Tonya Harding Claims That She & Nancy Kerrigan Actually Used To Be Friends

by Jordan Lauf
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When it happened, it was known in the press as the "The Whack Heard Around the World": figure skating darling Nancy Kerrigan was hit in the kneecap with a police baton during a final practice just before the 1994 U.S. Women's Championships in Detroit. Quickly, Tonya Harding, Kerrigan's biggest rival, became the number one suspect — though she continues to deny all involvement. The now-infamous event has been covered extensively, from the ESPN documentary The Price of Gold (director: Nannette Burstein) to the fictionalized film I, Tonya (executive producer: Rosanne Korenberg) to the new ABC documentary Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story, which premieres Thursday, Jan. 11 at 9:00 ET. The details of what really happened that day, and who was really involved are still muddy, but it's safe to say that there is no love lost between Harding and Kerrigan. But were Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding ever friends?

Harding seems to think so. ABC News reports that Harding still maintains she had nothing to do with the attack, and claims that she and Kerrigan were friends at the time. The competitors, who skated together on the US team at both the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics, certainly spent a fair amount of time together, if not necessarily off the rink. As Rolling Stone reports:

Harding and Kerrigan never seemed to qualify as friends who confided in each other. But from most accounts they'd been professional acquaintances who exchanged pleasantries at competitions. After the attack, Kerrigan said she'd initially doubted Harding's involvement in the plot because, as she put it, "We were competitors, but ... we were friendly."

Even though Harding believes that she and Kerrigan were once friends, the media loved to paint them as rivals, and polar opposites. Kerrigan was America's sweetheart, with her graceful poise on the ice, designer outfits, and classical music soundtrack — everything an ice-princess should be. In contrast, Harding was depicted as the skater from the wrong side of the tracks, with her homemade costumes, her tendency to skate to rock music, and her penchant for hunting and smoking. As Harding summarized in the documentary The Price of Gold, "She's a princess. I'm a piece of crap."

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Though both women were at the top of their sport, the classism that drove the media, fans, and sports commentators to favor Kerrigan over Harding pitted the US Olympic teammates against one another. Marie Claire reports that despite the fact that both women were incredibly talented skaters, Kerrigan got sponsorships from Campbell's, Revlon, and Reebok, while Harding lacked endorsement deals. Even judges seemed to prefer Kerrigan over Harding, for reasons that had little to do with ice skating. Rolling Stone reports that an Olympic judge allegedly once said of Kerrigan to sportswriter Christine Brennan, "She was raised as a lady. We all notice that."

Then, on Jan. 6, a month before the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, hitman Shane Stant was paid $6,500 to hit Harding in the knee with a collapsable baton as she came off the ice at a practice before the U.S. Women's Championships, per Rolling Stone. Stant fled the scene, but not before the aftermath of the attack was caught on film, now infamous for Kerrigan's painful cries of "Why? Why? Why?"

It was soon revealed that the assault on Kerrigan had been planned by Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, per Rolling Stone, with the intention of preventing Kerrigan from competing in the 1994 Olympics. Though Harding was never directly implicated in the attack, Gillooly was sentenced to two years in prison for racketeering in a plea deal in which he testified against Harding, according to Rolling Stone. The bodyguard Eckhardt and Derrick Smith, who drove the getaway car, also served time for the assault. Harding herself never served prison time, but she did plead guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of her ex-husband and his co-conspirators, per The New York Times. She served three years of probation, paid a $160,000 fine, and did 500 hours of community service, according to Rolling Stone.

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Harding was also banned for life from ice skating from any professional or amateur USFSA events, but not before she competed in the 1994 Olympics against Kerrigan, who had recovered in time to compete. The eyes of the world were on the teammates, as they had to share the rink for a particularly tense warmup. In a dramatic turn, Kerrigan triumphantly won a silver medal, while Harding came in eighth after breaking a lace on her skate. Neither woman competed professionally again.

Harding has always maintained her innocence in the event, though in the new ABC documentary, she admits that she suspected a plan was forming over two months before the attack occurred. "I did overhear [Gillooly] talking about stuff, where, 'Well, maybe we should take somebody out so we can make sure she gets on the team,'" Harding tells ABC News host Amy Robach in a preview of the documentary. "And I remember telling them, I go, 'What the hell are you talking about? I can skate.'"

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And though Harding claims that she has apologized many times to her old friend for what happened, Kerrigan claimed to ABC News in an earlier report that she had never received a direct apology from Harding, before adding "Does it matter, at this point?" It's clear that though we may never know exactly what happened between Harding and Kerrigan, the two are unlikely to rekindle a friendship any time soon.