25 years ago today, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked while leaving a practice facility in Detroit. She was a beautiful, talented, young athlete preparing for the Olympics enjoying her newfound stardom. The attack was brutal and unexplainable. The event dominated the news around the clock for days. As details emerged about the attack, the nation became engrossed in this full scale true to life soap opera. The person who attacked Kerrigan was hired by the husband of her rival, Tonya Harding. At the very minimum, Harding withheld information about what she knew and when she knew it. Most have a hard time believing that she did not know about the plans for the attack beforehand. Harding was later fined $100,000 and sentenced to 500 hours of community service. The consensus was that she got off quite easily.
Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press
Like all stories, this one is more complicated than it first appears.
Harding started skating when she was three. Growing up, she was once the darling of the Portland, Oregon area. When she would practice at a local mall, hundreds attended, often holding banners of support and offering her flowers. Harding had an abusive mother, moved around several times, and grew up in a very unstable environment. Her mother put an incredible amount of pressure on her to succeed. Harding’s mother once publicly beat her with a hair brush after she performed poorly at a competition. Some sponsors even pulled their support because of the behavior of the mother. She then married an abusive and manipulative husband, Jeff Gilllooly, at age 19.
Photo Credit: The Oregonian
Tonya Harding’s childhood doesn’t forgive what she did, but it definitely merits more empathy for her plight. At the time, it was easy to make this a black and white story of good vs. evil. Like most stories, there is a lot of grey.
The nation was riveted by the drama. Because she had not yet been found guilty of anything, she was allowed to participate in the Olympics. When the two skated against each other in the 1994 Winter Olympics, it was the 6th most watched event in the history of television.
After the Olympics, Harding slid into a descending spiral. She appeared on games shows, reality television, in adult film and magazines, and even gave pro wrestling a whirl. She tried to form a band and was booed off the stage in their only appearance. Despite the evil that she had participated in, it was hard not to feel a little sad for her. Kerrigan struggled as well. Despite being given a two million dollar contract with Disney and multiple endorsement deals, she also soon fell out of public favor. She had a couple of hot microphone blunders, one caught complaining about being in a Disney parade complaining that it was “the corniest thing I’ve ever done”, and another incident where she was caught mocking a fellow skater. It could not have been easy being Nancy Kerrigan, dealing with a level of fame in her early twenties that most of us would have been well unprepared for.
25 years later, the we are still riveted, although the event looks quite a bit different to us now. There have been several highly watched television specials on ESPN and other networks in the past few years. Last Year, a movie based upon the saga, “I Tonya” had tremendous box office success and was highly regarded by critics. This is a story that people from all across the country, young and old, are still intrigued by.
Nancy Kerrigan was easily identifiable as the victim, no question. In retrospect it is more than a little embarrassing to think about how she was mocked for her reaction to getting clubbed in the knee and having her career and olympic dreams be stolen from her. (Why??…….why?????) There is no question that Tonya Harding was a villain, but looking back at her childhood, it is also apparent to see that she was also a victim.
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