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Tonya Harding’s World Was Nothing Like Nancy Kerrigan’s. That Mattered in 1994

6 minute read

In the first days of 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was the victim of an attack in which her knee was clubbed by a man who escaped the scene. Afterward, Kerrigan and her rival Tonya Harding were often lumped together. Harding, who went on to win the U.S. championships for which Kerrigan had been practicing at the time of the assault, had herself been a victim of a death threat a few months earlier, the press noted.

But the narrative of the vicious attack quickly separated the two. While her suffering made Kerrigan even more of a beloved figure, talk began to swirl that Harding was in fact implicated in the crime. In the weeks that followed, her bodyguard, her on-again-off-again husband and several other men were arrested in connection with the assault — and the veracity of that earlier threat against Harding was called into question, too.

While Harding implored her fans to believe that she was innocent — that she had known nothing of the plan to attack Kerrigan, even if she did know those responsible — many observers couldn’t help but think that it just made sense for Harding to be involved. After all, with the winter Olympics coming up, she was the one who stood to benefit competitively (and financially) from the removal of her rival.

But, as explored in the new biopic I, Tonya (out Friday, starring Margot Robbie as Harding and Allison Janney as her mother), logic may not have been the only factor at play in whether or not a person believed Harding’s side of the story. As TIME’s Jill Smolowe put it in the immediate aftermath of the news, Harding was “the bead of raw sweat in a field of dainty perspirers,” a “scrappy girl from the trailer parks.” Though her background gave her story an underdog aspect that was appealing to some fans, it also made it easier for others to suspect her, as the magazine explained:

Both Nancy Kerrigan, 24, and Tonya Harding, 23, are soap-opera fans, though only Harding’s life resembles one. Kerrigan’s sturdy family life and stable upbringing imbued her with a manner so authentic and unassuming that even last week’s media barrage seemed not to faze her. Through her good years (a bronze medal in the ’92 Games) and bad (a dismal fifth-place finish at the ’93 World Championships), Kerrigan has drawn on the unconditional love of two parents, two devoted older brothers and an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins, who turn out at competitions to cheer her on. Blessed with long, slender limbs and a natural elegance, she also reaps the rewards of a photogenic beauty that last year won her standing as one of PEOPLE magazine’s ”50 Most Beautiful People in the World.”

Still, according to her coach Evy Scotvold, the nurturing and support Kerrigan receives has bred some immaturity and insecurity. ”She’s a very dependent person,” he says. It was not until 1992 that Kerrigan moved out of her parents’ wood-frame home in blue-collar Stoneham, Massachusetts. But last week, when Kerrigan wasn’t doing her daily round of physical therapy and hydrotherapy sessions, she was home with her parents in Stoneham, with all the world camped outside. Asked at a snowy press conference what would make a happy ending to her story, Kerrigan made no mention of medals or movie deals. ”The most important thing is to be happy and healthy,” she said.

Harding, by contrast, would make an unlikely role model — though her grit and spirit have served her well in surviving a turbulent childhood and triumphing in a grueling sport. Tough, self-sufficient and bruised well beyond her years, Harding has never known stability either on the rink or at home. She moved between eight different houses in six communities in her first 18 years, during which her father Al, who has variously driven a truck, managed apartments and worked at a bait-and-tackle store, was her best friend. He gave her her first gun, a .22, when she was five, taught her to hunt and fish and fix a transmission. Her parents’ marriage fell apart in 1985, and two years later her mother married James Golden, her sixth husband (who told TIME last week that yet another divorce is in the works). Soon afterward, Harding moved in with Gillooly, whom she had been dating for three years.

In March 1990, when Tonya was 19, they were married; 15 months later she filed for divorce. At the same time, Harding sought a restraining order to keep Gillooly away. ”He wrenched my arm and wrist, and he pulled my hair and shoved me,” she wrote in her petition for the order. ”I recently found out he bought a shotgun, and I am scared for my safety.” A police report filed the next month quotes Harding as saying that Gillooly had cornered her in a boatyard and threatened, ”I think we should break your legs and end your career.”

The following March they got back together — but by last July Harding was seeking a divorce and a restraining order. This time the petition read, ”It has been an abusive relationship for the past two years, and he has assaulted me physically with his open hand and fist.” The couple again reconciled, but not before their divorce was final. At a competition last October, Harding explained, ”We’re trying to get the divorce annulled.” She then stated, ”I’m definitely married.” Since moving to Beaver Creek two months ago, the couple has maintained such a low profile that others living on their road didn’t know of their famous neighbors until last week.

Both Harding and Kerrigan competed at that year’s winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Kerrigan won silver and Harding came in eighth; Ukraine’s Oksana Baiul won gold. And in the important realm of endorsements, it was Kerrigan who came out ahead. Though her emotional story might have made some people sympathetic, Harding was out of favor. (Interestingly, TIME’s coverage of her case noted that the case made news right around the same time that juries were beginning to take more seriously the idea that suffering domestic violence and abuse could mitigate a person’s legal responsibility for otherwise criminal actions.)

Soon after, Harding pleaded guilty to “hindering investigators’ efforts to unravel the conspiracy,” as TIME put it, leaving officially unanswered the question of whether she had herself been part of that conspiracy. As part of the plea, she left the U.S. Figure Skating Association and withdrew from the upcoming World Championships. Shortly after, the U.S. Figure Skating Associated banned Harding from the group for life and stripped her of the national title.

Now, more than two decades later, Harding’s side of the story is getting a reappraisal.

“I think,” Margot Robbie has said of the woman whose life she inhabited for I, Tonya, “what made the biggest difference in the world was she didn’t have a support network around her.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com