• Fri, Feb 14 - 6:02 pm ET

10 Eye-Opening Facts That Will Make You Rethink Your Opinion Of Tonya Harding

Tonya Harding at the 1994 OlympicsSince 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)

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  • Josie

    I’m confused. You said this “took place ten years ago at the U.S. Figure Skating Championship” then you say that your good friend “has been consumed by this story for the past two decades.” Is your friend a psychic?

    And what does Nancy saying “Why?’ rather than “Why me?”, the type of weapon involved, the location of Nancy’s injury, the number of competitions missed and Nancy going to the Olympics have to do with whether or not Tanya was guilty of being involved?
    Reason 8 says Nancy had been previously abused by Jeff and had a restraining order against him? What? That adds a whole different spin to things doesn’t it?

    Oh wait! Did you say Nancy said “Why”, instead of “Why me?”. Good God, you’re right! That completely made me rethink my opinion of Tonya Harding. ????

    • Jenni

      Mistakes fixed! Thanks for pointing them out so politely!

    • Josie

      We both know my comment was dripping with sarcasm. :) No need pretending otherwise. I really don’t mean to be rude, but you fixed the typos, not the problems with the article. The ten points really don’t make any sense. But it’s your blog and your call, so I won’t say another word about it. Have a good weekend.

    • Carolina

      Her reply was also dripping with sarcasm. You did intend to be rude. The problems werent’ problems at all. She was pointing out inaccurate information. Period. It is true that people were and are misinformed about what happened and little things matter.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      Thank you Carolina!

    • amy teill

      Actually a lot of this matters, because at this point it’s the court of public opinion that might change not the legalities of the incident itself. Not being that into sports myself I only fully grasped the complexities of this incident in the last year or so. When it was earlier described to me or depicted in pop culture the “jist” was that Tonya Harding had her competitor brutally attacked because she didn’t want to lose. If 1) It wasn’t Tonya and 2) The attack wasn’t as brutal as I was led to believe, that definitely colours this differently.

    • Princess Miagky

      The author says in the first paragraph, if we were wrong about one simple thing for so long (i.e., that Nancy said “why”, not “why me” after she was attacked), as well as what implement was used, etc., we could be wrong about other things, like the widespread public perception that Tonya was involved in the attack.
      Marshall writes about how public opinion of the two skaters was formed over the years, and how the same facts that were used to paint Tonya as “trashy” after the attack on Kerrigan painted her as an “all-American tomboy” when she was National Champion.

    • Katie

      I agree with Josie. This article is hardly inspiring and the information in it has no bearing on Tonya as a person. But to put in my two cents she is definitely a questionable individual who has had numerous run-ins with the police and making false reports to cover up what one can only assume should’ve been several DUIs. (By the way your fact list failed to mention her raging alcohol problem). So no….let’s not feel sorry for Tonya.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      Her DUIs have nothing to do with her skating record, which is why they were omitted.

    • losira

      Nancy was N0 angel….she was a homewrecker…how do we know that Jeff was not in with Solomons estranged wife to teach Nancy a lesson about adultery….stealing a husband….and Tanya was set to take the blame. Due to her abusive marriage with that creep that she was finding a way out of….2 birds with one baton…were hit.

  • Callie

    Stuff like this is why her (and Surya Bonaly!) remain my favorite skaters more than 20 years later.

    • http://twilightirruption.blogspot.com/ abbeysbooks

      Glad I read this as it gave me some closure. Tonya is so emotionally labile. Nothing cool about her and it’s this spontaneous aspect of her I like so much. Her willingness to put herself out there all the way, to be so vulnerable. I can easily see how her abusive husband manipulated her, and frightened her. She was so fast, so sure and then fell apart at Lillehammer I think it was.

      Bonaly also I loved. That she would do something like that back flip that was so out of the frame and wonderful to watch. Fug the judges.

      The Olympic judges in this sport are so staid. They change the demanded routines so slowly not keeping up with changes in bodies and their abilities. The women are tight assed too. That these people can hold something back so long, makes the inevitable break so much more violent thatn it ever needed to be, but they have no imagination, no vision and hold all of us back no matter where in this Grid/Matrix we are.

      When you watch Tonya you see the image of authoritarianism becoming fascism, i.e. political variation. The same old routines that must drive them crazy perfecting and re-perfecting year after year. The authoritarian grading not allowing for innovation, very bureaucratic. Very tight. And Tonya was gendered masculine while Kerrigan was oh so femme. Appearance and movement wise I mean.

    • HB

      Agreed on judges– in the documentary I mentioned in my comment, Tonya tells a story about a judge approaching her after a competition in which she wore this bright pink outfit she had made for herself. Skating dresses are in the thousands of dollars, and Tonya came from a poorer background. The judge told her that if she ever wanted to win another competition, NEVER to show up in that pink thing again. Apparently she just told him to stay out of her face unless he wanted to give her the $5,000 to buy a new one.

