• U.S.

Life After The Glory

14 minute read
Steve Lopez

With every ice-gouging jump, every painted-on smile and every slip-and-slide wipeout broadcast into our homes on an incessant beam, we all know how difficult it is to become a world-class figure skater. We nod knowingly when commentators talk about turnout of feet and good position in camels.

But the past four years have taught us that there might be one thing in skating more difficult than making it to the Olympics: making it all the way back to the real world when the Games are done.

Four female skaters Lutzed out of Lillehammer in 1994 as international household names, and each would probably like to redo at least part of the re-entry. Ekaterina Gordeeva, two-time gold-medal winner in pairs skating, watched at a skating rink as her 28-year-old partner and husband died in her arms of undiagnosed heart disease, in November 1995. Oksana Baiul, the pixie 16-year-old Ukrainian orphan who struck gold in the singles, celebrated with a nonstop party that ended when she wrapped her green Mercedes-Benz around a few innocent conifers while under the influence in Connecticut. Baiul, now 20, tells TIME she is an alcoholic, and she is trying to pull herself together. Nancy Kerrigan, who took silver in a showdown watched closely by nearly everyone in the world except maybe the judges, has staged a damage-control clinic after being accused of a series of attitude crimes, including an alleged verbal assault on Mickey Mouse. And speaking of assault, Tonya Harding, the truck-driving heroine of that infamous gang of hockey pucks who conspired to conk Kerrigan on the knee–inadvertently adding a booster jet to skating’s already soaring popularity–has, depending on the day, seemed just a fast buck away from wet-T-shirt contests, the roller derby or jail.

The story of the Girls of Winter Past–part tragedy, part comedy, all soap opera–“is not a real happy tale,” says agent Michael Rosenberg, even though these four have helped make skating so popular that $1 million annual incomes for name skaters are now routine. Rosenberg represents 41 skaters and, with exquisite timing, dumped Harding as a client just days before the clubbing because her husband was making him nuts. “You’ve got Nancy with her stock suffering, Oksana never winning another competition…Katia [Gordeeva’s nickname] is the only one now of the four who’s on top.”

As if there weren’t enough twisted drama in all this, coming next into your living room is a heavily promoted Fox interview with the dynamic duo whom Rosenberg calls Snow White and the Wicked Witch: Nancy and Tonya.

Pass the Chee-tohs, Billy Bob.

The interview was taped two weeks ago in Colorado–along with some skating, for which Baiul, Gordeeva and Katerina Witt, according to a published report, refused to be in the same building as Harding; Tonya was banished to an outdoor rink. This lovely episode of Soap Stars on Ice will air Feb. 5, just before opening ceremonies at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

Did Tonya say she’s sorry? “No. She didn’t apologize,” Kerrigan told TIME last week.

Well, here’s an even bigger question, and one a lot of people in the incestuous world of skating were asking last week when they heard about the latest face-off.

What were you thinking, Nancy?

“You knew it was going to come up, so we decided to do it where we had some control,” Kerrigan said during intermission at an ice extravaganza in Portland, Maine.

Kerrigan, who is smaller, softer and prettier in person than on television, says she can’t tell how it will come off because she found the experience so strange. She said she scarcely remembers what she said. Told that it seemed surprising that she would even consider sitting down with someone who pleaded guilty to covering up the conspiracy to maim her, she said, “I was surprised that I would.”

Kerrigan’s agent, who happens to be her husband, denied a published report that she was paid for the interview, saying she was paid only to skate, as were the other skaters. Jerry Solomon, who was 38 when he took on Kerrigan as a client at 23, married her after the Olympics and calls her one of his “strangest” cases–“Money doesn’t motivate her.”

Maybe that’s because, by his account, she has already made a haul in excess of $10 million, even though, in the opinion of her coach, Evy Scotvold, “she didn’t come off looking very good” after making some “terrible mistakes.” Scotvold says Kerrigan should have been home resting after the Olympics rather than coming off as bratty in public appearances she was too exhausted to make. He mentioned the infamous Disney parade in which Kerrigan shared a float with the famous rodent and accurately confided, “This is so corny.”

But back to Tonya. “We had a decision to make,” Solomon says. He and Kerrigan knew “that going into the Olympics, this was going to be a big topic, and we could talk about it, or we could have gone to Aruba for a month or two.”

Wait a second here. The choice was a) going to Aruba, or b) hanging out with the gum-smacking queen of all time, and you picked Tonya?

