A Brief History of Tonya

Tonya Maxene Harding was born in Oregon on November 12, 1970, the daughter of LaVona "Sandi" Harding and her husband Al. Tonya first started skating at the age of 3 after she saw other chidren skating while at a mall in Portland. She was given a pair of second-hand skates for Christmas and was enrolled in skating classes. Her teachers were amazed by the little girl, who quickly took to the ice like a duck to water, performing all kinds of tricks such as skating backwards with ease. And no matter how hard she fell, Tonya was always prepared to get up and try again. Tonya was so good that her mother engaged a skating teacher, Diane Rawlinson, to give her daughter private lessons. At first Rawlinson was reluctant because of Tonya's age, but was pestered so much by her she agreed to a six-month trial. At age 4, Tonya was to win her first skating competition; at age 9 she landed her first triple loop.

Tonya had a difficult upbringing. She had 13 homes in 16 years, and almost every year she went to a new school. Her family was desperately poor, with Al drifting from job to job, often plagued with health problems. Tonya herself had asthma. LaVona quickly realized that Tonya's skating ability was her ticket out of the trailer parks, and pushed Tonya to keep it up. Tonya later claimed that her mother, (with whom she has never got along) was an alcoholic who abused her. There is some support for this from independent sources: a film shot in 1986 as a Yale senior project by Sandra Luckow (who also took lessons from Rawlinson as a youngster), and screened by "60 Minutes" just before the 1994 Olympics, depicts LaVona yelling at her daughter. Other skaters who also took lessons from Diane Rawlinson at the time bear this out. One of these, Antje Spethmann, described LaVona as "a mother from hell", in a 1994 interview with "The Oregonian", Portland's daily newspaper. Others say LaVona would often call Tonya "scum" and the wife of a wealthy lawyer who was one of Tonya's first sponsors found LaVona spanking Tonya with a hairbrush in the ladies room of the rink after a bad performance.

During her childhood Tonya's only real friend was her father, who took her hunting and fishing and taught her how to repair a truck. Her mother discouraged friendships as she saw them as a distraction from skating. In order to pay for Tonya's skating, Al and Tonya would often scrounge discarded pop bottles and beer cans from the roadside for recycling. Diane Rawlinson tried to help out by introducing Tonya to rich people who could sponsor her.

Tonya's skating continued to improve with her winning or placing highly in many contests. By the mid-eighties Tonya had nearly perfected the Triple Axel, a three and a half revolution jump considered the most difficult of all skating jumps (and which no woman had performed in competition at the time). She made it to the US Nationals in 1986, where she finished sixth. Meanwhile, LaVona and Al divorced. This was not a new experience for LaVona as Al was her fourth husband (she has subsequently had 2 or 3 others, depending on which source you consult).

Throughout the late 1980's Tonya continued to work her way up through the ranks at Nationals, finishing 5th in 1987 and '88 and 3rd in 1989. It was also in that year that Tonya would move out of her mother's house and in with her boyfriend, Jeffrey Scott Gillooly, whom she had first met in 1986. The couple married in March of 1990. It was a move that was, quite simply, the worst mistake of Tonya's entire life and one which would later destroy her skating career. From the very start the marriage was in trouble, with Gillooly regularly abusing and beating up Tonya. The couple broke up several times, and Tonya petitioned for a divorce twice, but she always kept drifting back to Jeff. LaVona claimed that she tried to discourage the marriage at the time as she recognized Gillooly's violent streak. In one incident that would be a portent of things to come, Gillooly forced his way into LaVona's home in a rage because he had seen Tonya with another man (which turned out to be her brother).

Around this time Tonya also began to slack off at her training. Exasperated, Rawlinson turned Tonya over to her second coach, Dody Teachman. Teachman realized that Tonya's main asset was her exceptional jumping ability. Under Teachman's tutelage, Tonya achieves the Triple Axel.

1991 was Tonya's golden year. At the US Nationals, Tonya became the first American woman ever to perform the Triple Axel in a competition (Japan's Midori Ito, now retired, was the only other woman to do so - indeed Tonya and Midori remain the only women to have accomplished this feat). In doing so, she not only won the contest but also achieved the first perfect technical score recorded at that event in 18 years. Tonya celebrated by skipping the winner's formal ball to shoot pool in the hotel bar. After winning Nationals, Tonya placed second behind Kristi Yamaguchi at Tonya's first world championship competition in March. In September she would beat Yamaguchi, placing first in Skate America International. In both cases she would perform the Triple Axel. However, it would be the last time she has done so in competition - since the 1991 Skate America meeting Tonya has only publicly performed the Triple Axel once, for an episode of "Inside Edition" in 1997.

Attempts to translate this success on the ice into cold hard cash were not very successful. Following her 1991 Nationals victory Tonya hired her first agent, Michael Rosenberg, but all he ever came up with was a Texaco commercial and a print ad for the US Postal Service. The reality was that Tonya's rough proletarian image did not fit in with the public's vision of what a "lady" figure skater (as they are still officially known) should look like. Her habits of truck driving, beer drinking, smoking, shooting, and pool playing, plus her often revealing homemade costumes all went down like a cup of cold vomit with sponsors and skating officials alike. She was, as Time would later describe her, "the pool-playing, drag-racing, trash-talking bad girl of a sport that thrives on illusion and politesse".

