After earning a 1992 bronze medal in Albertville, France, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan appeared to be America’s best hope for top honors in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.
Unfortunately for Kerrigan, rival skater Tonya Harding longed to grab the glory for herself and was willing to do anything to achieve that — both on the ice and off.
On January 6, 1994, Kerrigan walked off the ice at Detroit’s Cobo Arena after a practice session ahead of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. She then stopped next to the rink to talk to reporter Dan Scarton of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Suddenly, a large, white male wearing a black jacket and a hat rushed up to the skater and slammed her in the knee with an object that resembled a crowbar.
The silent assailant moved fast and made a clean escape, even breaking through a locked door. In the meantime, Kerrigan collapsed to the ground and repeatedly pleaded through tears, “Why? Why? Why?” A camera captured the moment and spawned one of the most ubiquitous “viral videos” in the days just before the internet captured the public’s consciousness.
Fortunately, Kerrigan suffered only severe bruising; her leg was not broken. Unfortunately, the pain of trying to skate on the damaged kneecap was more than she could take, and Kerrigan had to withdraw from the national championship. In the months that followed, Kerrigan’s question of “Why?” would be answered in a way that could only be described as a bizarre and tawdry soap opera come to life.
Tonya Harding, who went on win the national championships after Kerrigan had to withdraw, subsequently secured her own spot on the Olympic team. She also proved to be the catalyst behind a plot to violently fracture Kerrigan’s leg and eliminate her as a rival to Harding on a long-term basis.
Shortly before the attack, in December 1993, Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, met with Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckardt to try to figure out a way to get Kerrigan out of the competition.
The conspirators then contacted opportunistic associate Derrick Smith and his nephew Shane Stant, who said they’d happily “take out a skater” for the right price. That fee turned out to be $6,500.
Stant, who was 22 at the time, first stalked Kerrigan in her home state of Massachusetts, but said he wasn’t able to launch the attack. He then followed Kerrigan to Detroit, where he assaulted her with a retractable baton and made a run for freedom.
Within a week, after the Kerrigan assault became the number one news story on the planet, Smith turned himself into the FBI. Three days after Smith confessed, Stant also surrendered to authorities.
On January 18, authorities questioned Tonya Harding. She denied any involvement in the plot. The very next day, authorities filed conspiracy charges against Gillooly. It didn’t take long for Gillooly to agree to a deal that involved him implicating Harding.
When that evidence was taken back to the skater, Harding changed her story. She admitted that she had found out about her ex-husband’s role in the conspiracy after the fact, yet didn’t tell police.
The U.S. Olympic Committee convened to determine whether or not to allow Harding to remain in competition. Harding’s legal team successfully filed a lawsuit that prevented the Committee from removing her. The drama would then move on to the Olympic games in Norway.
Once in Lillehammer, Harding had a visible breakdown shortly into a performance after one of her skate laces broke. The judges allowed Harding to restart, but the damage was already done. Harding ended up finishing eighth in the overall competition.
Kerrigan, fully recovered from the injury, got the proverbial last laugh — she earned a silver medal.
When Harding returned to the U.S., she took a deal to stay out of jail in which she pleaded guilty to the charge of obstructing the investigation of the attack on Kerrigan. She also gave up her United States Figure Skating Association membership.
A court sentenced Harding to three years of supervised probation. She also had to pay a $100,000 fine, reimburse $10,000 to the prosecutor’s office, set up a $50,000 fund for the benefit of the Special Olympics, and perform 500 hours of community-service work.
In addition, Harding was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and participate in any treatment required. U.S. Figure Skating authorities also banned her for life from competing.
In the years since her original notoriety, Harding appeared in a “celebrity sex tape” along with Gillooly, tried her hand at professional wrestling, sang with a band called the Golden Blades, and duked it out in 2002 on Fox TV’s Celebrity Boxing against Paula Jones, a central figure of a Bill Clinton scandal.
Harding then went on to box professionally between 2002 and 2004, securing a 4-3-0 record. In 2010, she also set a land-speed record while driving a 1931 Ford Model A across the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Nancy Kerrigan followed up her Olympic victory with numerous television and movie appearances, which she continues to do. In 2004, she was inducted into the United States Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
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