    • http://twilightirruption.blogspot.com/ abbeysbooks

      If only she had taped it or videoed it. Vile man.

  • Candice Montgomery

    If you really want to see something that will change your opinion of Tonya Harding, watch the 30 for 30 documentary “The Price of Gold.” Tonya comes off as an exceptionally hateful and selfish person who is incapable of empathy and looks guilty as sin.

    • whitneyjones

      Which documentary were you watching? The 30 for 30 I saw displayed a woman who was bitter after the media created a witch hunt – which they still do today. Her husband was abusive and manipulative. She was not the body type or the look that skating wanted despite being one hell of an athlete. Hateful? She’s angry as hell. I would be, too. None of us know what happened. Shame on us for deciding to hate and speak ill of people we’ve never met.

    • Candice Montgomery

      I was watching the documentary where Tonya decided that there was nothing wrong with trash talking and attacking a crime victim. There’s bitter and there’s being an awful person, and Tonya was an awful person in that documentary.

    • whitneyjones

      Well then I pray that you’re never in a situation like she’s been put in for her entire life. Is she perfect? Certainly not. Is she evil? No. There are very few people in life that I’d call “awful people.”

    • Candice Montgomery

      And I hope you’re never in a situation where you’re a crime victim, and one of the people who knew about the attack before it happened and did bupkis with that information sits down in front of a camera crew and gleefully attacks you in front of a national audience. That is awful.

    • JakeJ413

      An I hope you’re never skating on an icy pond and the ice breaks and you blame the weatherman. I know that is irrelevant and makes no sense, but I wanted to join in on the fun.

    • Jonathan H

      Is it Nancy’s fault that Tonya had a shitty life?

    • Jenni

      I watched it this week too and I’m very undecided! I’d read the article mentioned above first and was firmly on Team Tonya. I realized I didn’t know any of the real details — for example, I thought Nancy got attacked at the Olympics and was out of skating forever.

      But then I watched this doc and reconsidered my stance. On one hand, she got dealt a really shitty hand in life. Even her coach, one of the few adults in her life who believed in her, told news cameras that her life sucked, and I think she was about 5 when that happened. On the other hand, I would’ve liked to have seen a little more empathy toward what happened to Nancy in this doc. Instead we got the opposite of empathy.

      On the third hand, I think it’s easy to confuse Tonya’s bitterness to the way this unfolded with guilt. If she really wasn’t involved in this attack, then it truly sucks for her that she got banned from the one thing in her life she knew how to do. Can you imagine how bitter you’d be if you got banned from your career and had to watch Nancy go on to make millions?

    • HB

      I felt that way too. She was extremely resentful.

  • J_Doe5686

    All I know is that it sucks to be banned from a sport you love. She’s not even able to teach and she was good! But she’s funny on World’s dumbest. . .

    • Rick Brenner

      Karma.

  • Rick Brenner

    Harding is a sociopathic liar.

  • angus seymour butz

    i have always liked tonya in-spite of or because of her rough edges. i wouldnt necessarily want to be friends with her but i wouldnt want to be nancy kerrigans friend either, even less than tonyas.
    i do believe tonya was convicted without trial and they took away the only thing that mattered to her and the only shred of confidence this woman ever had. to paraphrase
    “she coulda been a contender” and she was. i think the ban should be lifted

  • Elizabeth Aspen

    I watched the ESPN doc last night – it’s on you tube – and sorry, she couldn’t be more guilty. Of course she was in on it. That said, I do think she should not have been kicked out of skating for good. It was extremely clear from the home videos that she’s had a terrible life and her mother was the biggest bitch on earth and put tons of pressure on Tonya, called her names if she made one mistake. No wonder she felt this was her only way to win.

  • chickadee

    It’s interesting what narrative you seemed to take from the attack, since those of us who were old enough to understand what was happening and who watched the scandal as it unfolded knew that most of those things that you listed were true.

    What I do think was true, and what is true now, and probably will be as long as there is an artistic element to the skating performance, is that skaters (men and women) cannot simply be athletes. There has always been an expected level of gracefulness that is linked to athletic ability,and Harding didn’t master it. There is a reason why the Russians always seem to be able to produce athletes who marry the two aspects, and that is because the country views the sport as worthy of support and because their athletes train in ballet.

    Marshall’s article was interesting, especially as a part of her larger project. However, you cannot realistically expect a sport to reward an athlete who doesn’t master all of the elements, particularly (as the story notes) when she loses the athletic edge that put her over the top.