In April, Tonya fired Teachman, and decided to coach herself assisted by Gillooly. By July she had returned to Teachman again. It was also in the middle of this year that Tonya attempted to divorce Jeff for the first time. According to statements made by Tonya in a petition for a restraining order, Gillooly "wrenched my arm and wrist, and he pulled my hair and shoved me," and "I recently found out he bought a shotgun, and I am scared for my safety". In a police report filed the next month she recounts an incident when Gillooly cornered her in a boatyard and threatened "I think we should break your legs and end your career". Despite this, by late 1991 she had reunited with Gillooly, and in November she would ask the Courts to postpone her divorce proceedings.

But Tonya's domination on the ice was not to last. By early 1992 Tonya was again back into old bad habits, skipping training for several months. At Nationals she finished 3rd. Although qualifying for the Olympics, she arrived in Albertville late and jet lagged, and finished a disappointing fourth behind Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan. Convinced that her coach was at fault, she fired Teachman a second time and returned to Rawlinson. Shortly afterwards, Tonya was also involved in an infamous altercation with a motorist at an intersection whom she allegedly threatened with a baseball bat (Tonya claims it was actually a wiffle-ball bat). Nine days later she finished 6th at Worlds in Oakland CA.

In early 1993 Tonya received a boost with the formation of a fan club by Elaine Stamm, a retired Portland charm school teacher. Stamm had formed the club after being moved by an article in the "Oregonian" telling of Tonya's achievements in the face of poverty and asthma problems. Connected by a magazine, "The Skater", the club had 400 members even before the scandal that would subsequently destroy Tonya's career (and 2000 afterwards). On the personal front, though, problems continued: In March Tonya had complained to the police after an argument in which Jeff had slammed her head into the bathroom floor. She spent the night with friends, shaken, chunks of her hair missing or loosened, her hand red and swollen after Gillooly had slammed her fingers in the car door.

Summer saw her move in with friends but Gillooly continued to harrass her even at her new apartment. In July, Tonya once again filed for divorce. This time the petition for a restraining order read, "It has been an abusive relationship for the past two years, and he has assaulted me physically with his open hand and fist." "He told me to watch my back, and if he saw me out with any of my friends he would stop me". "He is not in the right frame of mind, and he follows me and he has broken into my house and into my truck, and I am afraid for my safety." In August, her truck was stolen and the license plate posted to a Portland radio station with a return address on the wrapping of "Robin Hood and His Merry Men". Tonya believes this was done by Gillooly. Two men who worked out at the gymnasium with Tonya claimed that Tonya approached them at the time and allegedly asked them to "bump off" Gillooly, or at least give him a good thumping, in retaliation for the theft. One of the men said he was offended and stopped working out with her.

But by August they were again reunited. Tonya has claimed that she was intimidated into this by the United States Figure Skating Association who saw Gillooly as a "stabilizing influence". She claims that a senior member of the USFSA told her that she would not get the marks she deserved if she did not reconcile with Gillooly. As if to emphasize the point, Tonya competed under the name Harding-Gillooly at Skate America in October that year, and when questioned by reporters replied "I'm definitely married" and that she was trying to get the divorce annulled. Appearances were deceptive however; earlier that month police had been called to a domestic incident in which Tonya allegedly fired a gun at Jeff, suggesting that nothing had really changed between the couple. Police subsequently seized two firearms, a shotgun and a 9mm Beretta handgun, the latter which Tonya later acknowledged was hers.

On thin ice

Tonya's peformance at the Skate America contest in Texas did not go well. Although coming first in the Short Program a loose skate blade sabotaged her Long and she was forced to ask for a reskate. After falling on a double Axel she came in third. There were also reports that Tonya had an ovarian cyst which could injure her health, however, Gillooly has recently confessed he made this up. It was not the first equipment failure for Tonya: earlier that year a clasp had come undone on her dress. There were now serious doubts about Tonya's continued participation at top level skating. New stars, such as the 1993 champion Nancy Kerrigan from Stoneham, Massachussetts were emerging on the skating scene and it was looking as if Tonya's time was past. In late 1993 Rosenberg also dumped Tonya as a client because of the lack of action and his frustration in dealing with Gillooly.

There was, however, one fortuitous piece of luck: in order to better develop the Winter Olympics (traditionally seen merely as a curtain raiser for the summer Games) into an event in it's own right, the International Olympic Committee had decided to stagger the winter and summer Games two years apart. This meant that the next Winter Olympics would occur the following year in 1994 rather than 1996 as would have normally been the case. Tonya would now have one last chance to win an Olympic gold medal for her country, essential at that time for any skater hoping to make a decent living at the activity. The only alternative would be to try to eek out a living coaching or at ice shows such as the financially troubled Icecapades. Despite her troubles, it was widely expected that Tonya would at the very least come second at the Nationals behind Kerrigan and thus be placed on the team (the US could send two ladies that year) - IF Tonya could find the money to get to the Nationals. Even that problem was solved when the US Figure Skating Association provided some money to Tonya it had received from baseball impressario and Olympic official George Steinbrenner.

The stakes were high, though. And Gillooly had his own idea on how to make sure that Tonya made it to the Olympics.

Forward to "The name is Eckardt, Shawn Eckardt"


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