On Thin ICE : Figure Skating Has Taken a Back Seat for Tonya Harding Since She Won National Title
Like a Cinderella who could not wait to be shorn of her glass slipper, she sneaked out of her own coronation--a formal party to celebrate the conclusion of last year’s national championships--changed into blue jeans and a sweat shirt and retreated to the hotel bar, where she played pool until long after midnight.
From that moment, it has been clear that Tonya Harding is a unique U.S. women’s figure skating champion.
Hours before, at Minneapolis’ Target Center, she won the national championship on the strength of a daring triple axel--a 3 1/2-revolution jump that never before was performed in competition by a U.S. woman--while skating to music from the movie, “Batman.”
But as she waited for scores from the judges, scores she knew would put an exclamation point on her improbable rise from her impoverished and unsettled family life in Portland, Ore., to the top of U.S. women’s figure skating, she wore the smile not of the hero but of the menacing Joker, a smile that said: “Wait ‘til they get a load of me.”
Ever since, the conservators of figure skating’s pristine image, those who would like nothing better than to see every U.S. women’s champion cloned from Peggy Fleming or Dorothy Hamill, have held their collective breath as the tempestuous Harding fired her coach, left her husband, rehired her coach, took up drag racing, quit drag racing, returned to her husband and, for her 21st birthday in November, became the owner of a thoroughbred.
In recent months, she also has done some skating, although no one other than Harding knows how much.
As a natural athlete, it is true that she does not need to spend as much time and energy training as many of her competitors.
“She’s a little jock, more like Babe Didriksen than Peggy Fleming or Tai Babilonia,” her agent, Michael Rosenberg of Palm Desert, said of the 5-foot-1, 105-pound Harding. But for her coach, Dody Teachman, that is a mixed blessing because Harding, confident in her talent, sometimes becomes a stranger at the rink.
“She’s a real free spirit,” Teachman said.
Harding won the Skate America competition at Oakland in September, upsetting the reigning world champion and the one U.S. skater who can rival her in the judges’ eyes, the more graceful but less physically gifted Kristi Yamaguchi of Fremont, Calif.
But Harding withdrew from last month’s NHK competition at Hiroshima, Japan, where she was supposed to match triple axels with the only other skater who can jump into her stratosphere, Midori Ito of Japan. Harding complained of back spasms, the lingering effects of a 1985 automobile accident, but her critics claimed she would not have been hurt if she had spent more time in training and less on her capricious lifestyle.
As the nation’s best figure skaters reconvene this week for the 1992 U.S. championships at Orlando, Fla., where the team will be determined for next month’s Winter Olympics at Albertville, France, no one is certain what to expect from the defending women’s champion, which means that this week is no different from any other for Tonya Harding.
On a morning in early November, a reporter and a photographer stood beside the ice rink in the center of an indoor mall, the Lloyd Center, and waited anxiously for Harding.
Her relationship with the media has been no better than lukewarm. When she gasped to a second-place finish behind Yamaguchi in the World Championships last March at Munich, Germany, one month after winning at the nationals, she blamed a schedule that she felt was too crowded with interviews and photo sessions to allow her to concentrate on skating. She since has limited her accessibility to the media. And when she is accessible, she, according to reputation, can be difficult.
Even her agent, Rosenberg, acknowledged: “At times, she seems to be hard and crude. She has a long history of a bad temper. She can be a know-it-all. She’s very tough.” But, he says: “The other side of her is a doll. She can be soft and sensitive. I like Tonya very much.”
Added Teachman: “She’s likable, even when she’s being bullheaded.”
It was a very likable Harding who eventually arrived at the Lloyd Center, apologizing profusely because she was 30 minutes late.
“I just got back together with my husband, and he has an apartment on one side of town, and I have one on the other, so it’s hard to get here on time,” she breathlessly tried to explain.
