Most people have probably at least heard the names Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. A lot will also recall the promising figure skating careers that both women had, before a brutal attack on Kerrigan in 1994 nearly ended her career, and irrevocably ruined Harding’s reputation. That incident is now the subject of a new biopic, I, Tonya, which stars Margot Robbie as Harding, opposite Sebastian Stan as Harding’s on-off husband, Jeff Gillooly. Allison Janney plays Harding’s mother, LaVona Golden, while Caitlin Carver takes on the role of Kerrigan. The trailer for the movie boasts that it’s based on an “insane true story,” but Robbie’s fourth wall-breaking Tonya is skeptical of the concept of truth.
I, Tonya recounts the infamous rivalry between the two skaters, but also looks at Harding’s life in depth – her marriage to Gillooly, her relationship with her mother, and whether or not she knew about the assailant who was hired to brutally club Kerrigan’s right knee with a baton. The press coverage at the time was intense, to say the least, but what people think they know (based on press reporting) and what Harding’s life was actually like are two very different stories.
Related: I, Tonya Red Band Trailer
Let’s tackle the attack on Nancy Kerrigan first. Harding and Kerrigan were rivals, and both had risen to the top of the figure skating world from poor backgrounds. Kerrigan came from an honest, hard-working family, and was embraced by the skating community and the larger sporting world. She had sponsorship deals, was a popular and well-liked woman, and was well-presented. In the nineties (and you could be forgiven for thinking not much has changed), appearance mattered. Harding, meanwhile, was raised by her alcoholic, abusive mother. She left school in 10th grade, and by 19 had married Gillooly – a man who was physically, mentally and sexually abusive towards her throughout their turbulent relationship.
Fierce rivals on the figure skating circuit, Harding and Kerrigan were also part of the same team – namely, the U.S. Figure Skating team that was preparing to compete at the 1994 Winter Olympics. On January 6th, 1994, after a training session at a rink in Detroit. Kerrigan stepped off the ice and was hit above the right knee with a telescopic baton. It later transpired that the attack was carried out by a man named Shane Stant, who had been hired by Gillooly and Harding’s self-proclaimed body guard, Shawn Eckhardt. Stant was hired to break Kerrigan’s leg, thus rendering her incapable of competing at the the Olympics that year, and thereby paving the way for Harding to take gold.
Kerrigan’s leg was not broken, but she did have to withdraw from the National Championships, which Harding won. She was fully recovered by the time the Olympics rolled around, however, and she took the silver medal, while Harding only managed eighth place. By that time, Harding was the subject of intense media speculation. Gillooly, Eckhardt, and Stant had already been charged and Harding’s alleged involvement meant that the media hounded her endlessly: camping outside her home, following her to the Olympics, and even getting her truck towed so she had to leave the house.
Gillooly accepted a plea bargain in return for testifying against Harding. He served time in prison for his part in the attack, as did Eckhardt and Stant, but Harding, to avoid jail time, pleaded guilty for conspiring to hinder the prosecution. She received three years probation, 500 hours of community service, and was fined $160,000. She was also forced to withdraw from all pending competitions, and resigned from the U.S. World Figure Skating Association. Later in the year, the USFSA conducted their own investigation, stripped Harding of her 1994 Championship title, and barred her for life from competing as a skater or coach.
Harding’s career never recovered, either on or off the ice, while Kerrigan was America’s darling for a time, until she was caught bad-mouthing another competitor during the Olympics and then, later on in the same year, she dissed Mickey Mouse. Her golden family image was also dented when it was revealed her father died of heart failure following a violent struggle with Kerrigan’s brother, who was later convicted of manslaughter.
The public still favored Kerrigan by far, but was Harding unfairly vilified by the media? It’s something that I, Tonya, explores in depth, using dialogue taken from interviews with Harding. While she’s always denied any involvement in the incident, it’s still unclear if Harding knew about the plot before it happened. The movie focuses on how Harding ended up in the situation she was in: trapped in a violent, loveless, abusive marriage from which she couldn’t escape even if she tried.
I, Tonya, details the violence that Harding suffered in uncompromising detail, including the way in which the authorities ignored her plight – both as a child at the hand of her mother, and as an adult at the hands of Gillooly. While it’s not possible to condone her behavior towards her rival – if indeed she was complicit – I, Tonya, does raise the question of why no one ever stepped into help Harding before that point in time. She filed multiple restraining orders against Gillooly, and the authorities knew how her mother had treated her – and yet, as we’ve heard all too often this year, they turned a blind eye. You might think you know all about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, but what you really know is what the media at the time decided to tell you. I, Tonya, tells the whole raw, ugly, brutal story, and it’s up to you to make up your own mind.
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