Shortly after 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 6, 1994, the day before she was to defend her U.S. figure skating title in Detroit, Nancy Kerrigan was whacked above the knee with a metal baton by an unknown assailant. The attack, a single, savage blow from which Kerrigan suffered a bruised kneecap and quadriceps tendon, occurred after practice as she stopped to talk to a reporter.
The perpetrators of the assault, an investigation revealed, were associates of Kerrigan's main American rival, Tonya Harding, a sassy pepper pot who is still the only U.S. woman to have landed a triple axel (at the 1991 U.S. Nationals). Jeff Gillooly, Harding's former husband, and three others were later arrested, and Gillooly, who pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering, told FBI investigators that Harding had been involved in the plot from the outset. Harding, who was living with Gillooly in the Portland suburb of Beavercreek when the attack was planned and carried out, denied it.
This was real-life soap opera, and as the titillating details came to light, Americans reveled in it. Hordes of reporters camped outside Kerrigan's house. A home video of a topless Harding in a wedding dress was aired by a tabloid TV show. The U.S. Olympic committee scheduled a disciplinary hearing on Harding's status with the Olympic team, but backed down after she filed a $25 million lawsuit. The Feb. 23 showdown between Kerrigan and Harding in the Lillehammer Games ended up being the third-most-watched sports broadcast of all time (some 45.7 million viewers), trailing only two Super Bowls.
Harding bombed in Lillehammer, failing to land a triple axel and finishing eighth. Kerrigan, fully recovered, skated almost flawlessly but had to settle for a silver medal. Oksana Baiul, the 16-year-old ingenue from Ukraine, won the gold in a 5-4 decision, with the judges split along East-West lines.
Three weeks later Harding accepted a plea bargain for a Class C felony for hindering the prosecution and was sentenced to three years' probation. She was also forced to resign her membership in the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Ironically, as a result of the frenzy generated by the whole sordid story, national interest in figure skating skyrocketed throughout the remainder of the decade.
She would rather be known for being one of the five U.S. women who've won two Olympic figure skating medals. For that matter, she'd be happy to be known simply as a good mom. Married for seven years to her agent-manager, Jerry Solomon, Kerrigan, 33, has a six-year-old son, Matthew. She juggles an ongoing skating career with TV commentary (for the ISU Grand Prix series on Lifetime), fund-raising for Fight for Sight (her mother, Brenda, is legally blind) and being a mother. The family will soon move from Lynnfield, Mass., to Baton Rouge, where The Football Network (TFN), of which Solomon is president and CEO, is headquartered. "I'm boring," she says, laughing. "I'm kind of normal. It's a fun marriage—hectic, but fun." And when she reads about Harding's latest shenanigans, what does she think? "What a shame," Kerrigan says. "She did have talent." Better to be boring and normal.
In Lincoln City, Ore., on June 13, rookie prizefighter Emily Gosa was the designated patsy in the home-state boxing debut of Harding, the 1991 U.S. figure skating champ lately disparaged as the Great White-Trash Hope. After four rounds of stumbling, slapping and catcalls, Harding won a unanimous decision, her third in four pro bouts. "I could care less if people boo me," says the bantamweight billed as America's Bad Girl. "They paid to see me."
Since the '94 Olympics, Harding, 32, has had trouble with the law, alcohol and an infamous home video. She's been hooted at by the public and hounded by reporters who still throw themselves at her door in thick, lapping waves. Yet she has remained undaunted. "The best revenge is success," she says of her new ring career. "Lots of people want me to fail. That's what drives me."