Although she had not planned to practice that morning, she volunteered to change into her lime green skating dress when she saw the photographer. For the next 20 minutes, while the music from one of her exhibition programs played over the rink’s loud speaker, she did spins, jumps and footwork for the camera, stopping only occasionally to dig into her purse for her ever-present inhaler.
She has never surrendered to her asthma, even in the national championships at Salt Lake City in 1990, when an attack turned into walking pneumonia and she went into her four-minute freestyle program with a 103-degree fever. Asked by a doctor beforehand if she would consider withdrawing, she said, “I’d rather die.”
She did, on the ice. Among the medal favorites when the competition began because of her third-place finish in 1989, she was judged 10th in the freestyle program and dropped to seventh overall at Salt Lake City, which made it that much more satisfying when she won a year later at Minneapolis.
When the photo session ended, she said that she could sit and talk for an hour or so but then would have to return to her apartment and wait for telephone calls. That morning, she had placed a classified ad in the local newspaper, offering to trade her Mitsubishi Eclipse for a Corvette. But not just any Corvette.
“An ’86 Corvette, 3x4 (transmission), 56-inch suspension, glass top, black on black,” she said.
Although it obviously is not true in all aspects of her life, she has the air of someone who knows what she wants and how to get it. Often, she succeeds, such as the time she visited the Lloyd Center with her parents when she was 3 and stood transfixed as she watched the figure skaters.
She said she wanted to skate. When her mother said no, Harding cried until her father said yes.
Eighteen years later, asked whether her mother was concerned about her young daughter’s safety, Harding laughed and said: “No, I think she just didn’t want to spend the money.”
Money is a subject often raised in interviews with Harding because her family had so little.
Although figure skating has a reputation as an elitist sport because of the $30,000 or more per year it costs for nationally ranked competitors to stay in training, some recent U.S. champions, such as Debi Thomas and Todd Eldredge, have come from decidedly middle-class backgrounds.
For the Hardings, the middle class was a castle on a faraway hill.
Tonya’s mother, LaVona, worked as a waitress, while her father, Albert, bounced from job to job, never earning more than $5.05 an hour. He sometimes took jobs as a security guard at local ice rinks so he could keep a doting eye on his only child.
Harding contributed as soon as she could, dropping out of school after the eighth grade--she later acquired a high school diploma through an equivalency test--to take a job with a metal company, but her parents insisted that she not allow it to interfere with her skating.
“They didn’t always get along too well, and they didn’t have any money, but there’s no question they loved Tonya and wanted the very best for her,” said Tonya’s aunt, Sally Reinmann. “They were a good family. They just didn’t have any money.”
Added her husband, Bob Reinmann: “They didn’t have a good car or a good house. They lived in a mobile home in his mother’s driveway for a while. But Tonya continued to skate every day. All of their money went into her skating.”
That included the $10 to $12 a day that Tonya and her mother could make in refunds for bottles and cans they collected alongside the highway. During the interview, Harding recalled many days when she rode in the bed of a pickup truck, tapped on the window when she spotted a bottle or can as a signal for her mother to stop, jumped out to collect the bounty, jumped back in and tapped on the window again to resume the hunt.
She is more reluctant to discuss a darker side of her youth. Harding had two stepbrothers and a stepsister from her mother’s previous marriages who lived at times with others because LaVon and Albert could not afford to raise them. When Harding began to receive notice for her skating, a resentful stepbrother started threatening her. He was killed in a hit-and-run accident that still had not been solved in 1987, the year Harding’s parents divorced after 19 years of marriage.
“She’s had a hard upbringing,” said her coach, Teachman. “Maybe she’s not all that proud to talk about it. But it wasn’t all bad. There were a lot of good parts.”
Such as the dresses her mother made for her.
Even as novice and junior girls, the competitors in figure skating try to outdo each other in the dressing room as well as on the ice. But Harding did not have the means to dress for success.
