Lord knows she's trying. Problem is, when life has been dealing you cards from the bottom of the deck for most of your 21 years, the aces and jacks all start to look marked, and it's kind of hard to trust the dealer. Even after winning a couple of hands.
But Tonya Harding, the reigning U.S. women's figure skating champion, is trying. Trying to save her 22-month marriage despite the reservations, both implied and spoken, of nearly everyone who cares for her—father, mother, coach, manager, best friend. Trying to gain a measure of stability at home that has eluded her all her life. Trying to look at the bright side of a world that has shown her its underbelly with unseemly meticulousness. Trying to fulfill a preposterous childhood dream in which a hardscrabble, dispossessed kid from Portland, Ore., hoists herself above a troubled past and wins the most refined gold medal of the Olympic Games—the women's figure skating title—propelling her toward a happily-ever-after she has never known.
It could happen, and wouldn't it be rich if it did? An ice princess who has her own pool cue—Harding's the name, nine ball's the game—an interloper in the realm of pixies and queens who's as at home doing a brake job as she is performing an arabesque. Aspirant to the throne of some of the most elegant women in the sport—Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Katarina Witt—who can curse like a sailor, bench-presses more than her weight and drag races in the summer for kicks.
Harding shatters all stereotypes of the pampered and sheltered figure skater who has spent his or her youth bottled in an ice rink, training. At 21, she has seen a lot of life, and she is unapologetic if the experience has left her just a little rough around the edges. "I don't regret anything that I had to go through," she says. "The way I am today must be the way God wanted it."
January 13, 1992
God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform.... If so, then He must be a figure skating fan, for Harding's skating talent is real.
That became apparent last February, when after years of disappointment and ill luck, Harding sent shock waves through the figure skating community with an upset victory in the nationals in Minneapolis against one of the strongest fields in memory. The shock waves were emitted when Harding, in the free skating portion of the event, became just the second woman to land a triple Axel in competition (Japan's Midori Ito was the first). She repeated that feat in March at the world championships in Munich, where she finished second to U.S. teammate Kristi Yamaguchi in an unprecedented 1-2-3 American sweep. Ito was fourth. If form holds, one of those women will win the gold medal at Albertville. But if the prize were awarded on the size of the obstacles that had to be overcome to get there, the 5'1", 96-pound Harding would win in a walk. "She's a tough cookie," says her coach, Dody Teachman. "And she's had to be."
For all practical purposes, Harding was an only child. Her mother, LaVona, had had four children from previous marriages (Al Harding was her fifth husband). One died in infancy; the other three were much older than Tonya.
Money was tight. LaVona worked as a waitress and made most of Tonya's clothes. This became a source of friction between them as Tonya grew older. "They were pure polyester blends, and the other kids made fun of them," Harding recalls. "My first day of high school my mother made me wear these forest-green pants with white polka dots. We had a big fight over that, and she won."
The Hardings moved around a lot. Tonya can remember living in eight different homes in six communities before she was 18 years old. "We'd rent places," she says, "and they'd raise the rent, and we'd have to move. Or we'd move in with relatives or friends. I changed schools just about every year, so I didn't have friends hardly at all. I was basically a loner."
Al Harding, who is now 58, worked variously for the Huntington Rubber Corp. or driving trucks for nonunion wages or managing an apartment building. He seldom earned much more than $5 an hour, and he was unemployed for long stretches of time after he hurt his back while lifting. "Four times in my life I bought a new car," Al says. "And all four times I got laid off within two weeks. I ain't going to buy no more new ones."
Tonya's happiest hours as a child were spent with her dad. Al may not have been the world's greatest provider, but he is a teddy bear of a man, likable and almost cuddly. Al remembers taking his daughter deer hunting when she was only three years old. He told her how important it was to walk quietly. As they tiptoed through the woods, every time he stepped on a twig his young daughter would put her finger to her lips and say, "Shhh." That day she followed him a mile and a half. Oh, she was a pistol, that girl.
A year later, Al and LaVona took their daughter elk hunting. Heck, they took her everywhere. The only time she had a baby-sitter was once when her parents had to appear together in traffic court. The day of the elk hunt, they left Tonya in the truck and trekked down the hillside in search of game. "She was a pretty good trooper," says Al. "Most kids would scream and cry when they saw Mom and Dad go walking down the mountain."
