On the afternoon of January 6, 1994, Olympic skating hopeful Nancy Kerrigan, the pride of Stoneham, Massachusetts, skated a practice session at a rink in Detroit. She was scheduled to compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships the next night and was widely favored to win the title for the second year in a row.
The Olympics were scheduled for Lillehammer, Norway, in February; the first- and second-place skaters would automatically receive spots on the U.S. team. As Kerrigan left the ice, she stopped briefly to speak with a reporter. Suddenly, a six-foot tall, 200-pound man wielding a police baton charged past her, clubbed her on the right knee, and fled through a nearby door.
Her father carried her to her dressing room; she was later treated at a hospital for severe bruising to the tissue and muscle of her knee. When swelling occurred the next day, the skater was forced to drop out of the competition.
With Kerrigan sidelined, Tonya Harding and Michelle Kwan came in first and second at the U.S. championships, and won places on the Olympic team. But in an unprecedented move, U.S. figure skating officials decided that since Kerrigan's injuries were the result of a criminal assault, rather than a skating accident, she would be permitted to compete at the Olympics. Kwan would go to Lillehammer as an alternate.
The drama, however, had only begun. There was wild speculation about who would want to injure a prominent figure skater. At first the media focused on a deranged fan, such as the one who had stabbed tennis player Monica Seles nine months earlier. It was apparently not uncommon for top female figure skaters, including Katarina Witt and Kristi Yamaguchi, to get frequent hate mail. Tonya Harding reported having received a phoned death threat only two months before the U.S. Championships. Asked about the Kerrigan attack, Harding told a reporter, "It scares me because it could have been anyone here. It doesn't make me feel very safe." After the death threat, Harding claimed, she had hired a bodyguard. Skating officials saw the attack on Kerrigan as evidence that figure skaters now faced the same dangers as other highly visible and well-paid celebrities.
Within a week, the drama took a decidedly bizarre turn. The police were looking for an Arizona bounty hunter named Shane Stant in connection with the assault on Kerrigan. Stant turned himself in and made a surprising confession. He said that the attack was part of a plot involving Tonya Harding, her husband, and her bodyguard. According to Stant, Harding had been involved from "way back," and had staged the death threat against herself to make Kerrigan's attack look like part of a pattern.
As the charges unfolded, both Kerrigan and Harding arrived in Lillehammer to prepare for the Olympics. In an atmosphere that resembled a daytime soap opera, the two women lived in the same small skater's village, ate in the same dining hall, and skated in the same practice group. Harding was ordered to appear before the U.S. Olympic Committee's Administrative Board to explain why she shouldn't be sent home for violating its athletic code. But the USOC decided that they could not discipline an athlete for an alleged crime, and facing the threat of a $20M lawsuit, the committee voted to let Harding skate.
Harding's poor performance during the first part of the competition cost her a chance for a medal. She reclaimed the spotlight for the long program by protesting that a broken lace had interfered with her skating. She appealed to the judges, who agreed to allow her to repeat her program.
Despite her injury and ensuing drama, Nancy Kerrigan turned in a nearly flawless performance. After she finished skating, commentator Scott Hamilton told millions of television viewers, "Olympic dreams do come true." He assumed she would win the gold medal, but it was not to be. The last skater of the night was the young Ukrainian Oksana Baiul, whose story of hardship and survival had been told and re-told during the games. When the final scores were posted, Baiul had beaten Kerrigan by the closest margin in Olympic figure skating history to that point.
Kerrigan went home with a silver medal, and Harding returned to the U.S. to face charges of conspiracy to interfere with the investigation of the assault on Kerrigan. Tonya Harding pled guilty, paid a $110,000 fines, contributed $50,000 to the Special Olympics, and did 500 hours of community service at a soup kitchen. The most severe penalty was levied by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which banned her for life from USFSA events. She was never charged with planning the attack and consistently maintained her innocence. Although she hoped to have a professional career, most skaters, including Kristi Yamaguchi, refused to share the ice with her.
Four men eventually served time in jail for the assault on Kerrigan: Stant, the assailant; his uncle, who drove the getaway car; Harding's bodyguard, who hired Stant; and Harding's husband, who engineered the crime.
Nancy Kerrigan continues to skate professionally; she is married, the mother of two, and lives a few miles from her childhood home.
Boston Globe: January 7 and 15, 1994; February 11 and. 26, 1994; July 22, 1995; July 28, 1998.