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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  • dv727

    Even more disgusting is that the pinky-up crowd at USFSA, and the mean girl hangers-on like Christine Brennan, Scott Hamilton, and Phil Hersh are PROUD of the accuracy of everything written here.

    • Larry Mendte

      I was told several times by reporters who covered the USFSA that they wanted Nancy more for her looks and marketability as her skating. They were a little turned off by the way she dealt with people, but they disliked Tonya Harding even before the incident.

      • dv727

        I just remember Christine Brennan on talk radio where I live (in the Midwest) talking down her nose at Harding when all this was happening. Her commentary was not about the incident, but clearly a snot-nosed put down on Harding’s poverty. Watching the show last night, I learned that extended to Hamilton and Hersh. I guess they have to keep the bread buttered somehow. I lost respect for Hamilton, and didn’t obtain any for Hersh.(sp??)

        • klewis

          I think they took a lot of selective soundbites from everyone, but especially from Scott Hamilton. He actually more than anyone else in the doc took pains to on about how great of a skater Tonya Harding actually was at her peak.

  • marcia

    Yeah, Nancy obviously should’ve been more thrilled to have hundreds of media following her every move after she was physically assaulted. OMG, she wore headphones when entering the arena! What a witch.

    • Larry Mendte

      I used the headphone and Jerky Boy story as a favorable explanation for Kerrigan’s actions, not as an attack or accusation. You are correct though, even though she was a media darling, the feeling were not mutual.

      • newen

        I believe Marcia was being totally SARCASTIC here Mr. Mendte! And you can’t justify a person’s (Tonya’s) ill behavior by trying to stain the other side’s credibility. That’s just purely sad and unfair. Nancy did no wrong to anyone (even to her most aggressive competitor).

  • Matt Mendelsohn

    I still don’t get why, all these years alter, Nancy Kerrigan is still castigated for saying “This is so corny” at Disneyland. Have you been to Disneyland?? I’m sure she was pushed by sponsors et al. to make the appearance. But I would have said the same thing.

    • Larry Mendte

      It wouldn’t have been that bad if it was her only spoiled Princess moment, but there were many. I will say that she seems like she has matured.

    • Chelsea

      She said in another documentary that she was saying “this is so corny” because Disney was making her wear her medal during the parade, not because of the actual parade. I’ve never won a medal, but apparently it’s bad form to wear it around after you’ve won it

      • Patagonia1245

        Then why do so many athletes wear them to interviews and at the Closing Ceremonies? I see athletes in appearances wearing their medals all the time. Making this worse for Nancy was that she left the US to fulfill her sponsor obligations before the Games were even over. The rest of the athletes were marching in the CC’s and there was Nancy, collecting her paycheck. Don’t get me wrong, I feel sorry for Nancy for all she’s been through, but I call straight-up entitlement on this incident.

        • jcars

          Tons of athletes leave before the CC’s. Have you never noticed how many are on talk shows while the games are still going on? And with Nancy, the level of scrutiny was so high they felt it was a security risk.

          • Patagonia1245

            She got paid to be at Disney (not necessarily the case for talk shows), and believe me wearing that medal was in the contract. It was very blatant that she was cashing in, and just to be clear I don’t blame here, but it didn’t sit well with people at the time.

        • Chelsea

          I don’t know, all I know is I went to Michael Phelps’ victory parade back in 2008 and he didn’t have his medals. When I asked why someone I knew said that it’s considered poor sportsmanship to wear them around in public and he probably refused

          • Patagonia1245

            That was a civic victory parade, not a sponsor-paid event. It was in the contract for her to wear the medal. And I see athletes wearing their medals all over the place– to other events, to interviews, to the CC’s.

