Olympic hopeful Nancy Kerrigan is attacked at a Detroit ice rink following a practice session two days before the Olympic trials. A man hit Kerrigan with a club on the back of her knee, causing the figure skater to cry out in pain and bewilderment. When the full story emerged a week later, the nation became caught up in a real-life soap opera.
One of Kerrigan’s chief rivals for a place on the U.S. Figure Skating Team was Tonya Harding. In mid-December 1993, Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, approached Shawn Eckardt about somehow eliminating Kerrigan from the competition. Eckardt set up a meeting with Derrick Smith and Shane Stant, who agreed to injure Kerrigan for a fee.
On December 28, Stant went to Massachusetts, where Kerrigan was practicing. However, he couldn’t carry out the attack so he followed her to Detroit, where Smith met him. After hitting Kerrigan, Stant fled the ice rink in Smith’s getaway car. With Kerrigan unable to skate, Harding won the championship and a place at the 1994 Olympics.
On January 11, Derrick Smith confessed to FBI agents. Three days later, Stant surrendered and also confessed. Harding was questioned on January 18, but denied her involvement. She claimed that she would cut off any connection with Gillooly if he was responsible. The next day, Gillooly was charged with conspiracy to assault Kerrigan. Shortly after, he agreed to a deal in which he implicated Harding.
Harding then came forward, changing her story and admitting that she had learned of Gillooly’s role in the attack after the championships but did not inform authorities. Meanwhile, U.S. Olympic officials named Kerrigan and Harding to the team that would compete in Lillehammer, Norway. When the United States Olympic Committee began considering removing Harding from the team, she filed a lawsuit that successfully stopped this action.
At the Olympics, the competition between Harding and Kerrigan set ratings records. Harding’s performance was a drama in itself. She broke down crying after a lace on her skates broke. Even after being allowed a restart, Harding wasn’t able to pull herself together and finished eighth. Kerrigan took home the silver medal, and many thought she deserved the gold.
Back in the U.S., Harding pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hinder the prosecution of Kerrigan’s attackers. She was fined $100,000 and sentenced to probation and 500 hours of community service. Other than Gillooly’s testimony, there was never any further evidence of Harding’s knowledge of the plans before the attack. But Gillooly got revenge on Tonya by sinking to new tabloid depths, selling graphic photos of the couple having sex on their honeymoon.
Meanwhile, Harding wasn’t above trying to exploit the crime and her notoriety herself. However, an attempted movie career was dead in the water from the beginning. Kerrigan even succumbed to the temptation years later, appearing on a talk show with Harding to promote herself.
In 2003, about a year after fighting in a “celebrity boxing” event, Harding made her professional boxing debut. Her story was the subject of the 2017 film I, Tonya.