But she had something else besides talent. "Tonya's got this burning desire inside," says David Webber, 50, a Portland taxi driver who got to know Tonya when he was the manager of a fast-food restaurant. "Her mother told me she never had to wake Tonya up to go practice. That was all Tonya's doing."
Webber and Harding have become so close since they met in January 1985, when Harding went to his restaurant for coffee, that Harding now refers to Webber and his wife, Ruth, as Mom and Dad. She calls the three Webber kids—Mark, Brent and Stephanie—her brothers and sister. "If I ever had a family, they're it," says Harding. "They basically adopted me into their family. You don't need papers to be adopted into a family."
"She kind of adopted us," says Ruth Webber. "And we don't mind at all that she calls us Mom and Dad. Not at all. I don't think Tonya got a lot of love as a child growing up."
Whatever affection Harding once held for her mother was altered by the rancor that developed between the two during Tonya's teenage years, when mother and daughter found themselves increasingly at odds over any number of issues, big and small. All the elements for domestic disaster were in place. The Hardings' marriage was falling apart. Tonya was a stubborn and independent-minded young woman. Al was unemployed, and LaVona was working late hours as a waitress.
There were other problems too. The most terrible night came when Tonya was 15. She was at home alone, preparing for her first date with Jeff Gillooly, the man she would later marry. Tonya's half brother, Chris Davison, came home inebriated. He was 26 at the time. When he found that the Hardings weren't home, he approached Tonya and tried to kiss her. This had happened once before, and Tonya had stopped him by slapping his face. This time she threatened to burn him with her curling iron, and when he kept coming, Tonya made good her threat and burned him on the neck. Terrified, she ran upstairs and locked herself in the bathroom. Davison followed her, and when she wouldn't open the door, he broke it down. She was able to get away from him and dialed 911.
"He told me, 'If you say something's wrong, I'll kill you,' " she remembers. "So when the operator asked me if everything was O.K., I said yes. But she must have known something was wrong, because she called right back and asked, 'Are you sure everything's O.K. there? It's not, is it?' I just said, 'Yup.' "
Davison wouldn't leave, and when he came after her again, Tonya hit him with a hockey stick and ran across the street to the neighbors. Again she called the police. After Davison took off in his car, Tonya went back to her house, locked all the doors and windows, and waited. It seemed forever before anybody came. Finally she heard a car pull up, and she ran to the window. It was Davison. She couldn't believe this was happening. He was screaming at her, "I'm gonna get you!" and trying to get in the house. She heard someone pounding on the door, and the pounding continued and continued, until finally she understood what was being shouted: "Just open the door. It's the police." Shaking and in tears, she let them in. Her half brother was at the bottom of the stairs, in handcuffs. The police hauled him off to jail, and when Al visited him the next day, Davison didn't remember the visit.
"That night I tried to tell my mom and dad what happened," Harding says. "My dad didn't want to believe it, and my mother slapped me and told me to get in my room. To this day she doesn't believe me."
"He did have a problem with drinking," admits LaVona. "I wouldn't put it past Chris to try and get a kiss. Tonya has a vivid imagination. She has a tendency to tell tall tales."
"After Chris got out of jail, he told me, 'If I ever catch you alone, you won't be around anymore,' " says Harding.