  • mbeezy

    What is the point of this article? I don’t care how mean Kerrigan was, she was assaulted out of greed and/or hatred – I’m not sure which. Character has more to do with Harding’s situation that her proximity to the tracks

    • Larry Mendte

      But the “proximity to the tracks” shaped her character. This was a girl who was brought up with no means and little family support. Her talent pushed her to the top and people leached off her talent. She didn’t have the resources or support that Nancy Kerrigan had. The simple point of the article is that I witnessed that Tonya Harding wasn’t all bad and that Nancy Kerrigan wasn’t all good. The narrative written by the media was too easy and we all bought into it, doing both women a disservice.

      • dv727

        The last two sentences of this post are the reason I found your article the most reasonable of all the things I’ve read or watched. I watched some of the skating this year and was very impressed by the beauty of a lot of it. Then when the scoring came, I was very unimpressed. Tragically, an ugly form of politics has infested the sport (and other sports as well) and made it unattractive. What went on here, 20 years ago, was just another form of that ugliness.

      • jcars

        Oh please. One of them ATTACKED the other and people have become so irrational in hating Nancy that they somehow think we need to be “fair” and judge the victim on the same level as the attacker. “Well, she’s kind of a bitch, so it’s not like it was totally undeserved.” Yes, people judge Tonya more harshly than Nancy. BECAUSE SHE COMMITTED A CRIMINAL ACT AGAINST HER COMPETITOR. And if you can listen to the 2 of them 20 years later and not see that Tonya continues to be drowning in bitterness and vile, then you’ve lost all perspective.

        • wreed22

          There was never any proof Tonya participated in the attack. What is your proof of a criminal act by Ms. Harding?
          Everybody knows? It is a well known fact?

    • wreed22

      What is your “first hand knowledge” of Ms. Harding’s character. How long have you known her? Describe your relationship with her please.

  • kimair

    In the documentary, Kerrigan commented that she wasn’t saying “this is so
    corny” about being at DIsney World. She was saying it because officials made her
    wear her medal, and she had been taught growing up that showing off was
    wrong and never to do that. Another news reporter said that she
    (Kerrigan) wouldn’t have even been miked in either case if the attack
    hadn’t happened.

    What you failed to talk about is that while it was widely thought that Kerrigan grew up with money, she did not. Her father worked 2 jobs and they did not have an extravagant life. She knew the sacrifices her family was making so that she could skate. She didn’t want to play the game either; she didn’t want Vera Wang to do her costumes. She thought skating was supposed to be who did the routines the best and she only acquiesced when she saw that’s how you win. Harding didn’t want to play the game and was brash about it; she smoked between skates, she didn’t practice (she admitted she was lazy at times before championships). Tonya did have a chance. She wanted to be a skater so badly, she could have played the game.

    • Larry Mendte

      What Kerrigan had was a support system of both family and coaches. She attended better schools and had access to better facilities. He Dad may not have had the money, but money was poured into her training and career. Tonya did not have the same. I grew to love Nancy Kerrigan’s family and knew them better than Nancy. In Lillehammer, her agent and later husband seemed to have more control over her.

  • kjpargolf

    Tonya Harding, figure skater, boxer, lumberjack. Not the sharpest tool in the shed.

    • p38l5

      You forgot TV Star on Worlds Dumbest, where she was actually funny. She got married a couple of years ago, really started putting on the poundage. Saw some nude pictures of Nancy at the beach from a few years ago. Still good looking. But if you want to see someone “STIFF” you should have seen her on Saturday Night Live. Had trouble reading the cue cards.

    • wreed22

      You knew her well Mr. golf? When did your Rhodes Scholarship begin? What knowledge and accomplishments do you posses that puts you in an exalted position to judge Ms. Harding?

      • kjpargolf

        A little upset that you didn’t get very far in the spelling bee?

        • wreed22

          A non reply Mr. golf.

  • Randy

    I have to strongly disagree with the last sentence in this article. Tonya had many chances, but chose to march to her own tune rather than conform and bow to the figure skating powers that be. She needed to learn how to play the game but was unwilling to bend, and expected other to do the bending. She could have played the game a lot differently with much better results, but chose to take the easy way out and has suffered for it ever since. I have a hard time mustering sympathy for some who squandered every opportunity presented to her and then spends the rest of her existence blaming others for her misfortune. Tonya had the chance and blew it.