“We would have people come up to us and ask, ‘Why is she wearing something like that?”’ she said. “We told them, ‘If we had the money to make a costume that was up to par with everybody else’s, we would.’ I liked my dresses. I was never ashamed at all, but, basically, everybody else thought I was scummy.”
Then she would go onto the ice and skate like a million dollars.
“Some kids have money, but the skating is hard,” Teachman said. “For her, the skating is easy. So it balances out.”
But, although Harding was ranked among the first six in the nation when she was 15, it took time for her to gain total acceptance in the sport.
“There are people in figure skating, like everywhere else, who are very image conscious,” said Bill Henley, a longtime figure skating coach in the Pacific Northwest who has watched Harding since she was a novice. “If someone comes along who doesn’t fit that image, some people in the sport have to be sold on the talent.
“If she had an attitude, a contrariness, it could have been because of her perception that she had obstacles to overcome she didn’t feel were fair. But she doesn’t have to prove anything any more. If she skates well, she knows she will win.”
When Harding won at Minneapolis, her mother watched on television from Portland with a sense of satisfaction.
“I saw her future right there,” LaVona said. “Now she can have everything she needs or wants. It won’t be the way it was for us, not being able to have much of anything.”
As soon as Harding won the national championship, the makeover began with bleached teeth. Then there was a touch here, and a touch there, and by the end of the fall the only thing super model Cindy Crawford had that Harding didn’t was the mole above her upper lip.
“She can be cute, sexy, hot or warm,” said Rosenberg, who recently placed her in a national commercial for an oil company to go along with the other sponsorships she has acquired in recent years. “She has a powerful, powerful story, and if she becomes the first U.S. woman Olympic figure skating champion since 1976, I think she’s fabulously marketable.”
But Rosenberg also allowed for the possibility that Harding could “blow it.”
More than a few in the sport feared she was doing that after returning home last March from the World Championships.
The first word out of Portland was that she was leaving Teachman and returning to Diane Rawlinson. Her coach for 15 years, Rawlinson quit in 1989, a perplexing development because she had contributed a considerable amount of her own time and money over the years to keep Harding in skating. But Rawlinson explained that Harding had become too independent for her to handle and passed her on to Teachman. That arrangement appeared to be working marvelously until Harding fired her.
Harding announced that Rawlinson would not really be coaching her but would be assisting as she coached herself from the videotapes that her husband would produce during practices.
“I’m the boss of my skating,” she said. Then came word that she had left Rawlinson and her husband of 15 months, returned to Teachman and begun drag racing at Portland International Raceway.
But by November, she was back in the slow lane. She quit drag racing because her insurance premiums were too high--"I don’t really think that getting in a car and stepping on the gas and going an eighth of a mile up to 70 miles an hour is dangerous,” she protested to deaf ears at the time--and was in the process of moving back in with her 23-year-old husband, Jeff Gillooly.
During the interview at the Lloyd Center, she seemed as content as she was on the day she won the national championship at Minneapolis.
“Everybody has problems, everybody has things that are too overpowering or too overbearing for them,” she said. “I’ve had bad times, too. Some other people would handle it differently than I’ve handled it, but, you know, I’m 21 years old. I really don’t know how to handle it. I’m just glad that I caught myself in time.
“I just within the last few weeks realized, ‘What am I doing?’ I’m throwing my whole life away, the life I’ve spent with the man I love more than anything else in the world. I wasn’t a whole person without him, and now I feel like a whole person again. I feel we can do something with our lives.”
On her birthday, her husband, who works for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, helped her fulfill one of her dreams by claiming a thoroughbred, Destiny’s Finest.
As for her own destiny, Harding said a second national championship, an Olympic gold medal and a lifetime of fame and fortune would be nice.
“But family is the most important thing right now, even more important than ice skating,” she said.
And what does her coach wish for her?
“If she ever becomes a coach,” Teachman said mischievously, “I hope she has a skater just like herself.”