Song Portrait #11: I See Gold

I have enjoyed watching figure skating for as long as I can remember.  While I have no interest whatsoever in televised baseball, football, or basketball, I gleefully watch  Olympic figure skating every four years.  The costumes!  The music! The choreography! The DANGER!  In 1994 there was also a lot of drama.  Why can’t all sports be this interesting?

1994 was the year that Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding represented the United States in womens’ Olympic figure skating.  For anyone who doesn’t know the story, here is a synopsis:

Tonya Harding was not your typical ice princess.  She grew up in a very poor household with a father who worked odd jobs and an abusive mother who was a waitress.  Her parents let her try out ice skating during a trip to the mall when she was three and a half.  It was evident that she was a natural.  Aside from the fact that Tonya was an excellent skater and and excellent athlete, Tonya did not really fit in to the world of figure skating.  Figure skating is an expensive sport that requires families to spend a lot of money on ice time, coaches, and glamorous costumes.  Tonya often wore homemade costumes and selected music and make-up that was too declasse for the judges.  Despite her financial hardship and rebellious attitude, Tonya did mangage to excel and compete at a high level because she was good.  Knowing that she had some disadvantages, Tonya set out to become such an athlete that no judge could rightfully underscore her performance because of her music, attitude, or appearence.  She decided to become to the first American woman to land a triple axel jump in competition.  At this time the only woman in the world to do this was Japan’s Midori Ito.  In 1991 she did just this.  She landed the jump and won the title of U.S. National Champion.  Her next goal was to make the Olymipic team the following year.

1992 was not a good year for Tonya.  In order to escape her abusive mother and bad family situation, she had married a man named Jeff Gillooly at the age of 19.  The relationship was turbulent.  She was not focused, not in her best physical shape, and too distracted to skate well.  She continually fell on her attempt to land the triple axel.  She did not make the Olympic team.

Prior to the early 90’s both the summer and winter Olympics were held every four years during the same year.  After 1992 this changed.  It was declared that they would be in staggering years.  To establish this, the next Winter Olymics were scheduled for 1994, only two years after Tonya’s failure to make the team.  This was a second chance for Tonya and she was hell bent on making it this time.  During her performance at the National Championship she did a single axel where she had planned the triple, but still gave a fabulous performance.  Her top rival, Nancy Kerrigan, did not get to compete.  A mysterious man entered the ice arena, hit her in the knee with a police baton, and then fled.  Tonya came in first and was awarded a spot on the Olympic team and the title of National Champion.  Nancy, who had won the bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics, was choosen to be the other member of the Olympic team based on her past performances.

The culprits behind the knee whacking were found very easily.  One of the men involved, Shawn Eckart, had bragged to several people, including his mother, that he had been involved.  Once he was busted, he quickly implicated the other 3 men involved, including Jeff Gillooly.  There was no point in fighting the allegations, as they had left an obvious paper trail on their cross country hit.  They all confessed and claimed that Tonya had been involved in the plan.  Tonya denied this claim, separated from Jeff, and continued to train for the Olympics.

So what happened to Nancy Kerrigan?  Nancy Kerrigan was thought to be the United State’s best chance at a medal.  She was also a beloved skater.  She was graceful and did fit in to the role of “ice princess”.  Because of this she had endorsements and corporate sponsors to pay for the training, costumes, and privacy she needed.  She was a class act during the whole ordeal.  She kept interviews short or declined them.  She had a bad bone bruise, but it was decided that she could probably heal in time to compete at the Olympics.  She focused on rehabilitating her knee in the six short weeks she had before heading to Norway.

Tonya did compete.  The U.S. Olympic Commitee tried to have her removed from the team, but she managed to retain her place after threatening legal action. Since she had no financial resources, she stayed in the Olympic dorms and was followed by the media constantly.  At the end of the short program Nancy Kerrigan was in 1st and Tonya Harding was in 10th.  When Tonya came out to skate the long program she skated for a few seconds and then went to the judges in tears.  The lace on one of her skates had broken and she had not had time to properly repair it or put a new one on.  A skater is allowed to be given a later slot if she notifies the judges about any equipment failure early enough in the program.  She was given a later slot and did not do well, falling on the triple axel.  It should be noted that Tonya had a history of equipment failures at competitions.  Nancy gave the performance of her life, but she did not get the gold medal.  Gold was award to Oksana Baiul, a little know Ukrainian skater.  It is believed by many that Nancy was underscored and Oksana was overscored as punishment to the Americans for bringing their trashy drama to the Olympics Games.  Nancy took home silver and Tonya came in 8th.

After returning to the States, Tonya pled guilty to aiding in the cover-up and obstucting the investigation.  She was stripped of her title of 1994 U.S. National Champion, and banned from U.S. figure skating for life.  Due to the newfound interest in figure skating among the masses, Nancy, and a whole bunch of other figure skaters, went on to make millions in various “stars in ice” shows.  Soon after, she married her manager, retired from skating, and started a family.  To this day Tonya claims that she had no prior knowledge of the attack.  She had only attended high school through 10th grade, getting a GED and leaving early to focus on skating.  She has had a variety of jobs outside of the world of figure skating, including a stint as a professional boxer.  She is currently married and has a young son.  To this day, she is one of only six women to have landed the triple axel in competition.

Why does Tonya’s story interest me so much?  I have a special place in my heart for bad girls.  I also have a special place in my heart for underdogs.  I admire people who take risks.  I also admire people who are so passionate about one thing that they put every ounce of their being into pursuing this one passion.  People like this are doomed to let all the other parts of their life atrophy while feeding this all consuming passion.  I do not state in this song whether I think she was involved in the knee whacking plot.  This song is a tribute to Tonya, her struggles, and her triumphs.

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