Solomon explained, “It really was time to try to deal with it so that everybody could move on, because Nancy has moved on.”

Precisely. Got married. Had a baby. Did her best to rehabilitate herself against unfairly harsh criticism of her every move. That’s why she didn’t need to lower herself. Perhaps Solomon is not familiar with that truest of all proverbs: “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.”

Katia Gordeeva emerges from the elevator lobby in a hotel at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and comes toward you as if she’s walking a plank. Another interview. Wonderful. More questions about the dark passage from Olympic glory to the depths of sorrow. Swell.

Can you blame her? Only a little more than two years ago, she lost the only man she ever loved. Gordeeva had grown up in his arms, and he had died in hers, and though she needs to move beyond that now, the questions always drag her back. Gordeeva, 26, folds her body in half to sit down and is so tiny the chair looks like a prop. She sits impatiently, tragically beautiful, forever fractured. And then she says, “I’m not so strong inside as I look outside.”

Gordeeva was but 11, a slip of a girl, when she and fellow Muscovite Sergei Grinkov first skated together. They would swoon their way to four world championships and take Olympic gold in 1988 and again in ’94.

“My life of great skating, and skating with him, is over,” she says firmly, as if drawing a line. “I don’t try to go now for Olympics. I take skating for a job.” She doesn’t mention her best-selling book, My Sergei: A Love Story. Writing it was therapy, but she quit the book tour early because he died again at every stop.

“Sergei was gliding on the ice,” she wrote of their last moments together, “but…his hands didn’t go around my waist for the lift. I thought it was his back…He shook his head a little… He tried to hold onto the boards…then he bent his knees and lay down on the ice very carefully…I was screaming…[At the hospital] a doctor came out to talk to us…they had lost Sergei.”

Early in 1996, just three months after his death, she skated solo in public for the first time. She had to skate, Gordeeva says. As frightening as it was, she had to. “You can’t lock yourself inside yourself,” she says, “or you’ll die. My mother told me you have to get up now. You have a daughter to live for.”

“I am blown away by every move she makes,” says former U.S. pairs champion and Olympian JoJo Starbuck, a choreographer who has worked with Gordeeva, Baiul, Kerrigan and Harding.

Daria, now 5, still asks for her father. “Usually in the morning,” Gordeeva says. “I say, ‘O.K., let’s go look at the pictures.’ I never tell her he’s coming back or that he just went on a trip. She knows. Sometimes I’m very lucky in my dreams. I dream of him, and in my heart I feel him.”

Later that evening, Gordeeva would join Scott Hamilton, Katerina Witt, Kristi Yamaguchi and the rest of the Stars on Ice gang. It’s more Vegas than Lillehammer–no jumps required, no knife-wielding judges with political agendas. Being in the troop, Gordeeva says, is a comfort. “It’s family,” Hamilton said at rehearsal. You clown around a bit, you hang out, you do whatever it takes to get one another through the 57-city tour. Hamilton, just back on the ice after battling cancer, said of Gordeeva: “She’s tough. She knows we’re here if she needs us, but she’s pretty much to herself.”

Starbuck says nonskaters have no idea how difficult it is to go from pairs to singles. You almost have to learn to skate all over again. “But Katia has become one of the stars in singles and has the brightest career in skating. Part of it is the story of the heroine; part of it is that she has the persona of an angel. She’s the one everybody wants to see.”

It could have been Oksana. Dad disappeared when she was two. He resurfaced once, in a brief cameo, when she was 13–at her mother’s funeral. Oksana trained in a meat locker of a rink. Throw in the economic collapse of Ukraine after Soviet disintegration, and this little latke climbed from hell frozen over to the Olympic gold-medal platform in a rags-to-riches story for the ages.

But it was almost like those Steinbeck characters grabbing the pearl. You knew there had to be trouble ahead. Think about it. Baiul went from an economic wasteland to the land of milk and honey overnight. She became an international celebrity and multimillionaire teenager. Without parents! Light the lights, wake the neighbors. It’s party time.

Oksana did the Manhattan club scene. She bought the Mercedes. She snapped up a $450,000 house in Connecticut. “She had no parents to tell her to stop,” says Gordeeva, a caring friend and, at the time, a neighbor. “When you’re preparing for the Olympics, it is so completely consuming that you really don’t have much else of a life,” says Starbuck. “Consequently, you don’t have a lot of wisdom or other life experiences. Before the Olympics you have someone holding your hand. Afterward, you’re young and naive and vulnerable, and you don’t always have somebody.”