    • dv727

      Yep, be a USFSA drone and go places. To hell with ability, just memorize Morry Stillwell’s mold, pour yourself into it, and the rewards will be infinite. You may not have a soul, but that’s OK, Morry will lead you to the promised land……if he likes your style.

    • Mathew Plank

      Tonya needed coaches and family support to play the game. Few people are a natural at playing the game. It seems by comments on here that few people actually know what happened. Tonya never touched Nancy. Another person did the deed and went to jail for it, but Tonya paid the price. Tonya always paid the price. Nancy was always the Ice Queen and seemed to and still seems to love the role. People need to get their facts straight. And to remember that Tonya was never convicted of anything but got a life sentence from the media and public. I hope it makes all you sleep better and feel like big strong people for picking on a girl that was physically and mentally abused by her mom, a coach and her husband at the time. Your all showing ZERO sympathy. Yet are giving Nancy a free “skate” on all issues. And in regards to Disney World, I have never seen a NFL MVP say this is so corny!

      • Stacy Mintzer Herlihy

        Tonya was guilty. She clearly planned the whole thing. Pieces of paper with her handwriting were found by the FBI indicating her advance knowledge of the plot. Tonya is lucky that the people around her were just as incompetent as she is and Kerrigan was not hurt more badly or even killed. She’s also lucky she did not serve time in jail for her role in injuring Kerrigan. She isn’t getting any sympathy because she doesn’t deserve any.

        • klewis

          Not true. There was never any evidence against implicating her except the testimony of her ex-husband who cut a deal to finger her in order to save his own sorry butt. That’s it. It’s the reason why the prosecution took what was a pretty lousy offer from her lawyer and dropped the case against her. Did she know about it all along? Maybe, but I tend to doubt it. She was not as big of a loser as those she surrounded herself with as evidenced by her career up to that point. Sadly, she did prefer the company of such sleaze though, and in the end, she paid a price for it.

    • wreed22

      Ms. Harding took the easy way out? Really?

  • Maryan

    I remember her mother (who was legally blind) yelling at the cameras that her daughter should have won the Gold. Turned me off completely. Then Nancy married her Manager (older guy who was married with kids) and I knew she was trash.Fairy Tale ended.

  • skaterfan

    I guess Nancy deserved what she got right? I can’t imagine what it must have been like for an athlete who was never the #1 star to suddenly have the media parked at her doorstep. She was supposed to skate beautifully, win a gold medal, and always be the perfect princess especially for the media. I am surprised she was not more of a ‘bitch” and I was happy to find out that she was in fact human. She has always come across to me as a private person who was very athletic and a competitor who wanted to do her best. She was a skater not an actor, she was who she was and not a perfect person. She did not deserve the attack, or the media frenzy or the backlash that continues to this day. Shame on you

  • Tonya

    Nancy was/is a douche.

    • Donna

      Nancy is a beautiful, elegant, classy skater that deserves none of the trash talk. Nancy could outshine that trashy tonya anyday of the week..tonya clearly has taken poor care of herself by smoking, she has aged so badly and shes younger than Nancy. too bad that tonya wasted her life.

      • wreed22

        Donna, where did you study English and punctuation. Please select a remedial course soon. Concentrate on texting and twitter until you pass the course. Please!

      • klewis

        Tonya and Nancy were both talented skaters and fierce rivals. It was actually only when Tonya’s life at home started to fall apart and her skating suffered that Nancy began to consistently overtake Tonya in competition. It was all in the documentary that’s why I know :)

    • Donna

      both tonyas are douches

  • Faye Chisholm

    I think if Tanya had a little more support she could have been one of the best figure skaters the USA ever had, she had the talent. With the right support the rough edges would have been smoothed out and allowed her to reach her potential as a skater.

  • StacyFlick

    Larry, I totally agree with your article and find it refreshing. I remembered the incident in 1994 and watched the documentary on Sunday. I agree that Nancy, while beautiful, lacked some very basic social graces and didn’t come across as a very likeable person. Tonya, while not innocent in my view, came across as one would have expected.

