Since we’re knee-deep into the Olympics right now, what better time to revisit one of the most memorable ice-skating scandals of all time? Obviously I’m speaking about Tonya Harding and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, which took place twenty years ago at the U.S. Figure Skating Championship public practice sessions in Detroit, Michigan.
You’ve probably already decided how you feel about it and what you think happened. You’ve probably connected those two women so inextricably in your mind that you never hear one name without bringing to mind the other. I know that’s how I was for a long time, never questioning the narrative that had been presented to me, just letting my initial impression solidify as the years passed and the details got more hazy in my mind.
But then I read a well-researched, insightful, and eye-opening piece from a former classmate of mine, Sarah Marshall, who’s been consumed by this story for the past two decades. She managed to completely change my opinion on the event with one piece for The Believer, and even if she doesn’t do the same for you, at the very least she’ll open your mind to some possibilities that you’ve likely written off. Like…maybe Tonya isn’t the worst person in the world. Maybe.
You should read her article in its entirety, because it’s incredibly gripping, but just to whet your appetite a little, here are some facts that you’re probably mis-remembering or not even aware of from the event itself.
1. Nancy never said ‘why me’. After video of the time shortly after the attack surfaced, she was widely reported to have repeated ‘why me’ over and over. But it was actually just ‘why’.
2. The weapon wasn’t a crowbar, as reported. Or a bat, a wrench, or a lead pipe. It was actually a collapsible police baton.
3. She wasn’t hit on the knee. The actual hit came on the lower thigh, and while certainly frightening in the moment, was much less serious than reported.
4. In fact, the attack only kept her out of one competition. That was the U.S. Championships themselves, held the following day, which Tonya won.
5. Nancy got to go to the Olympics anyway. Even though she was unable to skate, Nancy was given a bye to the 1994 Olympics, denying Michelle Kwan the opportunity to compete.
6. Tonya still denies having any part in the plot. Even fifteen years after the fact, she continued to insist that she was uninvolved. That’s as opposed to her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, who presented his story while trying to make a deal with the prosecution.
7. She was never convicted of involvement in the attack. The only thing Tonya was ever prosecuted for was not coming forward earlier once she learned of Jeff’s involvement. Something she said she didn’t do because he threatened to kill her if she took her story to the FBI, allegedly holding a gun to her head while he allowed two men to rape her, then raped her himself. Horrifying.
8. There were well-documented allegations of abuse. Tonya had a restraining order against Jeff, multiple friends who supported her claims of abuse, and repeated calls to 911.
9. Jeff had a motive of his own. According to Tonya, after Jeff found out that she had only reunited with him because a skating official suggested it would make her seem more ‘stable’ in the eyes of the Olympic judges, he became extremely angry:
“When he found out, he came unglued… He told me he’d ruin me.”
10. Tonya was banned from the sport. She was also stripped of the title of 1994 U.S. Champion (although she maintained her 1991 title, earned in the video above), so as Sarah points out, ”If [ruining her] really was his plan, he could hardly have been more successful.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
(Photo: Chris Cole / Getty Images Sport)