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  Harding's Demeanor Has Helped Her Survive

By Johnette Howard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 1994; Page D3

PORTLAND, Ore., Jan. 29 — Every morning for the past week she has awakened to new, darker allegations about her role in the attack on rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan.

On Thursday, her chin trembling and hands shaking, Tonya Harding finally admitted that she learned after the attack that "some people close to me" had deliberately injured Kerrigan. She admitted she erred by not immediately going to authorities. She said people "might never be able to forgive me for that."

Then Friday came and Harding went right back out to her shopping mall practice rink, still adamant on going to the Olympics, still skating in full view of an estimated 2,000 people — including one woman who kept riding the escalator up and down to get a glimpse of her.

As the scheme to disable Kerrigan unravels more every day, the debate about who Tonya Harding really is has only intensified, not moved toward a consensus.

Critics have said her ability to press on, eyes focused on next month's Olympics, is more proof that she is a cold-hearted woman who seems capable of anything — even mayhem.

Harding's supporters paint her as a good-hearted but rough-edged kid who comes from a troubled background, fell into an abusive marriage but somehow fashioned herself into a world-class figure skater. Friends have a simple explanation for Harding's obstinacy about remaining on the Olympic team: The traits that allowed Harding to survive her dispossessed upbringing are the same qualities that made her an against-the-odds success in skating. And they are the same qualities keeping her afloat now.

"Skating is the main thing to her right now," said Harding's best friend, Stephanie Quintero, who testified before the grand jury on Friday. "I don't think she'd resign from the Olympic team."

"No way, absolutely not — I would stake my life on it," said Sandy Golden, Harding's mother. Golden (who asked reporters Friday to begin identifying her as Sandy because she goes by that name, not her given first name of La Vona) went on to say Harding is "a very delicate girl" — but then she stopped abruptly, exhaled heavily, and added: "I know nobody believes that, but she hurts inside a lot. She really isn't all that nasty like everyone keeps saying on the outside. It's all a front."


"Because everybody has always been against her," Golden says.

Harding has been called a puzzling fit for a sport such as figure skating. But what often goes unsaid is that figure skating is not exactly what it seems.

For all of its sparkling glamour and gauzy costumes and celebration of grace, skating is a world of cocked elbows, sharp tongues and hard-eyed competitors. It is often seen as a sport of social climbers bedecked in sequins when in fact it's a sport of teeth-gritting survivors.

The 4½-minute programs that skaters perform are lung-searing. It usually takes years for a skater to build a portfolio among international judges who have been known to be as capricious and jingoistic as Olympic boxing judges. But boxing makes no pretense about what it is.

In skating, athletes and their coaches are expected to pay their dues, hit the right touchstones and say all the right things. They must feign satisfaction when low marks flash up. They must hide their crushing disappointment when they fall in mid-routine. As in show business, the rule in figure skating is you clamber up, smile through your heartbreak and skate on. The hours of practice, thousands of dollars for training, all funnel into one night and — for all intents and purposes — one competition: the quadrennial Olympic Games.

After negotiating all that and getting there, success — and the potential financial windfall that goes with winning the gold medal — still depends on staying upright on blades a quarter-inch wide.

In a sport like this, dilettantes don't survive. Tigers do.

If Harding never has developed a talent for playing the image game, it is partly because her athletic ability and daring has relieved her of that onus.

Only she and Japan's Midori Ito have landed a 3 1/2-revolution triple Axel in competition. And Harding happened to come along at the best- ever moment for a female skater with her abilities — an era when women's skating decided to emphasize athletic strength and discard the archaic school figures (In school figures, images such as figure 8s were scratched onto the ice, and skaters were judged on their ability to trace them while switching from blade to blade to demonstrate control.)

Suddenly, boldness was appreciated in women's skating as much as classicism. The new emphasis was on triple jumps, triple jumps and more triple jumps.

For Harding, that was perfect.

"She's a fireball on the ice, not an ice princess," Elizabeth Manley, the 1988 silver medalist at the Calgary Olympics.

"A little barracuda," Dody Teachman, Harding's ex-coach, once said.

Harding was never going to be America's sweetheart. And, she insists, she always knew it. She didn't have money for a closetful of costumes, didn't have e lan. She either cannot or will not deny what she is — a 23-year-old woman who came from the wrong side of town, likes to play pool and bingo, and twice has raced cars at a dirt track. She dropped out of high school in 10th grade (but got her general equivalency diploma), and moved in with Quintero's family when her father, Al Harding, moved out of state and her mother began dating husband No. 6. She bench presses 110 pounds though she stands just 5 feet 1 and weighs 98 pounds.

She can be confrontational, defiant.

On her triumphant return to Portland after winning her Olympic berth and the 1994 national championship in Kerrigan's absence, Harding stunned the welcome-wagon fans who met her at the airport by saying of the hobbled Kerrigan, "I'm going to kick her butt" at the Olympics.

At other times, Harding has had to be confrontational. She has said a half-brother made unwanted sexual advances to her as she dressed for her first-ever date when she was 15, and she fought him off by burning him on the neck with a hot curling iron, then calling 911 and cowering behind a locked door until police arrived.

During the eight-year relationship with ex-husband Jeff Gillooly that started when she was 15, Harding seemed to sway between loving Gillooly and loathing him. During their three-year marriage, Harding twice sought restraining orders against him before their divorce last fall, citing his violent behavior. Friends and family say they've seen Gillooly punch Harding, kick down a door to get at her, slam her head against the floor and threatened to break her legs so she'd never skate again. Yet Harding and Gillooly always reconciled.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Gillooly and his attorney, Ronald Hoevet, spent nearly 16 hours being interviewed by federal agents and laying the groundwork for a plea bargain with prosecutors that could land Gillooly a reduced sentence in exchange for turning state's evidence against Harding. Gillooly has told investigators Harding participated in the plot. Investigators are now checking out leads he's provided.

In the renewed doubt over whether Harding was really, finally, telling the truth Thursday as she read her seven-paragraph statement before the media, a comment she made in closing does continue to ring true.

"I have devoted my entire life to one objective: winning the Olympic gold medal," she said. "This is my last chance."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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