A harsh light falls on skater's hard life

January 16, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Tonya Harding could never break with the past.

She was the ice queen who retreated to a world of smoky bars and pool rooms.

She earned tens of thousands of dollars in appearance fees and training stipends but had difficulty meeting her monthly rent as late as last fall.

She filed twice for divorce and sought two restraining orders against her ex-husband. But they are reconciled and now live together.

"Tonya is a girl who can skate," said Ms. Harding's former coach, Dody Teachman. "Unfortunately, she has had a hard time taking herself out of where she came from. It seems hard for her to leave that world.

"There are a lot of athletes who have come from the wrong side of the tracks. They've risen above that. My hope for Tonya is that she'll get herself up to where she should be."

But now, Ms. Harding, the U.S. figure skating champion who has long yearned for an Olympic gold medal, faces an uncertain future.

With less than a month before the start of the 1994 Winter Olympics, she and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly find themselves the apparent targets of an investigation into the beating of her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan.

Neither Ms. Harding nor Mr. Gillooly has been charged in the case, and their attorneys say they are cooperating with authorities.

Ms. Harding also finds her place in the Olympics jeopardized, as U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Figure Skating officials appear to be clearing a way for her possible removal.

The attack has focused a harsh light on Ms. Harding's hard life.

It has also produced a cast of characters and suspects far removed from the sequin-coated fantasy world that is figure skating.

This is "Swan Lake" meets "Hard Copy."

Three burly men raised in the hardscrabble reaches of rural Portland were arrested last week for staging the Jan. 6 clubbing that knocked Ms. Kerrigan out of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.

Ms. Harding's bodyguard, Shawn Eric Eckardt, 26, has confessed to a role in plotting the attack and faces a second-degree felony assault charge.

He has implicated Ms. Harding and Mr. Gillooly in the plot, an allegation reported by several news organizations. The reports have been denied by prosecutors.

Also facing second-degree felony charges in the attack are Derrick Brian Smith, 29, the alleged getaway driver, and Shane Minoaka Stant, 22, alleged to have struck Ms. Kerrigan with a collapsible metal baton.

Mr. Stant, too, has reportedly implicated Ms. Harding in the assault.

The men are linked by a passion for weightlifting and an urge to break into the personal protection business.

And their tenuous tie to the skating world is clear: Mr. Gillooly and Mr. Eckardt have known each other for nearly a decade.

The astonishing actions allegedly carried out by this bizarre cast may read like the plot of a television miniseries.

And overshadowing all is one question:

How did any of these suspects think they could get away with so brazen an attack?

"No doubt, that's the question of the century," said M. Mark McKnight, the attorney who represents Mr. Eckardt.

A relationship gone bad

It was an American love story.

They met at an ice rink in a shopping mall.

She was 15, a bouncy, blue-eyed performer who told anyone who asked that she wanted to win an Olympic gold medal.

He was 18, shy and handsome, a warehouse man for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

When Tonya Harding skated up to Jeff Gillooly at the rink in

Clackamas, she left behind her childhood and embarked on a relationship and later a marriage punctuated by violence, divorce filings and restraining orders.

And yet, formally divorced seven months, they are reconciled.

"I don't know why they stay together," said Ms. Harding's former agent, Michael Rosenberg. "It's like asking your friends why they married the wrong people. They are incompatible, but they are in love. They fight and they make up and it's lovey-dovey."

Married in 1990 in Vancouver, Wash., Ms. Harding filed for a divorce a year later. They then reconciled the first time, and Mr. Gillooly quit his job to help Ms. Harding train and oversee her career.

After the couple divorced in July 1993, Ms. Harding filed a second restraining order against Mr. Gillooly.

"It has been an abusive relationship for the past two years and he has assaulted me physically with his open hand and fist," Ms. Harding wrote in requesting the restraining order.

"He told me to watch my back and if he saw me out with any of my friends he would stop me," Ms. Harding added.

The restraining order was dropped shortly before the couple reconciled last summer.

Friends and relatives who know the couple create a portrait of a troubled relationship, with frequent, often violent arguments.

"Hell, if she looked at someone, he would get mad," said Ms. Harding's stepfather, James Golden. "He'd manipulate her real easy. He has such a possessive nature and is so jealous of her."

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