Al bought Tonya a .22 when she was five, cutting down the stock so it would fit her. They would go behind the house and set pop cans on their sides, and Tonya would aim at the tops from 75 feet away. She got to be quite a shot. "I was a better shot than he was." she says, grinning, her competitiveness bubbling out. Al bought her a .243 deer rifle when she was nine, and she killed her first deer while hunting with him when she was 13.
They would fish together too. Al used to take her to the Columbia River at the Bonneville Dam, where he would cast for sturgeon. Tonya would roam the shoreline at low tide, looking for the 10-ounce sinkers fishermen had lost; they were sometimes attached to lines that had wrapped around pieces of brush and had broken off. The sinkers cost a buck and a half new, and her dad would give her a quarter apiece for them. Once, when she was seven, Al heard Tonya screaming, and he left his rod in the holder and came running, fearing she had fallen into the river. He found her hauling in a sturgeon that was almost as long as she was—41 inches. She had found a sinker on a snag, and as she unwound it, she discovered that the sturgeon was still on the hook. "The kid even beat you fishing when she didn't have a pole," Al says, beaming. It's easy to believe it when he says that he has watched the tape of Tonya winning the national championship at least 50 times, not once with a dry eye.
She helped him work on his car, learning to adjust the valves every 10,000 miles. Today she can replace a transmission, rebuild an engine and do a brake job. After Al hurt his back, Tonya would split and stack the wood he had cut with a chain saw. "I was happy with my dad," she says. "We did everything together. But I wasn't very happy as a child. I was lonely. I never went to Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm or any place like that when I was young. Skating was the only thing I did that really gave me confidence."
It was a small miracle she ever started, tight as the money was at home. It began when she was 3½ years old. Her parents were shopping one day at Portland's Lloyd Center, a mall with an ice rink, and when Tonya saw other kids skating, she wanted to join in. "My dad said O.K., and my mother said no," says Harding. "So I cried, and finally she agreed. The first thing I did was make a pile of shavings on the ice and start to eat them. My mother told me I had to skate like the others, or we'd leave. So I skated."
Her parents gave her a pair of secondhand skates for Christmas, and Tonya began taking group lessons. She quickly outgrew the program, and one of the teachers suggested to her mother that Tonya take private lessons from Diane Schatz—now Diane Rawlinson—in nearby Jantzen Beach. Rawlinson's initial reaction, when the Hardings drove out to see her, was that she didn't coach skaters that young. "My mom told me to go out and pester her," says Harding, "so I skated around her in circles and drove her nuts until Diane agreed to a six-month trial."
That trial ended up lasting almost 14 years. And at times it was a trial for all involved. LaVona used the money she got in tips to pay for Tonya's lessons—$25 a week at first—while Al's wages went toward household expenses. As Tonya progressed, the costs mounted. When Al was laid off from work, Rawlinson would donate her coaching time. She also bought Tonya new skates and raised money from friends and area businesses to offset travel and training expenses. LaVona made Tonya's competition outfits. Grooming a world-class skater is an expensive proposition, eventually costing as much as $25,000 to $30,000 a year. "Diane was really good to her," says Al. "It cost $400 to $500 for a new pair of skates. We never had that kind of money. Tonya had to do more with less coaching than any of the girls she skates against."
But the talent was there. Harding is a terrific natural jumper, and she's fiercely competitive. She landed her first triple loop at nine, after another skater had bet that she couldn't do it. Nothing frightened her. One stark difference between most boy and girl skaters, according to those who coach them, is that when challenged to try a new move, most boys will shrug and give it a go. Most girls protest that they are being asked to attempt the impossible, and have to be coaxed.
Harding tried new things at the drop of a hat. She loved that aspect of skating, and of life. She still does. When she was 14, she began landing imperfect triple Axels in practice at a time when no woman in the world was attempting that 3½-revolution jump in competition. More recently, she has been working on quadruple-revolution Salchows and loops.
