Harding a champion, but no skating royalty

January 13, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Tonya Harding portrays herself as figure skating's toughest little competitor.

Raised in a broken home, burdened by meager finances and bouts of asthma, she rose to the top of a glittering, aristocratic sport with a ferocious will and a feisty, blue-collar style.

But now, Ms. Harding finds herself engulfed in controversy as her husband and body guard were implicated in the attack on her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan.

Although Ms. Harding, the reigning American champion, was not implicated in the incident that forced Ms. Kerrigan to withdraw from last week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships, her reputation is likely to be clouded.

And it won't be the first time.

Ms. Harding, 23, a 5-foot-1, 105-pound resident of Portland, Ore., has skated above the fray of a stormy marriage to Jeff Gillooly, a handgun incident and a reported death threat.

"I guess I'm the forward kind of person who wants someone to take my chin off," Ms. Harding said last week before winning her second U.S. championship.

"Anyone who challenges me, I go out and try to do something," she said then.

Ms. Harding's up-by-the-skating-boots saga has been layered with equal parts inspiration and desperation.

In a sport that crowns its champions like royalty, she revels in her status as the skater born on the other side of the tracks.

She began skating at 3, became an American champion in 1991, a world champion runner-up and fourth-place finisher at the 1992 Winter Olympics. Her signature jump was the triple axel, a 3 1/2 -revolution leap that only two other female skaters have performed.

"I have the program," she said. "And I have the style."

She once financed her career by scrounging the side of highways for returnable bottles and cans. She still wears homemade outfits and keeps her career financially afloat with donations, including one recent contribution from New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

But her private life has been littered with shattered hopes.

Her mother, LaVona, a waitress, bore five children by five different men and has been married six times. Harding, the youngest in the family, looked up to her father, Al, a laborer who never held a steady job that paid more than $5 an hour. Al Harding taught his daughter how to shoot a gun and how to take apart an automobile engine.

But there was trauma at nearly every step of her life. As a teen-ager, she warded off a sexual attack from a half-brother by burning him with the end of a curling iron. She then hit him with a hockey stick. When she told her mother of the incident, she was beaten.

A high school dropout as a sophomore, Ms. Harding met Mr. Gillooly when she was 15, and, three years later, they moved in together.

Ms. Harding and Mr. Gillooly were married in 1990, but she filed for divorce in June 1991, citing irreconcilable differences. Two days after the filing, she got a restraining order preventing Mr. Gillooly from entering the skating rink where she practiced. She claimed he had wrenched her arm and pulled her hair.

By January 1992, they were back together. They since have separated and reconciled.

Last October, police in Milwaukie, Ore., seized a handgun from Harding after an early-morning report of a shot fired in an apartment parking lot. Ms. Harding and Mr. Gillooly said the gun was fired accidentally, and the investigation was closed.

A month later, Ms. Harding was forced to withdraw from a skating competition at her home rink in Clackamas, Ore., after a reported death threat.

Ms. Harding appeared flustered by the attack on Ms. Kerrigan, which occurred a day before the U.S. championships were held in Detroit. She sympathized with the plight of Ms. Kerrigan, who was bashed on the knee.

Then Ms. Harding, fighting off one of her frequent asthma attacks, went out and won the title, performing a flawed but gutty free-skating program.

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