Tonya Harding Remains the Public Enigma
By Christine Brennan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 1994; Page D1
There are no secrets left in this town about what Harding does and where she does it except for the key question of what she knew and when she knew it. Everywhere she has been for the past 10 days, since the Oregonian newspaper here reported that her ex-husband and bodyguard were being investigated in the alleged plot to attack rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, dozens of reporters have been with her.
Escape is not possible in Portland. The daughter of a waitress and her fifth husband, Harding grew up here, moving from house to trailer park, learning how to hunt, fish, fix cars, play pool, split wood and skate. For a metropolitan area of more than 1 million, Portland actually is a close-knit collection of small neighborhoods, with their coffee bars and their wooded hillsides. There are the Trail Blazers of the National Basketball Association. There is a shoe company called Nike. And there's Harding.
"She is the second franchise here, after the Blazers," Oregonian sports columnist Julie Vader said today. "And she's been the biggest thing in town the last two weeks."
Her home telephone number has been printed in an affidavit that alleges she helped plot the Jan. 6 attack on Kerrigan. (Call the number, and you get her voice on the answering machine, saying she and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly want you to leave a message. Presumably it will be updated soon.) The local paper printed a pseudo Map-of-the-Stars of the alleged conspiracy, with numbers (not addresses) marking Harding's home, her father's apartment building and local restaurants and stores where the alleged conspirators met.
Until Lorena Bobbitt was found not guilty, news about Harding and the people around her led the paper every day. One headline: "Harding dumps ex-husband."
Said Vader: "To get away from the violence and the media crush, I'm looking forward to going to the Super Bowl (the biggest annual media circus in sports)."
But Harding remains. Where else would she go? Just as Kerrigan has sought refuge in her parents' home in Stoneham, Mass., and the two ice rinks she has known since childhood, so too has Harding. She had been staying with her father, Al, a former truck driver, in his apartment on the east side of town, until recently moving in with her coach, Diane Rawlinson.
Harding practices at the Clackamas Town Center, a bustling mall with an Olympic-sized rink inside. Six years ago, the mall's managers wanted to close the rink to enlarge the food court. Harding appeared before them in tears, asking them to reconsider. They did.
For two consecutive days, to increasingly large and curious crowds, Harding practiced in the mall. Occasionally, the tapes of her Olympic music interrupted the Muzak. Friday, her mother, La Vona Golden, surprised her with a visit. It was the first time they had seen each other in a month.
"Wow, my mom's here," Harding, 23, exclaimed when she saw her.
Golden, who sewed the costumes Harding wore as a child, said her daughter was not involved in the alleged plot to injure Kerrigan. Like her daughter, Golden always has dreamed about the money that's available to the women who star in this sport up to $10 million for a U.S. woman who wins the Olympic gold medal, agents suggest.
Distraught, Golden now believes that no matter how Harding performs when and if she goes to the Winter Olympics in Norway next month, the fortune is gone.
"I spent 18 years giving up everything to try to get her what she wanted, and she has spent 19, 20 years training to fulfill her dream," Golden said. "And it's ruined, all for nothing."
As she walked through the mall to the parking lot, Golden said, "I just didn't want her to have a life like me."
It's hard to figure Harding and her parents, in part because they have never particularly cared how they present themselves to the outside world. Harding once had an agent, but they split. She apparently has no one helping her deal with the media now, no one suggesting that, despite what her lawyers have warned about talking about the criminal investigation, she certainly could reach out to Kerrigan with a friendly hello across the airwaves. Instead, she chooses to remain fiercely competitive; a letter she sent to Kerrigan through the U.S. Figure Skating Association was two sentences long and showed no remorse for the attack.
Then again, being friendly in the face of battle doesn't seem to be her style. Someone who was particularly close to Harding, but spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said Harding "didn't want to play the [public relations] game."
"She was competitive and thought she was better than Nancy Kerrigan," the source said. "But if you want the publicity Nancy gets, you've got to work for it. And Tonya wouldn't play by the rules of that game."
Golden looked into a sea of cameras and microphones Friday and gruffly described the family's feelings toward the media:
"I normally try to avoid people like you."
Those who see Harding as a raw, rough-edged athlete who has crash-landed into the pristine world of figure skating are always shocked to hear how small she is. She's 5 feet 1 and weighs 105 pounds. She couldn't appear less threatening in person; in her warm-ups, she looks like a teenage gymnast.
When Elaine Stamm, a local "stay-at-home mom" with grown children who once taught charm school, began reading about Harding and her blue-collar, tumultuous background, she decided to help out by forming a fan club. That was a year ago.
"My heart went out to her as a mother, as someone I wanted to help," Stamm said.
More than 400 people have joined the club, from 25 states. Stamm said that one day last week, 15 people called for applications. The club pays some of Harding's expenses, and helps find her speaking engagements, charity work and appearances. One was as grand marshal of last summer's annual parade in Troutdale, a tiny village 20 miles east of Portland.
Organizers of the parade told Stamm that Harding would get to ride around town in a convertible. But when she and Harding arrived, they realized the vehicle was a fancy pick-up truck.
"That was fine," Stamm remembered. "She likes pick-up trucks. She'd do a great endorsement for Ford trucks."
But, Stamm said, Harding also cared very much that the new outfit the fan club bought for her didn't clash with the color of the truck.
Stamm said she is convinced Harding would do anything for anyone in the fan club. But those who know Harding said they were horrified when she refused to call or write her former choreographer in the final months before the woman died of cancer.
Yet there are two sides to every Harding saga. One of the stories making the rounds is that she was given a shotgun for her fifth birthday by Al Harding, who shortened the stock for her. But Al Harding downplayed that aspect of his daughter's reputation today.
"That was all over once she saw the movie 'Bambi,' " he said as he stood in the door of his apartment.
"Her life is a roller coaster," the source said. "You can't figure her out."
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