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  Tonya Harding's Image Has Sharp Edges

By Johnette Howard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 1994; Page C1

Harding's Career

1974: At age 4, wins first skating competition.
1986: Finishes sixth in first senior division competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Association nationals.
1989: Finishes third in the nationals.
February 1991: Wins the U.S. figure skating nationals.
March 1991: Places second in first world championship competition.
September 1991: Beats defending world champion Kristi Yamaguchi, placing first in Skate America International.
February 1992: Finishes fourth in the Olympics at Albertville, France.
Jan. 8, 1994: Places first in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit and wins a berth at the 1994 Winter Olympics after Nancy Kerrigan, her chief competitor, is attacked outside the rink on Jan. 6.

The one word that courses through every anecdote or assessment of figure skater Tonya Harding is "tough." Former coach Dody Teachman once called her "a little barracuda." But others say Harding merely has some rough edges that contribute to her being misunderstood. In the weeks leading up to last week's trials in Detroit to determine the U.S. Olympic figure skating team, Harding let it be known that she was determined to not just win one of the two women's berths but come home from Lillehammer, Norway, with "nothing less than the gold medal."

Now — as arrest warrants were issued yesterday in Portland amid rumors that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly; her bodyguard, Shawn Eric Eckardt; and two other men will be charged with conspiracy in the Jan. 6 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in Detroit — one of the lingering, hotly debated questions has been how much did Harding know about the plot? And what kind of person is she?

And, for the umpteenth time in her career, Harding, 23, finds herself stuck in a firestorm, wondering aloud in a Portland TV interview she granted Tuesday, "Why would anyone want to discredit me?"

According to published reports, Harding's past is full of rough-and-tumble stories about her penchant for playing pool and tuning engines, her insistence on smoking despite suffering from asthma, past brushes with police, and a childhood spent with a mother who has been married seven times and a father who bought her a .22-caliber rifle at age 5.

Harding and her father, Al, a some-time truck driver, often went hunting and fishing when she was young. At age 13, she bagged her first deer. More recently, Harding raced cars twice at Portland International Speedway before her auto insurance company found out. And police were twice summoned to defuse incidents in which she was involved: In March 1992, police found her menacing a fellow motorist with a bat after they became involved in an argument outside the rink where she trains. (Harding later acknowledged the incident, but said the bat she wielded was a Wiffle Ball bat.) In October 1993, police seized a handgun from Harding after a neighbor reported a shot fired in their apartment complex parking lot. Harding and Gillooly told police the gun went off accidentally.

Those incidents — and the fact that she once skated a routine to the rap song "Funky Cold Medina" — alone would be enough to allow Harding to cut a far different figure than so-called ice princesses such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill or, more recently, Kerrigan. But Harding is also seen as a nakedly ambitious competitor who has overcome long odds in her skating career, and hardly bothers to conceal her zeal for winning. In Detroit, she told reporters she wanted to "whip her [Kerrigan's] butt."

In the insular world of skating, she gets mixed reviews for her personality. She describes herself as a "loner."

But as a skater, her athletic ability and fierce determination are unquestioned. Harding and former Japanese Olympian Midori Ito are so far the only women to land the 3½-revolution triple Axel in competition — and Harding pulled off the feat in 1991.

Nonetheless, since hitting the national scene, Harding has talked of her near-constant worries about having enough resources to train. To defray the costs, which can run an Olympic hopeful upwards of $40,000 a year, Harding has solicited support from corporations and wealthy donors including Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Her monthly fan club newsletter — The Skater — also includes a form that would-be patrons can fill out to send her money, or pledge help for things such as "hair care," and "clothing."

Despite a fourth-place finish at the 1992 Olympics, Harding has a reputation for having an up-and-down record at major competitions. At various times, she's been derailed by a strap that came undone on her dress, a broken skate and a bout of pneumonia that cost her an expected berth on the U.S. world championship team in 1990. She canceled an appearance at a competition in Portland late last year because an anonymous caller had phoned the rink warning, "If Harding skates, she'll get a bullet in the back."

Harding's time in the spotlight has coincided completely with her turbulent three-year marriage and eight-year relationship with Gillooly, who is three years her senior. The two began dating when Harding was 15 and at age 19, they were married against the strong objections of Harding's parents and friends. Her mother, LaVona, said: "I thought he had a violent streak in him."

Within 14 months, the couple had filed for divorce. Harding sought restraining orders against Gillooly at least twice after that, alleging both times that he hit her.

Still, despite Columbia County (Ore.) court records showing they were divorced last August, Harding has continued to introduce Gillooly as her husband. And Gillooly, a one-time Oregon Liquor Control Board worker, said he quit working to devote himself to managing Harding's career.

Heading into last week's trials, Kerrigan had defeated Harding the past four times the two met — at the 1992 nationals, the 1992 Olympics, the 1992 world championships and the 1993 nationals. Though she and Kerrigan are not friends, Kerrigan's coach, Evy Scotvold, told the Associated Press this week that as far as he knew there was no personal animosity between the two skaters.

"They don't know each other that well," Scotvold said. "Nancy learned a long time ago that she was never competing against anybody but herself."

Industry experts estimate a gold medal in ladies figure skating is worth $5 million to $10 million to the winner. Harding, in an undated interview broadcast on CNN cable yesterday, said of her chief rival Kerrigan: "We're teammates, we're friends. But when it comes down to it, there are little dollar signs spinning around my head. ... I didn't have the money that other people had growing up. And I still don't have the money that other people have. But I'm not complaining."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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