Tonya has had a life full of ups and downs, to say the least. Here is her story.
Tonya Maxene Harding was born on November 12, 1970 in Portland, Oregon. Her parents were Albert Harding (born in 1933) and LaVona Golden Harding (born in 1940). She was the pair’s only child. Their marriage, incidentally, was her father’s first but her mother’s fifth (!)
Tonya’s childhood was not an easy one. A self-described “daddy’s girl,” she did enjoy learning to hunt, to play pool, and to shoot from her father. He also taught her about fixing cars. Her mother, however, was a cold, unpleasant woman who had few maternal instincts. She often physically abused Tonya, even spanking her, according to one of Tonya’s childhood friends, with a hairbrush.
And, of course, the family had to contend with poverty. As an unskilled laborer, her father held various low-paying jobs, from delivery truck driving to apartment management to standing behind the counter at a bait shop. Though he did his best, poor health often caused him to be unemployed for long periods. Tonya’s mother worked off-and-on as a waitress. To bring in a little extra cash, she and Tonya sometimes searched the sides of roads for empty bottles that could be turned in for the deposits.
Marriage to Jeff Gillooly
In 1986, when Tonya was 15 years old, she met Jeff Gillooly, who was two years older than her, and who, like her father, would go on to support himself with various low-paying jobs. They soon became romantically involved and moved in with one another in 1988. In 1990, they married. Gillooly and Harding had no children together. Their marriage ultimately ended in divorce, in 1993, but they continued to see each other off and on for at least a year. Tragically, though, their relationship would prove fateful for Tonya’s promising career as a figure skater.
Tonya Harding’s skating career literally began at age three (!), when she was first taken to the Ice Chalet skating rink in Portland. As soon as she ventured out on the ice in skates, Tonya had no trouble keeping her balance and skating along. Soon, she was imitating the jumps and turns performed by experienced adults.
To her credit, Tonya’s mother recognized that Tonya had exceptional talent, and took her to a rink where renowned coach Diane Rawlinson taught skating. Rawlinson immediately took Tonya under her wing, and a decades-long relationship was formed.
Tonya easily worked her way upward in the local figure skating world, rapidly graduating to statewide and national events. By 1986, she was competing in the U. S. Figure Skating Championships. That year, she placed sixth. In 1987 and 1988, she placed fifth, and rose to third in 1989. Dody Teachman became her new coach.
Tonya became famous when, in 1991, she successfully performed a triple Axel at the U. S. Championships. She was the first American woman ever to accomplish this. She received the U. S. Ladies Singles Title with a perfect 6.0 score. After winning the Long Program as well, Tonya came in first place for the entire Championship.
Tonya then competed for the 1991 World Championship, where she again performed the triple Axel. Kristi Yamaguchi won the Championship, but Tonya came in second, and Nancy Kerrigan third.
Eventually, Tonya went back to being coached by Diane Rawlinson. Though she did not win, she placed well in several championships in the U.S. and Canada.
By the beginning of 1994, Tonya was again setting her sights on the U. S. Championship, and afterward, the Olympics. However, an event was about to take place that would change figure skating, and the lives of many figure skaters including Tonya’s, forever.
The Attack on Nancy Kerrigan
By 1994, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were well known as the two chief rivals for best woman figure skater in the United States, perhaps the world.
On January 6, 1994, Nancy went to the Detroit Cobo Arena to practice figure skating. She had won the U. S. Figure Skating Championship in 1993 and was preparing to defend her title the following day – against, among others, Tonya, who had placed fourth. As Kerrigan skated, she was watched by many specatators. This was not unusual, as she had many fans who enjoyed her practice sessions.
After completing her practice, Kerrigan walked along a corridor toward the exit door of the arena. She barely noticed that a man was walking toward her. When he was about to pass her, the man, without any warning, pulled out a collapsible baton he had hidden in his clothing, extended it, and savagely struck Kerrigan’s right leg just above the knee. As Kerrigan fell to the ground and cried out in pain, screaming “Why? Why? Why,” the man ran away and crashed through a glass door to the outside. There, he jumped into a car that obviously had been waiting for him, and sped away.
