Tonya's happiest hours as a child were spent with her dad. Al may not have been the world's greatest provider, but he is a teddy bear of a man, likable and almost cuddly. Al remembers taking his daughter deer hunting when she was only three years old. He told her how important it was to walk quietly. As they tiptoed through the woods, every time he stepped on a twig his young daughter would put her finger to her lips and say, "Shhh." That day she followed him a mile and a half. Oh, she was a pistol, that girl.
A year later, Al and LaVona took their daughter elk hunting. Heck, they took her everywhere. The only time she had a baby-sitter was once when her parents had to appear together in traffic court. The day of the elk hunt, they left Tonya in the truck and trekked down the hillside in search of game. "She was a pretty good trooper," says Al. "Most kids would scream and cry when they saw Mom and Dad go walking down the mountain."
Al bought Tonya a .22 when she was five, cutting down the stock so it would fit her. They would go behind the house and set pop cans on their sides, and Tonya would aim at the tops from 75 feet away. She got to be quite a shot. "I was a better shot than he was." she says, grinning, her competitiveness bubbling out. Al bought her a .243 deer rifle when she was nine, and she killed her first deer while hunting with him when she was 13.
They would fish together too. Al used to take her to the Columbia River at the Bonneville Dam, where he would cast for sturgeon. Tonya would roam the shoreline at low tide, looking for the 10-ounce sinkers fishermen had lost; they were sometimes attached to lines that had wrapped around pieces of brush and had broken off. The sinkers cost a buck and a half new, and her dad would give her a quarter apiece for them. Once, when she was seven, Al heard Tonya screaming, and he left his rod in the holder and came running, fearing she had fallen into the river. He found her hauling in a sturgeon that was almost as long as she was—41 inches. She had found a sinker on a snag, and as she unwound it, she discovered that the sturgeon was still on the hook. "The kid even beat you fishing when she didn't have a pole," Al says, beaming. It's easy to believe it when he says that he has watched the tape of Tonya winning the national championship at least 50 times, not once with a dry eye.
She helped him work on his car, learning to adjust the valves every 10,000 miles. Today she can replace a transmission, rebuild an engine and do a brake job. After Al hurt his back, Tonya would split and stack the wood he had cut with a chain saw. "I was happy with my dad," she says. "We did everything together. But I wasn't very happy as a child. I was lonely. I never went to Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm or any place like that when I was young. Skating was the only thing I did that really gave me confidence."
It was a small miracle she ever started, tight as the money was at home. It began when she was 3½ years old. Her parents were shopping one day at Portland's Lloyd Center, a mall with an ice rink, and when Tonya saw other kids skating, she wanted to join in. "My dad said O.K., and my mother said no," says Harding. "So I cried, and finally she agreed. The first thing I did was make a pile of shavings on the ice and start to eat them. My mother told me I had to skate like the others, or we'd leave. So I skated."
Her parents gave her a pair of secondhand skates for Christmas, and Tonya began taking group lessons. She quickly outgrew the program, and one of the teachers suggested to her mother that Tonya take private lessons from Diane Schatz—now Diane Rawlinson—in nearby Jantzen Beach. Rawlinson's initial reaction, when the Hardings drove out to see her, was that she didn't coach skaters that young. "My mom told me to go out and pester her," says Harding, "so I skated around her in circles and drove her nuts until Diane agreed to a six-month trial."
That trial ended up lasting almost 14 years. And at times it was a trial for all involved. LaVona used the money she got in tips to pay for Tonya's lessons—$25 a week at first—while Al's wages went toward household expenses. As Tonya progressed, the costs mounted. When Al was laid off from work, Rawlinson would donate her coaching time. She also bought Tonya new skates and raised money from friends and area businesses to offset travel and training expenses. LaVona made Tonya's competition outfits. Grooming a world-class skater is an expensive proposition, eventually costing as much as $25,000 to $30,000 a year. "Diane was really good to her," says Al. "It cost $400 to $500 for a new pair of skates. We never had that kind of money. Tonya had to do more with less coaching than any of the girls she skates against."
But the talent was there. Harding is a terrific natural jumper, and she's fiercely competitive. She landed her first triple loop at nine, after another skater had bet that she couldn't do it. Nothing frightened her. One stark difference between most boy and girl skaters, according to those who coach them, is that when challenged to try a new move, most boys will shrug and give it a go. Most girls protest that they are being asked to attempt the impossible, and have to be coaxed.
Harding tried new things at the drop of a hat. She loved that aspect of skating, and of life. She still does. When she was 14, she began landing imperfect triple Axels in practice at a time when no woman in the world was attempting that 3½-revolution jump in competition. More recently, she has been working on quadruple-revolution Salchows and loops.