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Chronicling the Tonya-Nancy soap opera was weird, indelible

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Rochester Business Journal
January 10, 2014

Like many hot-blooded, college-age males from the mid-1970s, I had a crush on Dorothy Hamill. And for the longest time she represented the extent of my figure skating expertise. I didn't know a Lutz from a klutz, and the only thing I could tell you about axels is that I had two of them on my car. So when Gannett News Service managing editor Jerry Langdon called 20 years ago to say he was sending me to Detroit to cover the national figure skating championships in preparation for my first Olympic assignment, I figuratively felt I would be skating on thin ice.
 
"You'll be fine," he reassured me. "You'll find plenty to write about."
 
Well, I headed to Motown and then to Norway, and I did indeed find plenty to write about. More, in fact, than I ever could have imagined. For a seven-week stretch that January and February, I had a front-row seat to the most bizarre sports story of the 20th century. Inquiring minds couldn't get enough of the tawdry tale of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, aka "The Whack Heard 'Round the World."
 
In a plot straight out of "The Sopranos" or maybe TMZ, Harding's husband hired a thug to perform a "hit" on Kerrigan's right knee in hopes of knocking her out of the 1994 Games and enhancing Tonya's chances for Olympic gold. It became the most followed story on the planet and resulted in some of the highest television ratings ever. If the Internet had been ubiquitous back then, it would have given the term "gone viral" a whole new meaning. The scandal actually did wonders for the popularity of figure skating as non-traditional viewers like moi began appreciating the sport's artistry and difficulty.
 
Before flying to Detroit, I pored over the bios and newspaper clips mailed to me by U.S. Figure Skating and was intrigued by Harding. After doing more research (which wasn't as easy to do in those pre-Google days), I discovered a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks who shot pool, tore apart automobile engines and took guff from no one. Harding clearly didn't fit the figure skater stereotype.
 
In the early afternoon on Jan. 6, 1994, I tracked her down as she hustled off the ice at Cobo Hall. I introduced myself and asked her for a few minutes of her time. She seemed out of sorts, in a rush. After giving me two curt answers, she blurted that she didn't have time for this and stormed into the locker room. I was ticked, but I shook it off and walked back to the media room. It wasn't the first time an athlete blew me off. Wouldn't be the last.
 
About an hour later, the arena was abuzz with news that someone had clubbed Kerrigan on the right knee after she had completed her practice round. The video of the skater crumpled on the hallway carpet, sobbing, "Why? Why? Why me?!" was soon playing on the 5 o'clock news.
 
Months earlier, a deranged fan had stabbed Monica Seles during a tennis match, so the feeling in Detroit was this was a copy-cat crime. It wasn't until the following week the FBI revealed that Harding's husband, Jeff Gillooly, had planned the attack. Though implicated by her husband, Harding was not initially charged and was allowed to compete in Norway after agreeing to drop her $25 million suit against the U.S. Olympic Committee. Because of the circumstances, the USOC granted Kerrigan a special exemption that allowed her to compete, too.
 
On Feb. 17, 1994, I and about 500 of my closest friends wedged our way into a Norwegian training rink with a seating capacity of 200 so we could chronicle the first U.S. skating practice of the Olympics. Most of us had arrived four hours early to secure a spot. Some reporters played cards. Some read books. Some tried to nap. Some interviewed one another.
 
"We're all tabloid journalists now," New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey said, smiling.
 
"Ain't that the truth," I replied, nodding.
 
As it turned out, there was nothing to report from that day's practice. Harding and Kerrigan skated for nearly 45 minutes without incident. They rarely made eye contact, barely acknowledged each other's existence. Their relationship appeared to be as cold as the ice they were gliding across.
 
The women's short program six nights later attracted the kind of television audience reserved for Super Bowls and the final episodes of long-running sit-coms and series. Harding bombed, even after being granted a re-skate following a dubious claim that her laces had snapped. Kerrigan skated flawlessly.
 
Two nights later, during the more demanding long competition, Harding could not rebound and finished eighth. Kerrigan was flawless but was nipped for the gold medal by Oksana Baiul, a doe-eyed, teen-age orphan from Ukraine, who captivated the audience and the judges.
 
Even though she denied involvement in the crime, Harding negotiated a plea deal with the district attorney's office in Portland, Ore., which claimed she had conspired to hinder prosecution of the case. She didn't serve any prison time but was stripped of her 1994 U.S. national title.
 
Her life since has been anything but normal. She's been married and divorced at least three times, had ill-fated singing and boxing careers, and spent three days in jail after throwing a hubcap at one of her ex-husbands. Kerrigan, meanwhile, married her agent, had children and faded from public view.
 
With a milestone anniversary and next month's Olympics in Sochi upon us, Kerrigan and Harding are in the news again, their stories retold in several newly released documentaries. I still can't tell you the difference between a Lutz and an axel, but I can tell you this: My old editor was so right. I found plenty to write about in Detroit and Norway. More, in fact, than I ever could have imagined.
 
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores.

1/10/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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