Medics rushed to the scene and applied first aid to Kerrigan. She was immediately transported to a local hospital, where doctors determined that her leg had been severely bruised but fortunately not broken. Kerrigan would eventually be able to return to skating, but was not able to compete in the 1994 U. S. Championship, which Tonya ultimately won.
The Assailant and Accomplices
Law enforcement agencies, from the local police to the FBI, went into high gear to solve the crime. They quickly determined that:
The assailant was a man named Shane Stant.
Stant had been hired to attack Kerrigan by his uncle, Derrick Smith, who had driven the getaway car.
Smith, in turn, had been hired by none other than Tonya Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly, and his friend Shawn Eckhardt. Eckhardt, a wannabe James Bond who lived in his parents’ home in Clackamas, Oregon yet purported to be a world-class “espionage expert,” had occasionally served as a bodyguard to Tonya after she had received a death threat the previous year.
The revelation that the attacker’s paymasters had close ties to Harding set off a worldwide media frenzy. Many were quick to place the blame on Harding even though there was no real evidence that she had had any involvement or knowledge of the planning of the attack.
Stant, Smith, and Gillooly all did prison time for the roles in the attack:
Shane Stant entered a guilty plea to conspiracy to commit assault. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He served 14 months and was released from prison in July of 1995. Today, he professes to have become a Christian and a changed man.
His uncle, Derrick Smith, received the same sentence and served the same amount of time, also being released in July of 1995. Since then, he has kept a low profile and has stayed out of the public eye.
Shawn Eckhardt pleaded guilty to racketeering and served 15 months in prison. He was released in September of 1995. To escape unwanted publicity, he changed his name to Brian Griffith. Griffith/Eckhardt passed away in 2007.
Jeff Gillooly confessed that he was the mastermind behind the attack. He pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering and received the stiffest sentence of all – 2 years in prison. He and Tonya Harding broke up and sometimes got back together, but ultimately divorced. He was released in March of 1995. Like Eckhardt, he sought a fresh start by changing his name, to Jeff Stone. He remarried and had two children with his second wife.
Tonya Harding was implicated in the crime by Gillooly during his plea bargaining negotiations. She, however, has always denied that she knew in advance of the plot to attack Kerrigan. On the advice of her attorney, Harding did admit to conspiring with the guilty parties to hinder their prosecution after the fact, a class C felony. She was sentenced to a $100,000 fine, 3 years of probation (avoiding actual prison time), and 500 hours of community service. As part of the plea bargain, she also agreed to withdraw from the American team that was to participate in the World Championship, and permanently give up her membership in the U.S. Figure Skating Association. The Association stripped her of her winning title in the 1994 U. S. Championship and forbade her from either participating in competitions or coaching other skaters for life.
Unable to participate in any events sponsored by the USFSA, Tonya still occasionally entered professional skating events, most notably coming in second at the 1999 ESPN Pro Skating Championship.
Public opinion, however, had turned solidly against her, and she was treated as an outcast by organizers of skating events and was shunned by advertisers and publicists. For all intents and purposes, her career as a skater, and her ability to earn a living either from her skating skills and accomplishments or typical related activities such as product endorsements, was over.
Life After Skating
After being deprived of the sport she had devoted her life to, Tonya Harding had nothing to fall back on.
She had dropped out of high school as a sophomore in order to focus entirely on skating (though she did later earn a GED). She had never acquired any career nor vocational skills, nor did she possess any family money nor savings. Her reputation would soon sink further when Jeff Gillooly sold explicit videotapes of himself and Tonya to Penthouse magazine.
To support herself Tonya was forced to take various jobs such as painting, building decks, welding, and working as a salesperson at Sears.
She entered into a second marriage, to a man named Michael Smith, in 1995. The marriage lasted only a year and ended in divorce.
As Tonya searched for an occupation that would provide her more than basic survival, she was approached by Fox and offered the chance to appear on the network’s Celebrity Boxing show fighting Paula Jones. Tonya accepted.