But she had something else besides talent. "Tonya's got this burning desire inside," says David Webber, 50, a Portland taxi driver who got to know Tonya when he was the manager of a fast-food restaurant. "Her mother told me she never had to wake Tonya up to go practice. That was all Tonya's doing."
Webber and Harding have become so close since they met in January 1985, when Harding went to his restaurant for coffee, that Harding now refers to Webber and his wife, Ruth, as Mom and Dad. She calls the three Webber kids—Mark, Brent and Stephanie—her brothers and sister. "If I ever had a family, they're it," says Harding. "They basically adopted me into their family. You don't need papers to be adopted into a family."
"She kind of adopted us," says Ruth Webber. "And we don't mind at all that she calls us Mom and Dad. Not at all. I don't think Tonya got a lot of love as a child growing up."
Whatever affection Harding once held for her mother was altered by the rancor that developed between the two during Tonya's teenage years, when mother and daughter found themselves increasingly at odds over any number of issues, big and small. All the elements for domestic disaster were in place. The Hardings' marriage was falling apart. Tonya was a stubborn and independent-minded young woman. Al was unemployed, and LaVona was working late hours as a waitress.
There were other problems too. The most terrible night came when Tonya was 15. She was at home alone, preparing for her first date with Jeff Gillooly, the man she would later marry. Tonya's half brother, Chris Davison, came home inebriated. He was 26 at the time. When he found that the Hardings weren't home, he approached Tonya and tried to kiss her. This had happened once before, and Tonya had stopped him by slapping his face. This time she threatened to burn him with her curling iron, and when he kept coming, Tonya made good her threat and burned him on the neck. Terrified, she ran upstairs and locked herself in the bathroom. Davison followed her, and when she wouldn't open the door, he broke it down. She was able to get away from him and dialed 911.
"He told me, 'If you say something's wrong, I'll kill you,' " she remembers. "So when the operator asked me if everything was O.K., I said yes. But she must have known something was wrong, because she called right back and asked, 'Are you sure everything's O.K. there? It's not, is it?' I just said, 'Yup.' "
Davison wouldn't leave, and when he came after her again, Tonya hit him with a hockey stick and ran across the street to the neighbors. Again she called the police. After Davison took off in his car, Tonya went back to her house, locked all the doors and windows, and waited. It seemed forever before anybody came. Finally she heard a car pull up, and she ran to the window. It was Davison. She couldn't believe this was happening. He was screaming at her, "I'm gonna get you!" and trying to get in the house. She heard someone pounding on the door, and the pounding continued and continued, until finally she understood what was being shouted: "Just open the door. It's the police." Shaking and in tears, she let them in. Her half brother was at the bottom of the stairs, in handcuffs. The police hauled him off to jail, and when Al visited him the next day, Davison didn't remember the visit.
"That night I tried to tell my mom and dad what happened," Harding says. "My dad didn't want to believe it, and my mother slapped me and told me to get in my room. To this day she doesn't believe me."
"He did have a problem with drinking," admits LaVona. "I wouldn't put it past Chris to try and get a kiss. Tonya has a vivid imagination. She has a tendency to tell tall tales."
"After Chris got out of jail, he told me, 'If I ever catch you alone, you won't be around anymore,' " says Harding.
Davison was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver three years ago in Portland. "I wouldn't go to his funeral," says Harding. "I know it sounds terrible. My mom tried to make me, but I wouldn't."
Harding talks about these things with a steady voice and dry eyes. She talks about them because she is asked, not because she feels it is time to share her troubles with the world. She has never spoken of these things publicly before. She's a tough cookie, and she's had to be.
LaVona left Al and Tonya later that same year. Tonya came home one day to find her mother gone and all the furniture removed from the house. Six cords of wood she had split and stacked with her dad were also gone. "I stayed with Dad," Tonya says. "Mom didn't want anything to do with me. I remember she told me I was the only reason my parents had stayed together. That didn't make me feel good at all."
For the next six or seven months Harding lived with her father, but when Al got a job offer in an arms-and-tackle store in Boise, he accepted it and moved to Idaho. Tonya moved back in with her mother, who had married for the sixth time, in December 1987, and was now Mrs. James Golden. The mother-daughter relationship continued to be strained. Tonya stayed with the Goldens until she was 18. "Then my mother and her husband basically kicked me out," she says. "If I was to live under their roof, I had to live under their rules. They wanted me to pay rent or move out. I couldn't handle it."