    • wreed22

      Exactly what did you expect Stacy?

  • Clara Barton Green

    Great article. I haven’t yet seen the ESPN doc but I was able to catch most of the NBC one. Man, they weren’t trying to hide their bias, were they? I like how they edited out the unsavory parts of Nancy’s past (like her relationship with Solomon) but made sure to mock Tonya subtly every chance they could. In many ways Tonya is her own worst enemy but I imagine growing up the way she did–abused physically and emotionally by her mother–might cripple a person for life, the way extreme poverty does, and probably informs a lot of her reflexive defensiveness and internalized victimhood. I don’t really have a problem with Nancy (and was impressed with her in the NBC doc–she has definitely matured) but the arbitrary moral dichotomy–Nancy=good, Tonya=bad–is obnoxious and offensive because it’s so obviously classist. Tonya sings KARAOKE, haw haw! Tonya SMOKES and DRINKS. I have no problem whatsoever believing the USFSA advised her to get back together with Gillooly–the sport is notorious for that kind of meddling in skaters’ lives, down to their costumes and makeup. There is no proof Tonya was involved before the attack, and there *is* proof (police reports and eyewitnesses) that she was physically abused by Gillooly. In short she has my sympathy and always did. I really hope she is able to find peace in her new life with her son.

  • Julio M. Houmani-Chavez

    It’s quite possible to not like spoiled, aloof, Nancy Kerrigan. However, it’s quite IMpossible to like Tonya Harding, who, 20 years later, is still denying she had anything to do with assaulting her main rival. The fact that she’s broke, bloated and ugly (uglier, I should say) seems to me like appropriate Karma.

    • wreed22

      Well Mr. Houmani-Chavez (were you married more than once?) you seem to know karma. The sunglasses and wife beater shirt will open doors for you in the corporate establishment.

  • Chris Mackey

    Oh, spare me the BS about Tonya never having a chance. There are people who have been born on “the wrong side of the tracks” who turned out just fine. They don’t all run around conspiring to harm their opponents. And let’s face it, she represented this country a few times. That’s hardly someone who never had a chance. She had a chance, and she blew it. So spare me the BS about fate, wrong side of the tracks, or anything else. Nothing is written about a person’s life except for what that person writes, and her life is like a bad check.

    • newen

      Bravo! I couldn’t agree with you more Mr. Mackey.. :)

  • Stacy Mintzer Herlihy

    I just saw this article. As a long time skating fan, someone who knew who Tonya and Nancy were before they were Tonya and Nancy, I call nonsense on the author’s conclusions. Tonya and the writer are being ridiculous. Had Harding had the discipline to pull together a decent program with at least one well landed triple axel and a few good musical choices, she would have at least medaled and maybe even won. She may have been from a lousy family background but she was hardly without gifts.

    Most of us would kill to be a tenth as athletic as she was. I’ve been skating for decades. I can still barely manage to skate backwards even after years of practice. I’d probably hurt myself if I attempted a simple jump. Like many others, I would be delighted if I could pull off the feeling of power that was always Harding’s for the asking.

    Her problem was not her family background. Her problem was her lack of discipline and focus. Her problem today is still her failure to admit that. She’s in her forties. The saddest part of all that has happened to her is that she’s still not a grown up.

    • klewis

      One of the things I liked about the documentary, is Harding “did” own up to the fact that she did not work hard enough at times at her skating, partly because she had a messed up home life. She was very honest about that. The only thing that she would not do is own up to her involvement in hurting Nancy Kerrigan. There was never much in the way of evidence to support that she was which is why she was never charged. She could have been involved, but personally, just looking at the evidence, I don’t think she actually was.

      Tonya Harding was no question guilty by association and tried and convicted by the media. Whether she was actually involved in the plot to hurt Nancy, is really mostly her word against her ex-husband who was clearly involved. I tend to believe her more than him.