Nearly 24 years ago, figure skater Tonya Harding was involved in one of the most shocking moments in sports history.
Her then-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, hired hitman Shane Stant to injure her skating rival Nancy Kerrigan. The plan was for Stant to break Kerrigan’s leg during the 1994 U.S. Nationals (which served as the Olympic trials), removing her from contention and clearing a path for Harding to the U.S. title and a berth on the Olympic team.
Due to Stant’s ineptitude, Kerrigan (thankfully) sustained lesser injuries and skated to the silver medal in Lillehammer. Harding finished a disappointing eighth place. The ladies figure skating event would become one of the most-watched in television history, turning both Kerrigan and Harding into instant celebrities. And while Kerrigan skated to her fairytale finish, Harding fell into obscurity.
After the Olympics, she plead guilty to hindering the prosecution of Kerrigan’s attackers. She professed to having no knowledge of the attack on Kerrigan. For her involvement, Harding was stripped of the 1994 U.S. title and banned from ever competing in eligible competition again. She and Gillooly divorced. She earned a “bad girl” reputation after selling her wedding night video and competing as an amateur boxer. Eventually even that notoreity faded, and she receded into her private life.
Until fall 2017. With the release of the biopic, I, Tonya, (review here) and the upcoming Winter Olympics, Harding’s story has reignited the public’s interest. The disgraced skater, now 47, appeared earlier this week at the film’s L.A. premiere, flanked by star Margot Robbie. There were even reports that she would perform in a special skating exhibition. Regardless, Harding was an incredible figure skater whose career was derailed by abusive relationships and poor decisions.
To see just how remarkable a skater she was, check out these five phenomenal Tonya Harding skating performances.
1986 Skate America
One of Harding’s earliest international competitions was at the 1986 Skate America. It was evident right away that she didn’t fit the “princess” stereotype — with her short hair and homemade costumes. But she had an athleticism and energy that excited the commentators and crowd. Note, she’s just 15 here and finished second over many experienced competitors.
1991 U.S. Nationals
Harding’s crowning glory came at the 1991 U.S. Nationals, where she became the first American woman (and second ever) to land a triple Axel jump (Japan’s Midori Ito was the first). She skated a perfect program, besting favorite Kristi Yamaguchi and rival Nancy Kerrigan. The trio would sweep the World Championship a few months later, with Harding earning silver. Here, she wears the teal dress seen in many of the “I, Tonya” promos.
1991 Skate America
Harding made history yet again, landing the first ever triple Axel combination in a short program. She had a silly mistake at the end, falling on the much simpler double Axel. Those types of mistakes often lead to Harding’s downfall. Otherwise, she was considered a top American talent. After this competition, her skating deteriorated and she never landed the triple Axel in competition again.
Harding was also known for her risk-taking music choices. Her short program was set to “”People Are Still Having Sex” by LaTour.
1994 Winter Olympics
Harding went to her second Olympics as the U.S. Champion and under a cloud of suspicion. Dozens of cameras followed her every move, proving to be a further distraction. After stepping out of her jump combination in the short program, she was 10th place — far out of medal contention. Her free skate started ominously; her laces broke during the warm-up. Her team hastily substitute one, but that failed as well after her first failed jump. She left the ice in tears and was given an opportunity to fix it and skate last in the group (much to the dismay of the following competitor, Josee Chouinard, who was rushed onto the ice). Harding returned and skated a decent performance, pulling up to 8th overall. It would be her last competitive skate ever.
Harding had a history of equipment-related errors, more than most. Some saw them as cop-outs (as she would be able to start her programs again after a mistake). Her costume fell apart at the 1993 U.S. Nationals, and her boots became unscrewed at the 1993 Skate America. She also received a bye through a lower-level event because she claimed someone called in a death threat.
1999 ESPN Pro Championship
One of the greatest ironies is that the Kerrigan-Harding saga led to record ratings for the spot, but Harding was banned from competing.
She returned to the ice five years after the scandal in a made-for-TV event. Harding fought back tears as she took the ice and was visibly nervous. Although she fell on two jumps, she completed the program. As she put it, “I got to come out and skate one more time for all my fans.”
I, Tonya is out in theaters now.