She had wanted to prove she was back, to show the skating community and all of America she had put last year's miserable fifth-place finish at the world championships behind her and was skating better than ever. Training harder than ever. Brimming with more confidence than ever. She had wanted to send a message from Detroit, where the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) championships were held last week, that would be heard all the way to Lillehammer: Nancy Kerrigan is going to be a force to reckon with next month at the Olympics.
She never got that chance. Felled by one savage blow to her right knee by a bludgeon-wielding assailant last Thursday afternoon in Detroit's Cobo Arena, the 24-year-old Kerrigan was forced to withdraw from the national championships. The only message she sent was that no athlete, particularly no woman athlete, is immune to the threat of a new breed of psychopath: the terrorist sports fanatic.
The videotape of the stricken Kerrigan tearfully screaming, "Why me? Why now? Help me! Help me!" seconds after being smashed by a crowbar or blackjack—some sort of short, black weapon—will be the single, lasting image retained from these championships. The attacker was, as SI went to press, still unknown. Had his blow been an inch or two lower, Kerrigan's kneecap and career might have been shattered. As it was, her kneecap and quadriceps tendon were seriously bruised—there was no fracture—and within 24 hours the swelling and soreness had forced Kerrigan, who was the defending U.S. women's champion, to tearfully announce she would be unable to compete. The frightening attack overshadowed the rest of the event, which the USFSA uses to determine which skaters it will send to the Olympics, and left Americans shocked and saddened by yet another example of the senseless violence that pervades modern society. The very day that Kerrigan was struck down, Monica Seles, who was stabbed by a deranged tennis fan in Hamburg, Germany, last April, announced that she would not return to the court, as she had hoped, at the Australian Open. Why Kerrigan? Why Seles? And what famous athlete might be next?
For Kerrigan the timing of the attack could hardly have been worse. In the days leading up to the championships, few people could remember having seen her so upbeat about her skating. Since May, Kerrigan, who lives in Plymouth, Mass., had been working with Cindy Adams, a sports psychology consultant who operates out of Bradford, Mass. Adams helped Kerrigan to look more positively at life after the fiasco at the worlds, during which Kerrigan was heard on national television sobbing, "I just want to die," while waiting for the judges' scores of her flaw-filled routine. Kerrigan cut back on her endorsement activity, which last year distracted her from her training time. On the eve of the attack Evy Scotvold, who, with his wife, Mary, is Kerrigan's longtime coach, said, "She's never worked this hard before.
"She's never done the run-throughs she's doing now. Double run-throughs. Going for perfect run-throughs. She's in fantastic shape. Her power is incredible. When she skates, she looks like she needs a bigger ice surface."
It was a different picture from that of the timid, tearful Kerrigan of last March, who seemed to freeze up at the worlds in Prague. Back then, whenever Kerrigan practiced her four-minute, 10-second program, she would always leave something out. Purposely. Sometimes a spin. Sometimes a jump. But always she would hold back something. The Scotvolds had never seen her skate cleanly through an entire program in practice. Kerrigan wasn't sure why she did it. Perhaps to save energy. Or perhaps out of fear of failure. What if she tried, really tried, to do everything—and found out she couldn't?
"I wouldn't let myself skip anything this year," Kerrigan said with pride just before last week's championships. "I didn't want to get into that habit. I learned to train in a more rigorous way."
This year, after skating her long program once, Kerrigan would ask Evy Scotvold to rewind the music so she could run through it again—some eight-plus minutes of skating. She even did three consecutive run-throughs last month—"and I hit 17 of 18 triples," she gushed. "One time through the program seems easy now."
The new regimen brought results. Kerrigan won both competitions she had entered this season—the Piruetten in Hamar, Norway, in October, which was held in the new Olympic arena, and the AT&T Pro Am in Philadelphia last month. Defending her national title in Detroit would be the final step before Lillehammer, the one that would remove, once and for all, the memory of those disastrous four minutes in Prague.
It was snowing on Thursday, a blizzard. Even so, a couple of hundred people were in the stands watching Kerrigan's afternoon practice in Cobo Arena the day before the women's competition began. She had a second practice session scheduled for that night, at 11:30, but because of the late hour, she wasn't sure she would make it. So Kerrigan was the last skater to leave the ice that afternoon.