Attacker injures skater Kerrigan outside ice rink

January 07, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

DETROIT -- One moment, Nancy Kerrigan was skating off the Cobo Arena ice, confident, relaxed, ready to begin a last, long push to a gold medal at next month's Olympics.

The next moment, she was sprawled on a carpet, crying in pain, screaming, "Why me?"

In a flash yesterday, Kerrigan had been transformed from an American figure skating champion into a crime victim. She was bashed once on her right knee with a blunt object by an unidentified man who fled the scene, less than 24 hours before she was to begin defense of her U.S. figure skating women's title.

Kerrigan's right knee was cut, bruised and swollen and her quadriceps tendon was bruised, according to a doctor. Further swelling behind the knee clouded her status. But she said she would try to compete this afternoon when the women's competition begins.

"I'm OK," she said on ABC-TV last night. "It could have been a lot worse."

Even if she can't skate, Kerrigan still could compete in next month's Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. U.S. Figure Skating Association bylaws give its international competition committee broad powers to pick a team.

"It's a shock, obviously," said Claire Ferguson, president of theUSFSA. "It's not a happy time for any sporting event."

It was an astonishing attack, eerily similar to the April 30, 1993, stabbing of tennis star Monica Seles.

Then, as now, the assailant apparently aimed to impair an athlete's ability to perform.

It is Kerrigan's right knee that catapults and cushions her triple jumps, the essential element in all her programs.

"He [the assailant] was clearly trying to debilitate her," said Dr. Steven Plomaritis, an orthopedist who treated Kerrigan.

"Is she potentially harming herself by skating?" he added. "No. Unless she has a catastrophic fall."

According to witnesses, it was at 2:30 p.m. when Kerrigan, still wearing her skates, was attacked in a corridor between the rink and the dressing room.

"I heard screaming when I was walking away from the ice," said her coach, Evy Scotvold. "All I could think of was, 'Where was Nancy?' I thought she was OK because she was not on the ice. But sure enough, it was her. Great security."

A private security force, not Detroit police, was being used at the practice site. The U.S. championships are being held next door at Joe Louis Arena.

A man, described as in his 30s and wearing a dark leather jacket, dark cap and tan pants, came from behind and wordlessly smashed her once on the knee with what police said was a tire iron before fleeing.

"I started to turn, and all I could see was this guy swinging something. . . . maybe a crowbar or a billy club or something," Kerrigan said. "It was really hard, and I just did not get a good look."

The assailant was the same man who a coach, Kathy Stuart, said had been videotaping Kerrigan moments earlier.

The man eluded security guards and crashed through a Plexiglas partition using the same instrument he attacked Kerrigan with. He disappeared into a crowd of hundreds of people in the area for the International Auto Show next door.

According to Sgt. Karen Sousa of the Detroit police, Kerrigan said "she never recognized the guy.

"She said that all of a sudden someone just hit her," Sousa said.

"She was definitely in shock. She was crying. She was definitely traumatized."

Kerrigan, 24, was carried sobbing to the locker room by her father, Dan, a welder from Stoneham, Mass. She was also accompanied by her mother, Brenda, who suffers from an eye nerve disorder and was told of the incident.

"It hurts so bad, it hurts so bad," she said as she was carried off.

Kerrigan, an ice pack wrapped around her injured knee, then walked to a car, comforting her 7-year-old cousin, Allison. She was taken to Hutzel Hospital, where X-rays showed no fracture.

"She was terrified," Scotvold said. "She is a visible person and for the rest of her visible life she will need protection."

Scotvold added: "I'd like her to try and skate. How much pain is there? Can she stand it? Can she skate? I don't know. She is trying to be optimistic and strong."

It was the second threatening incident in two months involving a U.S. skater. Tonya Harding withdrew from a qualifying event in Portland, Ore., after a bomb threat was phoned to the rink.

"Nancy gets a lot of letters that say a lot of things," said Gerry Solomon, Kerrigan's agent. "But there was nothing that would ever put us in any frame of mind to think something like this would happen."

Kerrigan's entire career was built on grace and beauty. She won a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France.

Last year, despite winning a U.S. title, she performed poorly at the world championships. But with renewed confidence, she skated superbly earlier this fall and emerged as the favorite for a gold medal in Norway.

Now, her health and career are uncertain. "I don't want to lose faith in people," Kerrigan said last night. "It was one bad guy."

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