Tonya Harding controls her own destiny. If she skates a clean programme, and includes her big jump, she wins, period. No judge can deny her. No other skater can match that level of difficulty."

With her athletic ability, the book argues, Harding makes figure skating less subjec- tive to the whims of adjudicators - "and more of a pure sport".

"When I was great," Tonya Harding says, more concisely, "I was great."

Without seeking to diminish the gravity of the attack on Kerrigan, the details of its execution verge on the surreal. The evening after the assault, Eckardt met a friend, Eugene Sanders, and played him a tape of himself and Gillooly planning the crime. His confidant could have been better-chosen: Sanders, a fellow student, was also a minister at Portland's Celebration New Song Church, with ambitions as a detective. He went to their lecturer, then to the Oregonian newspaper, and the police.

It emerged that Stant - in whom Eckardt seems to have found something of an equal - having botched the attack on Kerrigan, fled down a corridor. Noticing the glass exit door was unexpectedly padlocked, he escaped "by using his head as a battering ram".

Harding has inspired a number of songs (notably Loudon Wainwright III's poignant, and sympathetic classic "Tonya's Twirls"). The idea of her consorting with Eckardt, Gillooly and friends is accurately evoked by the two pieces of music she chose for her programme in Minneapolis in 1991, when she won the US Championships - namely "Wild Thing" and "Send in the Clowns". If the plot of "Skategate" might have interested Hitchcock, its implementation, I suggest, owes more to Laurel and Hardy.

"Absolutely," Harding says. "It was like something off a blooper show. But those guys ruined people's lives. I lost everything I ever worked for."

Does she see the attack as having cost her more than it cost Kerrigan?

"Yes. I mean, she got married, and she had a baby, and she's doing really well - and I'm glad for her. I got thrown into the middle of this."

This last phrase reflects Harding's general view of the world - as a place that constantly disrupts her honourable attempts to "live right", by throwing up new, and more alarming, shocks. As she appears now - fit, sober, working out - it's a philosophy that has a convincing ring to it. Back then, though, Gillooly and Eckardt wasted no time in announcing that Harding had known about the plan all along. Even if we accept her account, why - once she did know - didn't she go straight to the police?

"Because I had a gun put to my head."

"Who by?"

"By... the other people. That's how I will describe them."

"And what then?"

"Having a gun put to your head," she says, "is not a pleasant thing. You literally; I mean, not to be weird, but you lose all self-control."

"Of what?"

"You have no... bodily functions."

"You're saying that you wet yourself?"

"Yes. I was scared to death. I thought - Jesus, you know, this is it. I'm gone."

"There are stories that you failed two polygraph tests..."

"I'm not answering that," says Harding.

When Eckardt was jailed, the judge called him "infamous, greedy, dishonest, even stupid"; only his penultimate word seems redundant. Gillooly (who told his fellow defendants to relax, "because I'm great at damage limitation") recently resurfaced as "Mr Stone", running a tanning salon near Portland. "I can live with myself," he said, when convicted. "But whether it's next year, or 10 years from now, this will catch up with Tonya."

Harding was 15 when she met Jeff Gillooly, three years her senior. At 18, she moved in with him. He was frequently violent towards her; she twice sought protection orders. "I wasn't myself with him," she says. "He dominated me totally." On one occasion, he slammed her head into the floor next to the toilet. According to a police report, he threatened to break her legs "and end your career". She divorced him in the summer of 1993, but by the autumn was sharing a house with him again.

Gillooly's outbursts replicated the behaviour of Tonya's mother LaVona, who, she says, beat her with "whatever was nearby. Her hand. A stick. A hairbrush." LaVona, armed with a Thermos of brandy, took her daughter to skating lessons when she was four. Fellow-pupils of coach Diane Rawlinson recall the child being addressed as "scum" and "bitch".

The Harding family grew up in Clackamas County, a redneck neighbourhood near Portland. Tonya's father Al, a truck driver, was LaVona's fifth husband. It's 10 years since Harding spoke to her mother, who remarried twice more after Al Harding. LaVona has five children by five different fathers. One of the offspring, a half-brother from an earlier liaison, tried to assault Tonya sexually when she was 15. By the time Al left home, the following year, the family had moved 15 times, between trailers and low-rent housing.

Al Harding, she says, "raised me basically as a boy. I got Tonka toys, not Barbie dolls."

"Did you ever ask for a Barbie?"

She laughs. "Er - no."

She could shoot by age five, and killed her first deer when she was 13. Though she was "Daddy's girl", Al was never around when her mother beat her. What if he had been?

"Whether he'd have stepped in, I don't know."

"You once called him a wuss."

"He was a weak person."

Her father lives locally but, like almost everyone from her past, apart from her friends Greg and Linda Lewis, Christian songwriters, she no longer sees him. Which parent does she most resemble?

"Neither."

"How do you know?"

"Because I have guts. And I have pride. And I want to accomplish something in my life."

She once said she thought she'd been switched at the hospital.

"I don't believe," she says, "that I have the same blood type as my parents."

"You must be curious about that."

"You know what?" Harding says, with a forbidding look. "I'm not."

After she finally finished with Gillooly - she announced their separation during her police interview after the Kerrigan assault - the allegations of violence were repeated in her second marriage to Michael Smith, an engineer, which ended after 90 days, in early 1996.

Boxing must make her feel safer.

"No," she says. "Because I know I have to be responsible. My hands are lethal weapons."

Now she comes to mention it, one boyfriend did say that she hooks "like Tyson".

"As a joke," she says. "The tabloids distort the facts."

"Like when they said you whacked that guy with the hub-cap."

"I didn't whack anybody with a hub-cap. I threw a centre cap at him..."

"Centre cap?"

"It goes over the hub of a four-wheel drive."

"Is it smaller than a hub-cap?"

"Right. It wasn't like, the size of a Frisbee. And then he sat on me, so I punched him in the nose. What kind of man," Harding continues, "calls 911 because a girl punched him?"

"A frightened one?"

"Ah, come on," Harding says. "I mean - what a wuss."

When she was a young girl, she says, "I was so closed in. I didn't have many friends. I was told that I was fat, that I was ugly; that I wouldn't amount to anything. When you hear that all your life, you tend to believe it. Now that I'm boxing, I've decided to prove these people are full of crap. I know that a person can change. Because I have changed. I am..." Harding pauses, "a good person."

It's a year since she skated. Does she miss it?

"I miss the fun of it. I don't miss the competition."

Does she dream about it?

"No. I used to. Now, I dream I'm boxing. I've woken up throwing punches, the night before a fight."

That could wreak havoc with your social life. "I live by myself," she says. "I'm being selfish now. When I was young, I was dumb. I wanted to be loved, and that made me naïve, because I desperately wanted people to like me. Now, if you don't like me - tough shit."

Talking as she is now, about her plans, and not the detested past, she visibly relaxes. She hopes to come to Britain in the spring, she says, to box on the same bill as Clinton Woods.

"My ambition is to be successful in boxing," she says. "Then to teach children to box. I want to be a good role model."

At the same time, I suspect, she is aware of another possible future - a much worse one; the kind of future which - were her life the pulp novel which it has occasionally resembled - would be the only credible conclusion. This one would begin with a gradual erosion of her new-found resolve, followed by more drink, more abusive relationships, and her eventual disappearance in a renewed blizzard of hub-caps, ungentlemanly revelations and off-piste motoring. In fiction, where character is required to be consistent, her story could only end in despair. That said, this isn't fiction but real life - and life, as Tonya Harding would be the first to point out, has an endless capacity to surprise. *

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