It rankles Nancy Kerrigan that 10 years and four days after absorbing the whack on the knee that united her in a sort of unholy matrimony with Tonya Harding, she is remembered for something she didn’t do, instead of her world-class repertoire and resume.
It is unfair, but life isn’t always fair. And Kerrigan, in Atlanta on Friday to be inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, has enjoyed a rich post-Olympic life as a wife, mother, charity volunteer and occasional performer.
“It is quite an honor to be acknowledged at this point for the skating aspect,” she said. “It’s not that it was ever a dream of mine when I was a child. I skated because I loved it, never for the awards or even going for the Olympics, or certainly not for the Hall of Fame. This is more of a dream come true to be here. To look back on that, it’s such a lifetime ago.”
Blessed with patrician looks and bearing that belied her working-class background, she competed against Harding, whose hardscrabble upbringing and athleticism jolted the supposedly genteel sport. Kerrigan was the world bronze medalist in 1991 in a U.S. sweep with Kristi Yamaguchi and Harding, and won the silver medal in 1992 and gold in 1993.
The U.S. champion in 1993, she was favored to repeat in 1994 at Detroit. Fate intervened in the form of a knock on the right knee from a baton-wielding associate of Harding’s former husband, a man who said he had been paid to harm Kerrigan and boost Harding’s chances. Images of a shocked, confused Kerrigan crying, “Why me?” are indelible, as was the ensuing frenzy among media and fans.
It was a soap opera -- the “good girl” vs. the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Jealousy. Tears. Violence. It spawned a flood of contrived events that capitalized on the sport’s new notoriety, resulting in boffo box office numbers and great cash flow.
“We could never have imagined that at the time, any differently than baseball players 15 years ago could have imagined what they’re capable of earning these days,” said Chuck Foster, president of U.S. Figure Skating. “I said when I became president, ‘You’ll look back upon this past 10 years as the golden age of figure skating.’ ”
Fans flocked to professional and pro-am competitions and watched U.S. and Olympic events in unprecedented numbers. And fans brought in money.
“The Tonya-Nancy debacle was worldwide. It was like O.J. Simpson,” said Tom Collins, owner of the Champions on Ice troupe. “It certainly thrust us into the spotlight and business did improve tremendously, I’d say by 100%. Where we were doing one show before that, we were doing two or three.”
Kerrigan rehabilitated her injured knee and competed at the Lillehammer Games, where she skated beautifully but finished second to 15-year-old Oksana Baiul of Ukraine.
Kerrigan was welcomed home but lost some sympathy with her off-the-cuff remark that appearing in a Disney World parade was “corny.” Time and motherhood have softened her and tempered public perception of her; she said people who once approached her only to say she’s taller than she appeared on TV now offer kind words.
“The most common comment I hear is, ‘You’re a really great skater and I loved watching you and you should have won the gold,’ ” she said.
There was no admiration for Harding, whom U.S. Olympic officials failed to keep out of the Olympics. She competed but finished eighth; she was later stripped of her 1994 U.S. title and banned from the sport. Since then, she has served jail time for throwing a hubcap at one of her three former husbands and has taken up boxing. Her agent, Paul Brown, said she agreed to do TV and newspaper interviews this week but didn’t follow through because snow trapped her at her rural home outside Vancouver, Wash., where her phone service is spotty.
The Tonya-Nancy frenzy inevitably subsided. Collins’ tour had trouble filling seats last year and cut its itinerary this year to 18 major cities, fewer than previous between-Olympic years. He said his business “is at the level we were prior to Kerrigan-Harding, possibly a little better,” and added, “Kerrigan-Harding spoiled us. We should be thankful for them, though we didn’t know it at the time.”
Kerrigan is thankful only for the lesson she learned about herself.
“We’re all so vulnerable in our lives, and you don’t know what’s around the corner and what’s going to happen,” she said. “We have such reserves within ourselves. I was never aware or sure of what I had. Once you face something, you become so much stronger than you ever think you can be.”