Her mother denies ever asking Tonya to pay rent or leave and feels she was a good mother. "When I wasn't home, I was working. I did try," says LaVona. "She couldn't wait to turn 18 so she could be with Jeff."
Harding moved in with Gillooly, her boyfriend of three years, who is three years her senior and works in distribution at the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Naturally, Harding's skating was affected by the turbulence in her personal life. Skating was her anchor, but it is difficult to excel in anything when you're unhappy. She had dropped out of high school in the middle of her sophomore year, and her sense of self-esteem was largely dependent on how she performed on the ice. In her first senior nationals, in 1986, Harding finished sixth. She moved up to fifth in 1987 and remained fifth in 1988, an Olympic year.
Her working relationship with her coach, Rawlinson, was growing increasingly strained as Harding began to rebel against all forms of authority. Rawlinson, like most figure skating coaches, was more than just a coach to her skater. She was a fund-raiser, taskmaster, mentor and conscience. The coach was involved in all facets of Harding's life.
At the 1989 nationals in Baltimore, the first held after Debi Thomas and Caryn Kadavy had retired from amateur skating, Harding finished a strong third, so strong that many observers thought she deserved to be placed in the top two. Unfortunately, only two U.S. women were invited to the 1989 world championships in Paris. That left Harding as the team's first alternate. "I thought I could have won at the worlds that year," she says.
She cut back on her training, and Rawlinson decided that after working together for nearly 14 years, they both needed a change. "The bottom line is, it wasn't working," Rawlinson says. "Tonya wasn't training, and wasn't meeting the goals she had set for herself. So I delegated her to Dody."
Teachman had been one of Rawlinson's first pupils, way back in 1970, and at Rawlinson's behest had worked with Harding on her compulsory figures and endurance since 1988. "Tonya and Diane arc both pretty stubborn," says Teachman, "and they didn't get along very well by the time I got involved. They had spent a lot of years together. The older Tonya got, the more she wanted to do things her own way. My philosophy was to remember what I was like at that age. I knew Tonya had a rough exterior, and I'd heard all these horror stories, but I also felt that inside there was this nice little girl trying to get out."
Says Harding, "Dody was more like a big sister or a friend than a coach. All I wanted to do was be happy, and I wasn't happy skating for Diane. Nothing was ever good enough for her. She tried to control everything. Everything. Who I'd talk to. How I'd talk to them. How I wore my hair. She basically tried to be my mother."
Rawlinson says she never tried any such thing, but she doesn't want to get into a war of words with her former pupil. She still cares deeply about Harding. "My whole association with Tonya has been like being on an adventure," says Rawlinson, who sounds like a grateful survivor. "I wanted to be a wonderful, positive role model for her, and I feel very proud of what I did for Tonya and Dody both."
As disappointed as Harding was after finishing third in the 1989 nationals, the next year's nationals in Salt Lake City were worse. Standing second after the compulsories and the short program, which together accounted for 50% of the scoring, Harding was poised to break through to the top, or at least the top three, which would have meant an invitation to the worlds that year in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and would have increased her financial aid from the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA). But the night before the free skate program, Harding, who'd been ill all week, came down with pneumonia. She has had asthma since she was eight years old, which aggravated the illness. She stayed awake all night coughing and in the morning had a 103° temperature. Against her doctor's orders, Harding competed. "I'd have had to be on my death bed not to," she says.
Guts and obstinacy can take one only so far. Completing just three of her seven planned triples, Harding was marked 10th in the free skate, which dropped her to seventh overall. Al Harding was in the stands. "She was so humiliated from skating poorly," he remembers. "But she told me, 'At least I didn't quit.' "
Nope. No quit in this kid. After that experience, many thought Harding would finally give up the sport. And few were weeping at the prospect. The other skaters, who knew little about her family or her past, generally considered Harding standoffish and unfriendly. "People like her because she's a great skater, not because she's Tonya," says David Webber, whose daughter, Stephanie, is Tonya's best friend. "She has an air about her that puts people off, an air of, If you don't like it, tough luck—that's me. That's a hard way to make friends. You and I give a little and bend a little to make friendships and to keep them. Tonya doesn't. She has no security."
