The truth about Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding's relationship

In 1994, Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a baton-wielding hitman in one of the most bizarre and infamous moments in modern sports. As Kerrigan pushed herself to make a remarkable recovery and perform in the Winter Games just six short weeks after her attack, suspicion started to shift toward rival figure skater Tonya Harding. The two had both scored notable wins in the early '90s, but until the attack on Kerrigan, there was nothing to suggest bad blood between them. Their competitive relationship had been professional, friendly, and otherwise cordial, but a closer look reveals much more at play between these two athletes. 

They began as friendly rivals

Both Kerrigan and Harding's skating careers took off around the same time. The two skaters were fierce competitors, no doubt, but their early rivalry seemed sportsmanlike. 

It was Harding who made history by becoming the first woman to land a triple axel, earning her the gold the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1991. Kerrigan took the bronze.

However, according to People, Harding never successfully performed the triple axel in competition again, and Kerrigan's star began to rise after winning a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville, France. Harding didn't make the podium, finishing a disappointing fourth. 

The rivalry between these two heated up as the 1994 Winter Olympics approached, but Kerrigan initially refused to believe that Harding could be connected to the mysterious person who clubbed her in the leg following a practice session. "I mean we were competitors, but… we were friendly," she told Morning Joe (via the Daily Mail). "So to think that anyone you know would deliberately try to hurt you, yeah, it's too bizarre to understand."

Everything changed after the '92 Games

Kerrigan's bronze medal following the '92 Games proved impressive enough to attract plenty of endorsement deals. She essentially became "the face of U.S. Figure Skating" going into the 1994 Winter Olympics, and according to Deadspin, that's when the real trouble started brewing between Kerrigan and Harding.

Even if Harding was performing at or close to Kerrigan's level, "would Harding have been top pick for endorsements with Kerrigan around?" asks Deadspin. "Probably not." 

The publication notes that Harding grew up poor, so she had an opportunity to truly change her fortunes if the more affluent Kerrigan was out of the picture. It's a fact that wasn't lost on some questionable characters in Harding's life — namely her ex-husband.

The whack heard round the world

On Jan. 6, 1994, Kerrigan walked out of a practice session at the Cobo Arena in Detroit, which should have been an unremarkable event. Instead, Rolling Stone reports that a hitman named Shane Stant approached Kerrigan and hit her in the right leg with a collapsible baton. The brazen attack instantly made headlines as news footage of Kerrigan crying and clutching her injured leg was broadcast around the world. 

According to Marie Claire, Kerrigan was scheduled to qualify for a spot on the Olympic team the following day. She could no longer qualify and was sidelined for the U.S. Championships, which Harding won. Kerrigan was still granted a spot on the Olympic team. With Kerrigan off the ice, Harding won the U.S. Championship. 

Prior to the attack. Harding uttered some competitive words to the press that have since taken on a more sinister tone. "It's not going to be a true crown until I get at Nancy down at the Olympics," she said (via ABC News), "and let me tell you, I'm going to whip her butt."

The culprits weren't the smartest bunch

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Kerrigan, it became readily apparent that the wicked plot wasn't planned and executed by criminal geniuses. 

According to Bleacher Report, Stant was quickly caught after leaving a mile-wide paper trail that included booking hotels in his own name and using his girlfriend's credit card to rent a car. On top of that, Harding's bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, literally bragged to people about planning the attack with Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. All three men were soon arrested and charged.

To put a point on how inept the culprits were, Kerrigan reportedly had a good chuckle about the whole thing while meeting with her lawyers. "When we read the transcripts of the 10 hours of depositions they gave, you did have to laugh," she told USA Today. "It was definitely humorous at times. They came to Boston (to attempt the attack there) and forgot their IDs and money so they couldn't really get anywhere. You laugh in thankfulness that they were not as good at being bad guys as they had wanted to be. It all sounds ridiculous, which does make you laugh."

But as Deadspin notes, this attack would have been no laughing matter if Stant had struck Kerrigan directly in the knee instead of the thigh. Even worse, during the early planning stages of the attack, there was reportedly talk of murdering Kerrigan.

The showdown at Lillehammer

Despite the ongoing investigation into her camp's involvement with the attack on Kerrigan, Harding was allowed to compete in the 1994 Winter Olympics and share ice time with Kerrigan, who made a seemingly remarkable recovery. (Privately, Kerrigan developed an eating disorder and battled severe anxiety — something she revealed to People for the first time in 2017.) As the Olympic figure skating competition became one of the most-watched events in sports history, the two skaters did their best to ignore each other and the constant throng of cameras.

