Harding isn't just another ice princess Troubled past opens up as she bids to keep title

January 10, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

ORLANDO, FLA — ORLANDO, Fla. -- Figure skating is fantasy. It is bright, light music and shimmering costumes and judges who sling fur coats over the backs of their seats and apply the final marks to performances that are part Broadway, part Magic Kingdom.

And then along comes someone like Tonya Harding who feeds the fairy tale even while distancing herself from a troubled past.

In the last year, the defending U.S. Figure Skating ladies' champion has separated from her husband and her coach, and then reconciled with both, taken up drag racing, and then given it up. Her life story is being pried open even as she trains to reach a lifelong dream of becoming an Olympian.

"It's like a movie is being written on Tonya Harding," said her agent, Michael Rosenberg. "The only question is the end."

At this week's U.S. Championships, Harding is trying to retain her gold medal against a field that includes Kristi Yamaguchi, the reigning world champion. Harding is also working to perfect her elegant and athletic routines to withstand the rigors of a jump-off against Japan's Midori Ito at next month's Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France.

She triple-jumps over all of the sport's traditional stereotypes to emerge as one of skating's unorthodox stars.

She is a 5-foot-1, 98-pound pixie from Portland, Oregon, who can bench-press more than her weight. She is a 21-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed would-be ice princess who can rebuild a transmission and install a new set of shocks.

Above all, Harding is a survivor, overcoming problems of family and money in a bid to become one of the rich and the famous.

Her mother has been married six times.

She once fended off the advances of a half-brother by burning him with a curling iron.

She chopped wood, learned to change the oil in the family car, and collected cans and bottles on the side of the road to help her family meet expenses.

"I didn't come with a silver spoon in my mouth," she said. "If you have a dream, just go for it. There is always a way to make your dream come true."

*

It all started with a Christmas present.

Tonya Harding was 3 years old when she went shopping for shoes with her mother in downtown Portland. As they left the mall, mother and daughter wandered out the wrong exit and stumbled in front of an ice rink. The daughter was mesmerized by the spins and jumps of the skaters.

A few weeks later, under a Christmas tree, Harding found a pair of second-hand skates. A year later, she was enrolled in skating lessons.

"I had seen all the great skaters on television," she said. "Peggy Fleming. Dorothy Hamill. Linda Fratianne. I said, 'Wow. That is really neat.' "

But for a working-class family, a skating career can mean bankruptcy. Yearly bills can top $40,000. There is pressure to get the best training, the most beautiful wardrobe, the subtlest makeup.

The Hardings had to work double shifts just to put food on the table, let alone cash into a child's pastime. Her father, Albert, who worked a variety of jobs as a truck driver, rubber worker and apartment manager, never made more than $5.05 an hour. Her mother, LaVona, worked as a waitress.

Somehow, they came up with enough money to keep the career afloat. And when they couldn't, Harding's first coach, Diane Rawlinson, waived her fee and found ice time.

From the beginning, Harding was a natural. She was on the sport's cutting edge, part of the new generation of leapers who were poised to succeed the frilly, feather-laden stylists like East Germany's Katarina Witt.

"People would dare me to do things on the ice, and I would do them," she said.

A traumatic life

But success never came easily for Harding.

An article in this week's Sports Illustrated article documents Harding's traumatic life, and for the first time, she talked of the tempestuous relationship she has with her mother, the devastation that followed when her father left the family in 1989 and settled in Boise, Idaho, and her bitter separation from her husband of 15 months, Jeff Gillooly.

After filing for a divorce last year, Harding also asked for and received a restraining order to prevent her husband from entering the practice rinks or her apartment. In her petition, she wrote of physical abuse, and said her husband had bought a shotgun.

Released on the eve of the nationals, the article temporarily threatened Harding. In a sport built on image and judged by insiders, even the mildest personal blemish can damage a career.

But Harding neatly sidestepped the controversy.

"I'm here to talk about my skating," she said yesterday, a smile on her face.

"My husband has always been really behind me," Harding said. "There has always been a roof over my head and food on the table."

Breakthrough in Baltimore

As for the skating, Harding provided the fire necessary to become a champion. Her breakthrough came in Baltimore in 1989, when she finished third at the U.S. nationals. Some who saw the program said Harding's combination of triples and exuberance was good enough for the gold.

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