Tonya Harding Fights Back
The Outcast Skater Attempts A New Career as a Boxer
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page C01
VANCOUVER, Wash. -- Tonya Harding has the flu.
Pale, beefy and swaddled in Everlast sweat gear, she shuffles into her fight manager's makeshift office in a hotel here beside the Columbia River and explains the particulars.
"It's coming out both ends," she tells Paul Brown, her manager and current father-substitute.
Brown, who has worked with heavyweights Riddick Bowe and Michael Spinks, is sympathetic, but firm. Harding has a fight next month in Edmonton, Alberta, with a nursing student. To qualify as a 118-pound bantamweight, she has to drop 10 pounds. Her record since she went pro last year is a wobbly 3-2 (with two broken noses), and she hasn't had a boxing payday since August. She can't afford to miss weight.
Flu or no flu, today there will be jogging, push-ups and glove work. Harding, 33, will have a light lunch -- a small salad and water with lemon and Sweet'N Low. While working out, she will excuse herself to vomit and then ask her manager for a breath mint.
So it goes, 10 1/2 years down the road from infamy.
Nancy Kerrigan's right knee was whacked by an assailant on Jan. 6, 1994, at the U.S. Olympic figure skating trials. Harding, Kerrigan's archrival on the ice, instantly became an international dark star, the Bruno Hauptmann of women's figure skating. She negotiated a plea bargain and was sentenced to three years' probation for hindering the prosecution of those, including her ex-husband, who had planned and executed the assault.
But she denied then -- and denies now -- knowing anything about the whacking until after it was over, when she says she failed to alert police in a timely way. It's a denial that her ex-husband and her former bodyguard, who both pleaded guilty in the assault and served prison terms, have said is a lie. As did the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which stripped Harding of her 1994 national title and banned her for life from the one thing at which she had always excelled. She's still the only woman to have landed a triple axel (3 1/2 turns) in a national championship.
Across the river in Portland, Ore., Harding started skating at age 3 and it was her anchor in a chaotic childhood, during which her alcoholic mother beat her in public and her family moved 13 times before she was in fifth grade. She dropped out of high school to train for national and international competition. Without skating, Harding has stumbled again and again.
She remarried and got divorced in 99 days. "Because he beat me," she says. She spent three days in jail for hitting a boyfriend with a hubcap and then bloodying his nose. "He said his motorcycle was more important than me, which I thought was mean and cruel," she explains. She was arrested for drunk driving, sent to alcohol treatment and sentenced, among other things, to pull weeds in a cemetery and take anger management courses. She was evicted for not paying rent.
She is alienated from her mother, whom she describes as "a pathological liar who can't be trusted." She says her father "sold me out" to the tabloids. Her siblings, she says, "all turned out to be crap."
Then, there's the Tonya Harding Web site, which has a fantasy board on which men post pornographic descriptions of what they would like to do with the bad girl of figure skating. Harding says she has nothing to do with the official-looking site, that it is run by leeches sucking on her fame and that she doesn't have enough money to hire a lawyer to stop it.
Perhaps the most telling measure of the scale of Harding's ignominy is the damage she appears to have done to the popularity of her own first name.
In the 1970s, the decade of her birth, Tonya was the 52nd most popular name in the United States. In 1993, the year before the attack on Kerrigan, Tonya was ranked 570th. Three years later, it had dropped to 922nd, and since 1998, it has disappeared altogether from a list of 1,000 popular names.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Still the only woman to land a triple axel at a national championship, Tonya Harding, 33, now is learning boxing skills under the tutelage of manager Paul Brown, above.
(Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)