Using press, Harding's coach goes on defense for her skater

January 17, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Diane Rawlinson has coached embattled skater Tonya Harding for nearly 20 years.

They argue about training routines and skating outfits.

"She thinks I have horrible taste," Rawlinson said. "I question her taste at times."

But in the case of the attack against rival skater Nancy Kerrigan, Rawlinson said she is convinced of one thing: "Tonya is innocent," Rawlinson declared yesterday.

For the first time since reports surfaced that Harding was implicated in the Jan. 6 assault on Kerrigan, those in her inner circle launched her defense.

Diane Rawlinson's husband, Dennis, an attorney who represents Harding, said the skater "denies all accusations and media speculation that she was involved in any way with the Kerrigan assault."

"Tonya is shocked and angry that anyone close to her might be involved," he read from a statement. "She is pleased to see that Nancy is recovering quickly. She wants the U.S. team to be as strong as possible."

Three men, including Harding's bodyguard, have been arrested for plotting the attack that knocked Kerrigan from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

News accounts say two of those arrested have linked Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, to the attack.

Harding and Gillooly have not been charged in the case. But Detroit police reportedly asked the Wayne County prosecutor's office to issue four arrest warrants, including one for Gillooly.

Last night Gillooly denied participating in this "bizarre and crazy event," his lawyer, Ron Hoevet, told The Associated Press.

Hoevet said Gillooly has known Shawn Eckardt, Harding's bodyguard, since grade school.

"How was he to know that Shawn Eckardt was going to do this act?" the lawyersaid. "There was nothing -- he couldn't have predicted that behavior."

Meanwhile, Harding faces another problem: her Olympic eligibility.

U.S. Olympic Committee president LeRoy Walker said Harding's voluntary withdrawal from the Winter Olympics team "would be the easiest possible out."

USOC officials, meeting in North Carolina, expanded the basis for her possible removal, saying for the first time their decision might not be based solely on law enforcement charges.

"It will be based on law enforcement," Walker said yesterday. "It will be based on our rules and regulations. And it will be based on what is best for all our athletes."

Harding, the U.S. champion, and Kerrigan are scheduled to skate at next month's Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Michelle Kwan, 13, is the first alternate on the U.S. team. She will perform in Lillehammer if Kerrigan or Harding is unable to compete.

The team lineup can be changed as late as Feb. 21, the date of the Olympic draw. "We have to push for a decision before then," Walker said.

But Diane Rawlinson said she expects no change in the U.S. lineup.

"Tonya is innocent," she said. "She won nationals. She trained hard. She deserves to go."

Standing in front of her home in the posh West Hills section overlooking downtown Portland, Rawlinson faced 50 reporters and more than a dozen television news crews, launching an impassioned, 30-minute defense for her skater.

"Tonya's very angry and upset that anyone around her has had anything to do with this," she said.

And what if Harding's ex-husband is charged in the attack?

"Tonya totally believes that Jeff is innocent," she said. "If she discovers there is anything different, she will distance herself from Jeff."

Rawlinson also said that Harding recently wrote Kerrigan a letter, but she did not know its contents.

"Tonya is very sorry that people around her have been implicated," she said. "She is sorry for Nancy and for all of us that this has happened."

She said that Harding was "terrified," after hearing of the attack on Kerrigan, that the skaters have a "very friendly," off-ice relationship and that Harding viewed her latest title as "shallow" because of the absence of her rival.

"It was almost like no victory for Tonya," she said. "She was mad. She was angry that Nancy had been taken out of the competition."

Rawlinson said Harding is eager to resume her career and eager to skate at the Olympics.

Today, skater and coach are set to participate in their first workout since the national championships.

"I think there are two victims in this horrible situation," she said. "I think Nancy first, of course. But I think Tonya's also a victim. Tonya will not be in line to make the type of money from endorsements that she would have been in line to make."

Rawlinson also said Harding soon will be available to tell her side of the story. "You won't be able to shut Tonya up when she talks."

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