Baiul says lots of people were there, telling her to cool it. She just wasn’t ready to listen. She stopped training, and when she did hit the ice, she was a bear cub on skates. “I was really miserable because I don’t understand what the hell is going on with my body,” says Baiul, who can be so charmingly candid and emotional that her body contorts in punctuation marks. What happened was that she had grown 4 in. and 20 lbs., and if there was a new balance somewhere in her junk-food-fed frame, she hadn’t found it yet.

“I remember her telling me, ‘Katia, I hate it, I hate it. I never want to skate again,'” says Gordeeva.

Drinking was easier. Asked what and where she drank, Baiul says everything and everywhere. Vodka and cranberry was her favorite. Well, she is told, it’s certainly not uncommon for a teenager, any teenager, to go for a good time.

And here she surprises you.

It wasn’t a good time at all, she says. “It was horrible.” She was depressed, confused and frightened. Barely out of puberty, “I had a gold medal. Millions. Too much too soon.” She didn’t have to work another day in her life, and that was part of the problem. If she didn’t skate, which suddenly was the most awkward thing in the world, “then what am I supposed to do?”

The really heavy drinking began five months before the crackup, she says. On Jan. 12, 1997, with a Russian-trained skater named Ari Zakarian in the passenger seat and her blood-alcohol level at 0.168 in a state with a 0.10 limit, Baiul swerved off the road and slammed into the trees. “I got 14 stitches and couldn’t walk the next day. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m still alive.'”

Today Baiul says she’s an alcoholic. “She calls Jan. 12 her birthday,” says Michael Carlisle, her friend and agent. “That’s when she woke up and started a new life. She’s recognized she has a problem, and is in the process of resolving it.” She is not in rehab now, he said, but she’s seeing a psychologist. A small group of coaches, skaters and friends has adopted her, Carlisle says, and is overseeing the education of Oksana. “She has demons. But she’s a wonderful person, and she’s trying to work through it.”

Back in Lillehammer, the woman she beat was seen as an ungracious runner-up, especially after skipping the closing ceremonies. But now the silver medalist has her prize. Kerrigan, all of 28, had her parents bring 13-month-old Matthew to the show in Portland. She has told friends for years that all she ever really wanted was a family, and she absolutely glowed when she held her son in her arms.

You could have left it at that, Nancy. Instead you brought back you know who.

Tonya has been working on her resume:

–Helped make figure skating the runner-up to pro football in American television ratings.

–Helped expand membership in the U.S. Figure Skating Association from 100,000 to 150,000.

–Helped make Nancy rich.

–Starred in underground wedding-night video with weasel ex-husband.

–Reported being kidnapped by a madman and stalked by a professional golfer. Also managed a professional wrestler.

–Skated at minor-league hockey game in Reno, drawing boos and deftly dodging two hurled batons.

We’d love to tell you what Tonya has to say about all this, but her sometime agent, David Hans Schmidt, said she would accept no less than $10,000 for an interview because she’s flat broke and “all she has is her infamy.” Schmidt did offer to arrange an interview with another client, Harding’s ex-husband, for just “a couple, two, three thousand dollars.”

We passed.

Tonya is no day at the beach, says Schmidt. Look up dysfunction in the dictionary, “and you’ll see her spinning a triple Axel next to it.” He says she has been through two husbands, four boyfriends, houses, boats, Ninja bikes and monster trucks since the Olympics. “There’s a real trailer-park mentality there.”

She also saved a woman’s life in a bar. “Yes, she did,” says Annette Dryden of the Lost and Found Saloon near Portland, Ore. A woman with diabetes keeled over, and Tonya brought her back with mouth-to-mouth. But she switched bars when she moved to Washington State and became a regular at Auto’s Pub in Vancouver, Wash., says owner Bob Synoground.

But then he had to run her out.

“She was too disruptive,” Synoground says. One night the bar had a slot-car tournament. Tonya fought her way into the championship round, then lost the last race. “She was not a happy camper,” Synoground says. The winner finally shut her up by giving her the damn prize: a Budweiser jacket. Synoground had a talk with her, and she has not returned. But she did autograph an Auto’s Pub T shirt that hangs on the wall.

Warmest Regards. Tonya Harding

Yeah. And good luck to Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Nicole Bobek and the rest.

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