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On This Date in Sports January 6, 1994: Nancy and Tonya

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The most ridiculous saga in figure skating begins when Nancy Kerrigan, the champion, is attacked at U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Cobo Arena in Detroit. The leg injury she suffers opens the door for rival Tonya Harding to win and qualify for the Olympics. It would not take long to discover that the man responsible for attacking Kerrigan was connected to Harding, who would be stripped of the medal.

With the start of the staggered Olympics, the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, was just two years after the games in Albertville, France. This kept rivalries red hot, as competitors looked to either add to their medal totals or finally achieved their lifelong dream. Both Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were veterans, making the 1994 games their last chance to take home a Gold Medal. The 24-year-old Kerrigan, the more decorated skater, had won a Bronze Medal in 1992 and became American Champion after the retirement of Kristi Yamaguchi. The 23-year-old Tonya Harding was looking to make the Olympics for the first time and win her first major gold medal. She had once won a Silver Medal at the 1991 World Championships as part of an American sweep behind Yamaguchi and ahead of Kerrigan.

The two rival skaters could not have been any different Nancy Kerrigan was born and raised in Stoneham, Massachusetts, by a stable working-class family. Her father often volunteered to drive the Zamboni at the local rink to help pay for skating lessons. Tonya Harding was raised in Portland, Oregon had a rocky experience with an abusive mother while living in poverty. Harding was more of the social butterfly humbled by her upbringing by the time they reached the competition level. At the same time, most of their rivals regarded Nancy Kerrigan as the ice princess as she often gave her competitors the cold shoulder.

Heading into the 1994 U.S. World Championships, two spots for the Olympics were up for grabs as the top two finishers would qualify for the games in Lillehammer. Nancy Kerrigan was the overwhelming U.S. Favorite, having won the 1993 U.S. Championships. She also had many sponsors, including Campbell’s Soup, Reebok, and Evian. Tonya Harding, meanwhile, was portrayed as the poor girl from the trailer park looking to fulfill a dream. The success and commercial popularity of Nancy Kerrigan angered Harding, especially given her chilly relationship with her rivals. Wanting to get all the attention for herself, Tonya Harding and her ex-husband Jiff Gillooly and Shawn Eckardt, a one-time bodyguard, came up with a schemed to take out Nancy Kerrigan.

Shane Stant and Derrick Smith carried out the attack. While getting ready for a practice skate at Cobo Arena the day before the competition, Stant rushed up and hit Kerrigan on the leg with a telescoping baton and quickly exited the arena as Smith drove the getaway car. Nancy Kerrigan was seen crying out, “Why?” The attack, which happened less than a year after the stabbing of Monica Seles, had all the other skaters concerned, as Nancy Kerrigan was forced to withdraw from competition with a severe bruise. Fortunately, there was no further damage, and the U.S. Skating Federation cleared her to participate in the Olympics, despite not qualifying in Detroit. Without her chief rival, Tonya Harding won the U.S. Championships for the second time in her career, while 13-year-old Michelle Kwan finished second and went to Norway as an alternate.

As the Nancy Kerrigan attack became headline news, it did not take investigators long to catch the assailants. The assailants quickly confessed and fingered Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckert. This led the investigation to Tonya Harding’s footsteps. However, she vehemently denied any connection as she claimed that she no longer had a relationship with Gillooly. As the story unfolded, it became the fodder of tabloid headlines and late-night jokes as the cast of characters was revealed.

Both Tonya and Nancy went on to the Lillehammer games, though there was a move to ban Harding as it became clearer that she had been a part of the scheme to attack her top rival. Things only got more bizarre during the games, as Tonya Harding tearfully asked for a restart due to a broken shoelace and finished eighth in the games. Perhaps the perfect symbolic finish. Nancy Kerrigan, meanwhile, got the Silver Medal after a strong performance was bested by Oksana Baiul from Ukraine. During the wait for the medal ceremony, Nancy Kerrigan was overheard complaining about the delay. Later at a parade at Disneyland, she was heard complaining to Mickey Mouse, which revealed the icy persona that made her a target in the first place. This would cost her several endorsement opportunities, as she no longer was seen as the innocent victim.

Tonya Harding was later stripped of her Gold Medal from the U.S. Championships as she was banned from competitive skating for life. Harding would plead guilty to obstruction and was sentenced to probation, while Jeff Gillooly and the other co-conspirators served time in prison. Eventually, Gillooly sold a sex tape with Tonya Harding to Penthouse. Harding later attempted careers in boxing and wrestling and remained a pop culture icon for years, as a movie about her and the whole affair with Nancey Kerrigan was released in 2017 and received several Oscar Nominations.