What Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding Were Really Like in Lillehammer

At the 1994 games, I learned that Olympic women’s figure skating was a sorority of mean girls. Harding wasn’t sophisticated enough to play their game.

Tonya Harding, left, and Nancy Kerrigan at the 1992 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 12, 1992.

Tonya Harding, left, and Nancy Kerrigan at the 1992 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 12, 1992. | AP photo, Phil Sandlin.

On January 6, 1994, I got the phone call that I was being sent to Detroit. Something about a figure skater being assaulted. I was a reporter at WBBM, the CBS station in Chicago. CBS owned the broadcast rights to the Olympics that year and I assumed that had to be the only reason we were covering this story.

I didn’t know anything about figure skating. I had no idea who Nancy Kerrigan was. By the time my photographer and I got to the Cobo Center, the scene of the crime, there wasn’t time to cover anything. I just stood there in the dark and told the story using the now famous “Why me?” video. We were the only non-Detroit TV station there.

We had to stay overnight in Detroit, but it was difficult to believe this story was going to last much longer than a day. Man, was I wrong.

The next day there were dozens of TV crews and hundreds of reporters when Nancy Kerrigan sat down to hold a news conference. I remember thinking she was supermodel-beautiful as she shyly smiled through questions.

After that day, I was on flights following Nancy Kerrigan around the world for the next 7 weeks. I was in Boston as the media was spoon-fed video of Kerrigan’s rehabilitation. I stood for hours in the falling snow outside the Kerrigan home in suburban Stenham in anticipation of a promised news conference. There were about 300 people waiting in front of the house at the bend in the road when Nancy, her agent and her family made the long walk up the driveway.

By then the narrative had been written: Nancy Kerrigan was Dorothy and Tonya Harding was the Wicked Witch of the West. The national media was unusually doting after being made to wait hours in the snow and cold. Nancy smiled and they fawned. Even though no one has ever proven that Tonya had anything to do with the attack on Kerrigan, the jury covering the story had already convicted her.

It wasn’t until Lillehammer that I met Tonya Harding. The CBS credential allowed me access to areas where most others could not go. Everyday I waited outside the practice facility for both Nancy and Tonya to arrive. Tonya would always say hello and sometimes she would say more. Nancy would always ignore us, or worse. Sometimes she would just laugh as she walked by. LuAnn Cahn, covering the Olympics for WCAU when it was a CBS station, was alone with Nancy for a minute. LuAnn said, “I’m from Philadelphia.” Kerrigan laughed and said, “Good for you,” and walked away.

Reporters were starting to trade stories that maybe Nancy wasn’t the princess she played on TV.

I spent a lot of time with the big Kerrigan family in Lillehammer. They had rented a home near the training facility. They explained that Nancy wore earphones as she walked into the facility so she could ignore the media questions. She laughed because she was listening to crank phone calls made by The Jerky Boys.

It hit me then that Nancy had the protection and support of her family in Lillehammer and throughout her life. Tonya, in contrast, had no one.

On the day that Nancy and Tonya were scheduled to share the ice for a practice skate, the facility was filled with hundreds of cameras and reporters hoping for drama. None happened.  After that, few cameras were allowed, but my photographer and I were in the hallway two days later and did record the real drama.  Oksana Baiul stumbled out of a practice in tears.  She had  suffered an injury the day before and was upset by the aggressiveness of French figure skater Surya Bonaly.  We gave our video to the network and it led the coverage.

I realized then that Olympic women figure skaters were a sorority of mean girls. Tonya Harding just wasn’t sophisticated enough to wield a figurative baton.

There was no way the beauty pageant organizers who control figure skating were ever going to allow Tonya to win a gold medal at the Olympics, even if she hadn’t been an emotional wreck on medal night. I followed Tonya off the ice and could hear her coughing and crying through the dressing room door. She had an awful asthma attack and sounded like she was dying. A reporter from a New York tabloid pressed his ear against the door and took notes. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Tonya as I heard her wail and gasp for breath.

At the same time, Baiul was in makeup getting ready to receive her gold medal and Kerrigan was caught on camera saying, “Oh c’mon. So she’s going to get out here and cry again. What’s the difference?” The world got its first glimpse of what reporters in Lillehammer saw a week earlier.

A week later Nancy was caught complaining once again, at Disney World, of all places, during a parade in her honor. “This is so corny. This is so dumb,” she complained, as she stood on a float waving to adoring children. “I hate it. This is the most corny thing I’ve ever done.”

And now, 20 years later, Nancy is the heroine and Tonya is the villain once again in a new documentary. Because the narrative wasn’t just written by the media; it was written by fate and that’s a tough one to shake.

Twenty years later, Nancy looks just like you would expect and so does Tonya. Nancy is still chiseled and attractive. Tonya is bloated and not.

It was always going to end like this. Most times those who are born on the wrong side of the tracks, die on the wrong side of the tracks. Tonya never really had a chance.

Follow @LarryMendte on Twitter.

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