I was 5 years old when I fell in love with Tonya Harding. The year was 1988, and I had just taken up figure skating. My favorite aunt, Julie, had recently moved from my Maryland neighborhood to Portland, Ore., and I was determined to find something to like about the state. Tonya, a scrappy Oregonian underdog, was the obvious choice. I swiftly designated her as my favorite skater.
What began as a casual admiration quickly escalated into to a full-blown stalkerish obsession. While visiting Julie in Portland, I'd insist on trips to various Tonya landmarks, hoping to glean some information about my idol. Once, we went to the rink where Tonya learned to skate. Another time, we drove 40 minutes to Clackamas Mall—the site of her practice sessions—so I could literally kiss the ice she'd touched. When I was a little older my brother and I attempted to make a Tonya documentary, which involved scouring the Clackamas Mall parking lot with a camcorder, looking for her pickup truck. We were eventually kicked out by a mall cop, who caught us snooping in someone's truck bed while looking for signs of sequins.
I never got my Tonya sighting, but it didn't matter. Part of my love for Tonya was grounded in her bad attitude, which felt like the only appropriate response to the figure skating community's paradoxical demands. The sport requires incredible strength and skill and discipline, but women skaters are expected to be as feminine as they are athletic. The ideal female skater must be able to propel herself high into the air, rotate three times or more, and then land on one extremely slender leg. And she must do this while wearing a leotard-tutu combination. With sequins.
As a kid, these standards struck me as wildly unjust. I had spent much of my childhood fretting about my awkwardness, my perpetually tangled hair, my inability to pick out appropriately cool stirrup stretch pants. I loved skating because it meant I could literally fly. Was it really necessary that I be wearing a glittery spandex leotard while I did it? Couldn't I just barrel down the ice in my tapered mom jeans, frizzy hair flying in the wind?
Well, no. Tonya would be the first to tell you that's not how the skating world works. In America in the early '90s, the biggest names in women's figure skating were Nancy Kerrigan, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Harding. Kerrigan wasn't a huge jumper but she had beautiful lines, strong, clean edges, and this gorgeous, mature style—a modern dancer on skates. Yamaguchi, meanwhile, was consistent, technically superb, light on her feet, and graceful. Internationally, there were women like Japan's Midori Ito (the first woman in the world to land a triple axel in competition, and perhaps the biggest jumper in women's figure skating history) and France's Surya Bonaly (who performed backflips in her programs), but they didn't win Olympic gold. On the world stage, as in the history of the sport, a premium was placed on a light, ladylike elegance.
Tonya wasn't elegant, and it cost her. Her smile was pinched, and her bangs drooped over her forehead like a clump of wet spaghetti. While Vera Wang was custom-making Kerrigan's costumes, Tonya's mother, an allegedly abusive waitress named LaVona Golden, handcrafted hers. The results were not exactly couture quality and, according to Tonya, judges warned her off wearing some of them in competition. Tonya was the thunder-thighed black sheep of the figure skating world. She was irresistible to me. Imperfect but significant; infuriating but inspiring.
It wasn't just Tonya's appearance that worked against her. She was a powerful skater, but for a long time she lacked even the most basic artistic techniques. Her double jumps often came so easily as to appear inconsequential, but she had no balletic extension whatsoever; she could barely even get her leg in the air for a spiral. Especially in the late '80s and very early '90s, her footwork sequences felt perfunctory and artistically uninformed, at least by the standards of a judging system that required something called "artistry." Tonya skated to music that suited her, stuff that was strong and cinematic, but she never quite seemed to connect with it. Later, when she did work on developing her programs artistically, her efforts came off as labored and plodding, as if those "mature" moves were literally slowing her down on the ice.
Her jumps, however, were another story. Tonya—the first American woman to land the triple axel in competition – sometimes jumped so hard her skates fell apart during competition. At Skate America in 1993, her blade came loose in the middle of a program, and she had to pause her performance to tighten the screw. At the 1994 Olympics, at the height of her notoriety, her skate laces broke minutes before her free skate. (Not everyone loved Tonya for these episodes, which were dramatic and disruptive, and which less generous souls than I might've chalked up to unpreparedness.) At their worst, her jumps were wild explosions of unrefined power. But when Tonya was on, they were awesome. She'd travel high and far across the ice, getting so much height she sometimes had time to visibly straighten her body on its axis in mid-air. Even her spins, which by today's standards might not be considered that sophisticated, were fast. Unlike many skaters, who lose speed if they stay spinning in one position too long, Tonya would just whip around and around and around, while her hands executed some awkward form of karate chop.
Tonya was powerful and fast, and she was fearless. As a skater, I could relate. I was no elite athlete, unfortunately, but my strengths and weaknesses mirrored hers. My legs were strong and I wasn't afraid of falling, so my jumps had speed and height. My spins were fast, too, but, like Tonya, I lacked the flexibility of my peers, who could pop their Gumby-like legs over their heads with unconscious facility. Moreover, I was impatient and unfocused. I wanted to be good—great, even!—but I also wanted to get good grades, take music lessons, hang out with my friends, eat junk food, watch TV, and lie around sobbing over young adult Holocaust novels. (It's possible Tonya and I differed in this way.)