  • danny lindenberg

    besides the facts you listed (indeed often miswritten of!), what do you think, is that bit true or not: the paper with names, numbers, notes etc – it’s claimed by the authorities that handwriting analysts confirmed it was tonya’s, she claims the analyses confirmed it was not her.

    • JakeJ413

      That’s what it comes down to. Because the testimony of these people is pretty worthless.

    • danny lindenberg

      exactly. and this piece makes the case rather black and white, all emotions aside.

      and the thing is, empathy-wise I’m all for tonya in the sense that she indeed did carry all the characteristics that a truly great athlete has to have, and she did suffer majorly from this “beauty” stigma of female figure skating, also the style of 80-90′s did her a huge disservice.

      btw, does anyone know if tonya and diane rawlinson still stayed close? I think that was the only safe, healthy, caring connection she had with another human being.

  • HB

    Most of ESPN’s “30 for 30″ documentaries are on Netflix. There’s one by director Nanette Burstein about this, and it is absolutely enthralling. Tells both sides, but seems to lead towards Tonya’s being implicated. Either way, check it out! It’s only 75 mins.

  • losira

    In short being so called delicate femimne….crying why does not square that was manipulative in her own right….she broke up a marriage….and was unprofessional morally and I tire of hearing about her being so goody goody…she was not.

  • Steakface

    Alexis, you’re letting your woman-bias interfere with your ability to think and reason.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      Hahaha, thanks for the input.

  • burr

    Women can do no wrong, and even if they do it’s always a man’s fault somehow, right?

  • Chris

    This article is so terribly written, I almost mistook it for satire. Not one of your “reasons” actually suggests that Harding isn’t guilty. Your first “fact” that is supposed to suggest Harding’s innocence is that Kerrigan actually said “why” instead of “why me”… that has nothing to do with Harding’s innocence! Neither does the misreport on the weapon type, nor the exact location of where Kerrigan was struck. Jeff Before heading your article as “Eye-opening facts that suggest Tonya Harding is not guilty”, make sure you actually write about that!

    How did you even get a job writing articles when you don’t even address your subjects by their full name? You refer to conspirator Jeff Gillooly casually as “Jeff” without even previously mentioning his name. Furthermore, your idea of his “motive” for attacking Kerrigan is that Harding pissed him off and he got angry – tell me again how that translates to his motive for slashing Kerrigan’s chance at the Olympics?

    I am not usually this blunt, but you are wasting your own time and ours by posting this misleading rubbish. I agree with others – you’d be much happier heading to Netflix to watch 30 for 30.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      “10 Eye-Opening Facts That Will Make You Rethink Your Opinion Of Tonya Harding”

      I’m not usually this blunt, but you’re wrong about my title.

  • Joanna Best

    To the author of this article (Alexis Rhiannon), I agree with Katie that you are a truly terrible writer. Your title led me to believe that I would be reading about information regarding Tonya Harding and her “innocence” in the 1994 controversy. But alas, I was mislead and read a list of facts that in no way pertained to Tonya’s guilt or “innocence” in the attack. All you did was outline a number of unrelated facts about the events of the attack and what led up to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. I sure hope you didn’t get paid to write this, because it sure is a hefty load of shit. Go back to school, honey.

    • Alexis Rhiannon

      I’m so excited to tell you that I did get paid to write this! And even though you don’t like it, can you at least be impressed by what a heavy load of shit it is? Not everyone could produce a load of shit this hefty.

  • sodapop

    10 Eye-Opening Facts That Will Make You Rethink Your Opinion Of Tonya Harding.

    Half of these “eye-opening facts” are irrelevant to how someone should feel about Tonya. Specifically 1-5. She said, “Why” not, “Why me”. Wow yup that changes…. nothing. As does where she got hit and how bad it was. The only relevant issues are was she involved or not. Number 9 is a conspiracy theory in itself and much more unbeleiveable. She got back together with a person she had a restraining order against, who abused her to seem more stable and he found out and concocted this elaborate thing to get back at her?? #6 Tonya lied once about the incident, protecting her husband, but it’s not possible she lied and knew all along to save herself?? Please. Was Jeff ever convicted of this rape? No and I’m not saying it didn’t happen but doesn’t that kind of go against the reasoning behind #7(she was never convicted?) This is terrible “writing”.

    • sodapop

      And here is the biggest hole. If Jeff wanted to get back at Tonya why attack Nancy? So people would assume that she was involved and get her banned from skating? That means he wanted to get caught! That makes no sense what so ever!!! He wanted him and his freinds to get caught. Why involve anyone elese why not just do it himself? Why involve so many other people to go down with him for revenge when the whole purpose was to connect him to the crime and connect her with him.

  • smh

    that made no sense.

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