Margot Robbie stars as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding in new dark comedy I, Tonya – due for theatrical release December 8th – here we look at how she would stop at nothing to win.
At just 24-years-old, Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding had won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and placed second at the World Championships, she was also the second woman to complete a triple axel jump in competition. Harding had talent, opportunity, and an adoring American public supporting her all the way.
Then, on January 6th, 1994, everything changed for the worst. Harding’s main competitor Nancy Kerrigan had just stepped off the ice during a practice session at Cobo Arena, Detroit, when she was attacked by Shane Stant. She’d retired to her dressing room, when Stant, armed with a baton, struck just inches above her knee. Stant fled the scene leaving Kerrigan crying in pain on the floor, grabbing her knee, and screaming nothing more than, “Why me?”
The assailant’s orders – “break her leg” – had been specific but not successful, as Kerrigan was left only bruised and not broken. Still, the attack forced her to withdraw from the national championship and Harding went on to win the U.S title two days later. Kerrigan later told reporters, “I won’t lose faith in people. That’s just one bad guy. I’m sure there are others because it’s happened in other sports.” What she meant by “it” – was sabotage.
The Plot That Was Cold As Ice
(ABOVE) Shawn Eric Eckardt (Left), bodyguard of Harding, and Derrick Smith (Right)
The sabotage Kerrigan spoke of came from someone closer than she could have imagined. Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, had ordered the attack on Kerrigan’s “landing leg” so she was unable to compete in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. If successful, Stant would be paid $6,500.
Eckhardt’s lawyer told reporters, “It’s a rather monstrous thing to be involved with – the serious injury of a pretty young woman with a promising career. He is certainly taking responsibility for his role in this.”
Gillooly accepted a plea bargain in exchange for his testimony against Stant, Eckhardt, and getaway car driver Derrick Smith. Then came the biggest shock – he also claimed Harding had been involved.
What came next was a media frenzy as reporters scrambled to hear the truth from Harding – had she really orchestrated this violent attack just to secure her own success? Her attorney claimed she was nothing more than a victim herself, who had found herself on the receiving end of a ” torrent of innuendo and suspicion” and was “physically exhausted” by such accusations.
The denial was short-lived and on January 27th, Harding broke down in tears, just one day before she was supposed to leave for the World Figure Skating Championships in Japan, admitting that, yes – she had knowledge of the attack before it happened.
Addressing a public that once looked at her adoringly, she pleaded, “Many of you will be unable to forgive me for that. It will be difficult to forgive myself. I know I have let you down, but I have also let myself down. Despite my mistakes and rough edges, I have done nothing to violate the standards of excellence, of sportsmanship, that are expected in an Olympic athlete.”
Harding Banned For Life
Harding avoided jail time by pleading guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers. She received three years probation, 500 hours of community service, and a $160,000 fine. She was also forced to withdraw from the 1994 World Figure Skating Championships and resign from the United States Figure Skating Association. Banned from participating in USFSA-run events as either a skater or a coach as a result of “a clear disregard for fairness, good sportsmanship, and ethical behavior”.
Looking back on the events, Nancy Kerrigan told ABC News, “It’s sad because (Harding) is almost like somebody else at this point. I never got a direct apology.”