Wearing the same Vera Wang outfit she was wearing during her attack, Kerrigan skated one of the best performances of her career during the Olympics and took home the silver medal after being edged out by Ukranian Oksana Baiul

Harding, on the other hand, didn't do so well. After choking on her first jump, she famously broke down crying and begged the judges for a second chance, citing a broken lace. "To the boos and whistles of 6,000 figure skating fans at the Hamar Olympic Amphitheater, Harding was allowed to leave the ice and skate her program at the end of her group of skaters," reported The Oregonian. "When she returned to a smattering of applause, boos and catcalls, Harding skated a lackluster performance, cleanly landing only three of six planned triple jumps and finishing eighth overall."

Harding would never skate professionally again.

Everything went south for Harding

Following her disastrous performance at the '94 Olympic Games, Harding's life quickly spiraled out of control. In exchange for a plea deal, Gillooly agreed to testify against his ex-wife. 

It's worth noting that while Gillooly has maintained for more than 20 years that Harding knew about the attack the whole time, that has never been definitively proven. Harding has denied knowing about the attack in advance, but she did plead guilty to "conspiring to hinder prosecution" by lying to the FBI about what she learned after the attack. That was enough for the U.S. Figure Skating Association to ban Harding for life and strip her of her titles, including the U.S. Championship that she won in the wake of the attack.

In the years following the skating scandal, Harding's life continued to be a roller coaster of unfortunate decisions. According to People, she was arrested for DUI, assaulted a boyfriend with a hubcap, and attempted suicide twice. It was not a pretty picture, but in 2017, Harding got another shot at fame.

I, Tonya made Harding a sympathetic media figure

In 2017, Australian actress Margot Robbie made headlines by playing Harding in the critically acclaimed film I, Tonya. The movie sought to portray Harding in a more sympathetic light, which also involved downplaying her alleged involvement in the attack on Kerrigan.

For a moment, the movie clearly had a positive effect on her image. Harding was invited to the Golden Globes, where actress Allison Janney, who won best supporting actress for playing Harding's mother in the film, gave the disgraced skater a shout-out from the podium.

However, Harding's brief "comeback" raised a few eyebrows, and there was one person in particular who wasn't thrilled. When The Boston Globe (via The Hollywood Reporter) reached out Kerrigan to hear her thoughts on the award-winning film, the former Olympican did her best to remain diplomatic. "I haven't seen the movie. I'm just busy living my life," she said. "I was the victim. Like, that's my role in this whole thing. That's it. It is weird, that's for sure. A bizarre thing."

Fellow figure skater Johnny Weir also chimed in on the film's controversial depiction of Harding. "I am so over the glamorization of a villain simply because she was born on the 'wrong side of the tracks,'" he tweeted. "While her upbringing may have been tragic, athletes come from all walks of life and succeed based on merit, not assault. I won't applaud her and I stand for Nancy."

Goodwill for Harding imploded after a startling confession

As part of the promotional tour for I, Tonya, Harding brokered an interview with ABC News for the two-hour special "Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story." During the special, Harding made a comment that might seem innocent in passing, but according to Deadspin, it was a "damning admission." 

For the first time, Harding admitted she knew about the attack on Kerrigan before it happened. "I did, however, overhear them talking about stuff, where, 'Well, maybe we should take somebody out so we can make sure she gets on the team.'" Harding told ABC News. "And I remember telling them, I go, 'What the hell are you talking about? I can skate.'"

There has been no conclusive evidence that Harding was involved in the planning or that she was complicit in letting it happen, but for more than two decades, Harding maintained that she knew nothing until after the attack. Her ABC interview indicated that she at least knew something

Shortly after the special aired, the New York Post reported that Harding's publicist/agent dropped her as a client after Harding demanded that journalists sign an affidavit agreeing to pay a $25,000 fine if they ask her anything "about the past." And just like that, her return to the spotlight was officially toast.

Don't hold your breath for a happy ending

Despite I, Tonya shoving this scandal back into the headlines, don't expect a reconciliation between the former rivals. While Kerrigan made it clear that she has no interest in I, Tonya or its award show accolades, she also told 60 Minutes during the film's production that she still can't forgive Harding, who despite her claims to the contrary, has never apologized to Kerrigan. As for a sit down between the two, that was already attempted in 1998 to disastrous results. Long story short, we don't see these two becoming BFFs, or even frenemies, anytime soon.