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Not Your Average Ice Queen
January 13, 1992
A troubled past hasn't stopped Tonya Harding from becoming a figure skating champion
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January 13, 1992

Not Your Average Ice Queen

A troubled past hasn't stopped Tonya Harding from becoming a figure skating champion

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Lord knows she's trying. Problem is, when life has been dealing you cards from the bottom of the deck for most of your 21 years, the aces and jacks all start to look marked, and it's kind of hard to trust the dealer. Even after winning a couple of hands.

But Tonya Harding, the reigning U.S. women's figure skating champion, is trying. Trying to save her 22-month marriage despite the reservations, both implied and spoken, of nearly everyone who cares for her—father, mother, coach, manager, best friend. Trying to gain a measure of stability at home that has eluded her all her life. Trying to look at the bright side of a world that has shown her its underbelly with unseemly meticulousness. Trying to fulfill a preposterous childhood dream in which a hardscrabble, dispossessed kid from Portland, Ore., hoists herself above a troubled past and wins the most refined gold medal of the Olympic Games—the women's figure skating title—propelling her toward a happily-ever-after she has never known.

It could happen, and wouldn't it be rich if it did? An ice princess who has her own pool cue—Harding's the name, nine ball's the game—an interloper in the realm of pixies and queens who's as at home doing a brake job as she is performing an arabesque. Aspirant to the throne of some of the most elegant women in the sport—Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Katarina Witt—who can curse like a sailor, bench-presses more than her weight and drag races in the summer for kicks.

Harding shatters all stereotypes of the pampered and sheltered figure skater who has spent his or her youth bottled in an ice rink, training. At 21, she has seen a lot of life, and she is unapologetic if the experience has left her just a little rough around the edges. "I don't regret anything that I had to go through," she says. "The way I am today must be the way God wanted it."

God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform.... If so, then He must be a figure skating fan, for Harding's skating talent is real.

That became apparent last February, when after years of disappointment and ill luck, Harding sent shock waves through the figure skating community with an upset victory in the nationals in Minneapolis against one of the strongest fields in memory. The shock waves were emitted when Harding, in the free skating portion of the event, became just the second woman to land a triple Axel in competition (Japan's Midori Ito was the first). She repeated that feat in March at the world championships in Munich, where she finished second to U.S. teammate Kristi Yamaguchi in an unprecedented 1-2-3 American sweep. Ito was fourth. If form holds, one of those women will win the gold medal at Albertville. But if the prize were awarded on the size of the obstacles that had to be overcome to get there, the 5'1", 96-pound Harding would win in a walk. "She's a tough cookie," says her coach, Dody Teachman. "And she's had to be."

For all practical purposes, Harding was an only child. Her mother, LaVona, had had four children from previous marriages (Al Harding was her fifth husband). One died in infancy; the other three were much older than Tonya.

Money was tight. LaVona worked as a waitress and made most of Tonya's clothes. This became a source of friction between them as Tonya grew older. "They were pure polyester blends, and the other kids made fun of them," Harding recalls. "My first day of high school my mother made me wear these forest-green pants with white polka dots. We had a big fight over that, and she won."

The Hardings moved around a lot. Tonya can remember living in eight different homes in six communities before she was 18 years old. "We'd rent places," she says, "and they'd raise the rent, and we'd have to move. Or we'd move in with relatives or friends. I changed schools just about every year, so I didn't have friends hardly at all. I was basically a loner."

Al Harding, who is now 58, worked variously for the Huntington Rubber Corp. or driving trucks for nonunion wages or managing an apartment building. He seldom earned much more than $5 an hour, and he was unemployed for long stretches of time after he hurt his back while lifting. "Four times in my life I bought a new car," Al says. "And all four times I got laid off within two weeks. I ain't going to buy no more new ones."

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