In all, I was a high-strung adolescent female. I was self-conscious and insecure, and I saw my flaws at 2,000 percent magnification. I wanted to be cool and pretty, but I didn't want to be cookie cutter (or even to, like, brush my hair). There was a tension between who I wanted to be and who I believed I probably was, which gave way to a deep resentment toward anyone I perceived as even remotely having their shit together. Tonya, though, was safely and visibly imperfect. She seemed tormented by her world's simultaneous demands for grace and power, feminine likability and unapologetic assertiveness, humility and perfection. And while these are not unique struggles for a woman, particularly for an athletic one, Tonya's peers were savvier than she, and seemed to work them out more privately. Tonya was raw and wild. She wore her strengths and weaknesses on her puffy spandex sleeves, and she was judged harshly for this. But she refused to be ignored, and she could still fucking fly. She represented the fulfillment of an adolescent revenge fantasy—my adolescent revenge fantasy, the one where the girl who doesn't quite fit in manages to soar over everyone's bullshit without giving up a fraction of her prerogative—and I could not have loved her more.
"She didn't do it," I told my mother, with calm assurance. "IT'S A CONSPIRACY."
It was 1994. The world had accused Tonya of conspiring to bash in Nancy Kerrigan's kneecap, and I had gone straight into denial mode.
For the next year of my life, I set about trying to convince myself that Tonya was indeed the victim of a frame-up. As it became clear that Tonya's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and his buddy, Shawn Eckhardt, had been involved in plotting the attack, my sympathies for Tonya only deepened. How tragic, I thought, that she'd been deceived by her closest confidantes! When Tonya conceded she'd known about her crew's involvement after the attack but not before, I took her at her word, figuring she must have had a good reason for her silence. When some papers were discovered in a dumpster possibly referencing the attack, and possibly penned in Tonya's handwriting—well, duh: obviously a plant by one of her many enemies!
I spent many a weekend sleepover with a friend and classmate, the only other Tonya loyalist in my grade, crafting nuanced theories about our hero's innocence. After school, we'd watch VHS tapes documenting Tonya's best performances while debunking the mounting evidence against her. I engaged in lively Tonya-versus-Nancy debates with my classmates on the school bus in the mornings, and at one point even printed and distributed a newsletter documenting my theories.
But it was not enough for me to love and defend Tonya. In my obsession, I also developed a bitter and vindictive hatred of Nancy Kerrigan. I decried the nation's love for Kerrigan as a predictable and oppressive cultural preference for prim feminine superiority. I sneered at her beautiful designer costumes and disdained her fragile, lip-quivering dignity. I could not confront Nancy directly, so I took on her supporters at Woodlin Elementary School instead—the "Nancys" of my class. It was a lonely year.
Last night, 20 years after the scandal, ESPN debuted The Price of Gold, a documentary about the Nancy-Tonya debacle. The film, part of the network's "30 for 30" series and directed by Nanette Burstein, focuses heavily on Tonya's story, likely in part because Kerrigan declined to be interviewed. (She's doing Olympic coverage for NBC in Sochi and gave that network an exclusive interview for a competing film.)
When I started watching The Price of Gold, I was prepared for the possibility that I'd find I had been wrong about Tonya. But in the end I can't bail on my 10-year-old self entirely. Women's figure skating is still a sport dominated by attractive, graceful young women, and not since Tonya has a major skating contender challenged the expectations the way she did. Revisiting the old footage, I felt the surging tides of ancient sympathies. Now, as then, I wanted to believe that Tonya could be innocent.
Of course, only a few people will ever know what really happened. Gillooly, who gave an interview to Deadspin last month, swears Tonya had a hand in the plot; Tonya, meanwhile, continues to deny any role.
Sarah Marshall over at The Believer details Tonya's defense, which the athlete enumerated in a series of interviews published in 2008 as The Tonya Tapes. Tonya's story is bizarre but not, to Marshall, unbelievable. Maintaining her innocence in the planning of the scandal, Tonya "said she had attempted reconciliation with Jeff following their divorce, in 1993, because a representative from the United States Figure Skating Association told her to do so 'unless I didn't want the marks. If I wanted to make the Olympic team, I need to make myself a stable life.'" She had to be more of a Nancy, in other words.
According to Tonya, this was the logic behind her reunion with Gillooly. The problem, she claimed, was that he found out she was using him and "came unglued."
"He told me he'd ruin me," Tonya said.
After the attack, Tonya told her interviewer, Jeff decided to threaten her by holding a gun to her head, letting two other men rape her, and then raping her himself, telling her he would kill her if she took her story to the FBI. Even if one finds reason to disbelieve this claim, Tonya's history of abuse, her justifiable lack of trust in authority figures, and her equally justifiable fear of how the public might treat her if she came forward with what she knew all make her failure to act seem perfectly fathomable.
As for Tonya's claims about her own innocence in the plot itself, any attempt to dismiss her version out of hand somewhat falls apart once one realizes that the dominant version of the story—the story the press picked up and popularized, and the story that endured largely for that reason—was Jeff's. Tonya's version of events is implausible only because it contradicts the story we've been familiar with for the last twenty years.
I don't know the truth of what happened. But after everything—20 years of ridicule, an FBI investigation, a lifetime ban from the United States Figure Skating Association—no one has definitively proven Tonya's involvement. She was never convicted of having a hand in the plot. And in light of that, her life sentence of infamy, unemployment, and total isolation from the skating world feels unduly harsh. Tonya, for one, is not OK with it.
"Nancy's a princess. … She's a princess and I'm a pile of crap," Tonya says in the film. She's talking about how her image and Kerrigan's influenced the storylines surrounding the affair. People all called it a soap opera at the time, but that's not quite right. The scandal recapitulated the basic story of a certain kind of adolescence, a more realistic one than my fantasy, one in which an awkward girl, beset by impossible standards and harsh judgments, tries to leap above them all—but still falls flat on her ass.
"You know what? It's not OK," Tonya goes on. "It's not OK. How I was treated by everybody out there was not OK."
I can't believe I'm saying this, but, Tonya, I'm totally with you on that.
Lucy Madison is a New York-based writer and reporter.