On Feb. 2, 1992, famous figure skater Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly pleaded guilty to the attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan after hitting her right knee with a baton. This is not just a story about one of the biggest scandals in any sport, but also a story of triumph that seemed impossible.
Kerrigan began her rise to stardom in 1987 after placing No. 4 at the junior level and began competing professionally in 1988. While she did not immediately become a star, she consistently rose through the ranks increasing every year from No. 12 in 1988 to No. 5 in 1989 and No. 4 in 1990. In 1991, however, she started making a name for herself when she placed third at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, qualifying for the 1991 World Figure Skating Championships where she took home the bronze medal. In 1992, during her first Olympics, she won bronze and began preparing for the 1994 Olympics.
Harding trained to be a figure skater throughout her youth and in the mid-1980s she slowly began to make a name for herself, placing sixth in the 1986 U.S. Figure Skating Championships followed by a fifth-place finish in both 1987 and 1988, then third place in 1989. In 1991, she seemed to be a favorite going into the championships, but she suffered from the flu and asthma which resulted in a poor free skate and a seventh-place finish.
Harding made a name for herself in 1991 when she became the first-ever woman to complete a triple axel, winning the event with a perfect 6.0 technical score, the first since Janet Lynn in 1973. After 1991, Harding was never able to complete a triple axel again. In 1992, she would finish third in the World Championships, qualifying her for the 1992 Olympics where she would finish fourth.
When comparing Kerrigan and Harding, the two could not be more different from each other. Kerrigan is your typical build for a figure skater, standing at 5-foot-4 while Harding is 5-foot-1. While Kerrigan did not know Harding personally, their paths and their future careers were about to collide forever. On Jan. 6, 1994, just one day before the U.S. Figure Skating Championship’s first Ladies’ Singles competition, as she was coming off the ice after practice, Kerrigan was attacked by Shane Stant. Stant was hired by Gillooly and Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckardt. Stant hit Kerrigan in the right knee with a baton.
It has been speculated for years how much involvement, if any, Harding had in the attack. For years, she contested she knew nothing of it. However, in a 2018 interview with ABC, she stated she knew something was up but still claims that she never told Gillooly to carry out the attack.
While the attack was intended to knock Kerrigan out of both the championship and the Olympics, Kerrigan did not have her leg broken but was severely bruised, which forced her to withdraw from the championship which Harding would win, securing her spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Even though she was not able to compete in the championship, fellow skaters and the United States Federal Figure Skating Association decided to name her to the team over second-place finisher and future Olympian Michelle Kwan.
Just seven weeks after the attack, Kerrigan competed in the 1994 Olympics, winning silver in a controversial finish behind Ukrainian skater Oksana Baiul. The controversy surrounds the fact that Kerrigan led in points after the short program but lost in the free skate by a very close 5-4 score. Harding would finish in eighth place after having trouble with the laces on her skates.
During the Olympics, Harding was under investigation for the Kerrigan attack, and on March 16, 1994, Harding pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in relation to the attack. On June 29, the USFSA disciplinary panel met for nine hours over a span of two days to discuss the attack, and on June 30 it was announced that Harding’s 1994 national title would be stripped and she would be banned for life from competing in USFSA events. Kerrigan has stated she has never received a direct apology from Harding and has moved on with her life.