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  It's an Eerie Calm Around Kerrigan

By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 1994; Page D1




HAMAR, Norway — You start out in the early morning darkness of the Norwegian winter, driving an hour and a half through blowing snow from Lillehammer in the hope that Nancy Kerrigan will be practicing. You hear she's in Hamar, and that she has ice time at 11:35. But you don't know if she'll use it. She hasn't been seen in public since she landed in Oslo on Thursday. Maybe she'll skate, maybe she won't. People compare her to Hepburn. Maybe she's Garbo.

You get to the Hamar OL-Ami ice rink, a small, well-lit place with a cozy feel and pine walls. There are about 200 people inside, mostly press and photographers, all drawn there like moths to Kerrigan's flame. You scan the rafters for extra security, thinking that may be a tip to whether she skates. You see no police at all.

You find Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion. He's a close friend of Kerrigan; he skated with her in Boston last week. "Will Nancy practice?" you ask. He nods.

You sit together for a while. Hamilton talks lovingly of Kerrigan. "Some people are meant to be in the public eye, and some aren't," he says. "She is. Look at the way she's handled herself. She has been under an electron microscope. Her whole life has been invaded, and she's been flawless."

Hamilton looks across the arena where the press have enveloped Kerrigan's coach, Evy Scotvold, all but swallowing him up. "Somebody just threw a goldfish into the piranha tank," Hamilton says with a knowing smile. If Scotvold is in the arena, Kerrigan can't be far behind. It is now 11:30.

There is a scoreboard at either end of the arena listing the names of the six skaters who'll share the same ice for practice sessions — from now until the end of the skating competition. The fifth skater listed is Kerrigan. The name directly above hers is Tonya Harding ... who is not here. Yet. Won't that be something, Kerrigan and Harding sharing the ice? Do they skate in through a metal detector?

Lily Lyoonjung Lee of Korea skates quietly onto the ice, taking wide, slow laps around the edges. Then, suddenly, with Tina Turner music playing in the background, Kerrigan glides effortlessly onto the ice: drop-dead gorgeous and right out of a Richard Avedon lens in a black sweater, black gloves and black tights under a gauzy purple floral wrap-around skirt, her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail.

And just as Kerrigan reaches the precise center of the rink, and arches her back, and stretches out her arms as if to embrace the whole world — just at the moment of rapture — you hear Tina Turner sing, "You're simply the best! Better than all the rest!" And, really, what are you supposed to think when that happens? It takes your breath away.

You watch Kerrigan skate, and Hamilton talks about her bravura performance last week in Boston, how well she connected with the crowd, how "it gave her a feeling of being liked and loved and cared for." Before that, Kerrigan had always been known for the distance she put between herself and her audience; she was ravishing but unapproachable. Hamilton sees a different person now. "She's ready," he says simply.

And as Kerrigan takes off her sweater and begins her serious practice, you listen to Hamilton's running catalog of her jumps: "Double Axel, double Axel, double Salchow, ooooh, triple Salchow — that was really nice. Triple toe, triple toe. She's leaving an incredible impression on anybody watching," Hamilton says, knowing judges are watching.

You watch her run the table, hitting jump after jump, remembering to smile at each landing so the overhead lights catch her white teeth and they twinkle like the stars you never see in the cloudy Norwegian night. Considering everything she's been through, starting in that hallway in Detroit, seeing her out there, well, when she jumps, a little bit of you jumps too.

Kerrigan takes nearly 20 jumps and misses two, both triple lutzes. She stays out there until she hits the jump twice in a row, then skates over to Evy and Mary Scotvold. You notice she searches the arena warily. It's probably your imagination, but you think you see anxiety in her eyes. You wonder if the crowd has made Kerrigan nervous; she seems to be staying out there a long time. It's almost like the only place she feels safe these days is on the ice. Lily Lyoonjung Lee is long gone. Kerrigan has the rink to herself, and she is in the middle, whirling around like she's on a carousel, alone, without a care in the world.

An announcement is made that the practice session is over, and all skaters must clear the ice. Kerrigan is the only one out there, and she exits reluctantly, pausing to put on skateguards over her blades. Above her head you can see the scoreboard where the names are still posted in order: "Harding-USA" right above "Kerrigan-USA." Kerrigan never looks up at it.

The smile is gone as she reaches the tunnel and braces for the questions from the press who line the stairs and stare down at her. Somebody asks, innocently enough, "How did the workout go?" For some reason Kerrigan reacts defensively, snapping, "I thought it went very well. Why? You didn't think so?" The next question is about the right knee that was whacked in Detroit: "How does the knee feel?" Again, inexplicably, Kerrigan gets testy, saying, "It feels wonderful. You can't answer that? You didn't think it looked okay?"

You are confused. What happened to America's Sweetheart? Doesn't she know this too is an audience to connect with?

Then, someone shouts out, "Tonya says she'd like to give you a big hug if you'd give her a chance. What is your response to that?"

Kerrigan stands there as if she didn't hear it — like Ronald Reagan hoping for the helicopter noise to drown everything out. Kerrigan stands there for the longest time, and still the question hangs in the air, unanswered.

"Tonya says she wants to give you a big hug if you'd give her the chance. What is your response to that?"

Nancy Kerrigan makes a small, cute wave with her right hand, smiles archly, says "bye" and disappears down the hall.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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