For those who don’t know or don’t remember: Paula Jones was a former employee of the state of Arkansas who, during the 1990, sued then-President Bill Clinton for sexual harassment. At the time, long before the #MeToo movement, such suits were much rarer than they are today. Clinton ultimately settled out of court, claiming that he was innocent but was settling to put the case to rest. Pubic opinion was deeply divided among those who saw the President as a perpetrator, and those who considered him a victim Paula became – like Tonya – a controversial figure who was both loved and hated by many. Fox believed, correctly, that there were millions of people who would want to see either Tonya, Paula, or both, get beaten up in the ring, and that ratings would be high.
Having much greater athletic ability, Tonya easily won the fight.
Encouraged, Tonya decided to take up professional boxing as a career. Fighting trained, experienced boxers, however, proved much more difficult than she had thought. She lost her first match, against Samantha Browning, in a split decision. Tonya fought six matches, winning and losing 3 times each. Ultimately, her asthma prevented her from continuing to box, and her career as a boxer came to an end. Once again, she was forced to scrounge around among unskilled jobs in order to make ends meet.
With time, Tonya’s name recognition gradually faded. That was soon to change, however, in 2017, when screenwriter Steven Rogers developed an interest in Tonya’s life story and decided to write a screenplay.
The film was a “mockumentary,” imitating a real documentary in a tongue-in-cheek style and not always adhering strictly to the facts. Rogers alternatingly allowed Tonya and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly to present events as they remembered them.
Australian Actress Margot Robbie played Tonya in the film. Sebastian Stan was cast as Gillooly, with Ricky Russert playing Shane Stant, Paul Walter Hauser playing Shawn Eckhardt, and Caitlin Carver acting as Nancy Kerrigan. The real star of the show, however, proved to be Allison Janney, whose over-the-top portrayal of Tonya’s abusive mother LaVona Golden had audiences roaring with laughter throughout the film.
By all measures, I,Tonya was a huge success. It grossed over $50 million worldwide and won countless awards. Allison Janney, in particular, won the Best Supporting Actress award at the Golden Globes, where Tonya appeared alongside her.
Financially, Tonya profited little from the movie. She received only $1,500 for the consultations she provided during the film’s development.
The non-monetary benefits to her, however, proved much more important. After decades of obscurity, Tony was once again brought into the limelight, but this time – the first time – with a sympathetic portrayal.
I, Tonya introduced a whole new generation to Tonya Harding. It also reintroduced her to those who had long ago made up their minds against her. Its appeal continues today, and it is often rented on DVD, Blu-Ray, and online.
Dancing with the Stars
Tonya’s return to the public eye continued in 2018, when it was announced that she would be among the athletes appearing in that year’s Dancing with the Stars.
Tonya was paired with professional dancer Sasha Farber.
The pair made a good team and danced gracefully, ultimately placing 3rd for the season.
Like the I, Tonya movie, Tonya’s appearance on DWTS helped to show her real personality and to further distance public opinion of her from the prejudices developed decades ago. It also helped her financially. She was paid $125,000 up front for appearing on the show and earned almost $100,000 additional for her additional dances.
Looking Back – and Toward the Future
It would be easy for Tonya to dwell on the misfortunes of the past. What might her life have looked like without Jeff Gillooly and the Kerrigan attack? One can easily imagine her competing in many championships and Olympic games, gathering medals — and earning millions of dollars with product endorsements, too. By today she would have become independently wealthy and still active in the world of figure skating, perhaps acting as a coach or commentator…
But it was not meant to be. Rather than regretting the past, Tonya looks to the future. The covid-19 pandemic has put a temporary pause on public appearances. But once the disease has been conquered and public life resumes, Tonya hopes to build on the successes of I, Tonya and DWTS. She aims to become to the public what she has been, in her heart, all along: a talented and graceful woman who enjoys connecting with others by sharing what she has to offer with the world. And, of course, she will continue to be, to her husband, a loving wife. And to her son, the nurturing mother she herself never had.