And small wonder. Why would she? The only person who seemed always to be there for her was Gillooly. So in March 1990, at 19, she married him. "I never liked you," Al told Gillooly at the wedding party. "But welcome to the family."
"I tried to talk them out of getting married," says LaVona. "I knew Jeff had a violent streak. Once when Tonya was living with me and my new husband, he tried to break down the door because he thought she had gone out with another boy. It turned out it was her brother she'd been with."
Harding later said that one of the reasons she got married then was so she could be covered under Gillooly's health insurance policy. Because, after a pep talk from Teachman and having pondered the troubling question of what she should do with her life, Harding had decided to stick with skating for one more year.
So it was that last February, after all those lousy breaks and all those troubled times, life up and dealt Tonya Harding a full house. Jammed. On a bitter-cold day in Minneapolis, with the national championship at stake, Harding skated the performance of her life. It was a rousing, full-throttle four-minute show in which she landed seven triples six different ways, including her historic triple Axel. The crowd stood and cheered for 45 seconds, and the judges could not and did not deny her. Harding, in the spotlight at last, put a glow on the entire event.
It would be nice to be able to write that that championship changed her life and marked the end of Harding's trials. But real life doesn't work that way, and Harding is up to her elbows in real life. In early April, less than a month after finishing second in her first world championships—a remarkable achievement in itself—Harding announced she was leaving Teachman and would coach herself in the future, getting occasional input from Rawlinson. "I was real hurt," Teachman says. "We'd had a couple of rocky phone calls, and she told me she couldn't work with me right now."
The rift concerned the distribution of USFSA funds and whether Harding had or had not given her coach permission to sign her name when submitting expense receipts. "I had a lot of input from Jeff when I decided to leave Dody," Harding later admitted. After seven weeks, she saw she had overreacted. "I went back and said, 'Dody, I need you.' It was miscommunication, because everything was fine. I learned you have to talk things out."
On June 17, shortly after reuniting with Teachman, Harding filed for divorce from Gillooly, citing irreconcilable differences. As is usually the case in such instances, those closest to Harding weren't surprised. "We were never in a competition where they weren't in a fight before we left," Teachman says. Stephanie Webber, maid of honor at Harding's wedding, had disapproved of the union from the start. Stephanie had expressed her opinion so many times that she finally developed a code, holding up four fingers every time she heard about Tonya's marital difficulties. Translation: I told you so. Al, recently resettled in Portland, blames himself for the whole thing. "I feel like I deserted Tonya when I went to Boise," he says. "I don't think she'd have married Jeff if I hadn't gone."
The couple had been married 15 months. Two days after filing for divorce, Harding petitioned for, and was granted, a restraining order to prevent Gillooly from entering any skating rinks or her apartment. "He wrenched my arm and wrist and he pulled my hair and shoved me," she wrote in the petition. Harding further stated, "I recently found out he bought a shotgun, and I am scared for my safety."
A hearing on the distribution of property and the finalization of the divorce was scheduled for November. Harding and Stephanie got an apartment together over the summer, and during her separation from Gillooly, Tonya seemed happy to be on her own. She taught Stephanie how to play pool. Twice Harding went drag racing at the Portland International Raceway—once in a friend's car, once in her Jeep CJ-7. But she gave racing up when her automobile insurance company got wind of it and threatened to cancel her policy. She came in second in a celebrity roller-blading event in Orlando, Fla., that was put on for television—Elizabeth Manley and Bonnie Blair were among the contestants. Harding had roller-bladed only four times before the competition. "She got back and said, 'I wasn't going to let all those girls get in front of me,' " recalls Teachman. "She should be on the front line of a football team."
By early fall, Harding's training was going well and her weight was down to a lithe 96 pounds—four pounds less than she weighed when she won at the nationals. "This year I've just been thinner," Harding said. "I think that comes from being happy, too." Three times a week she worked out in a gym, bench-pressing 110 pounds. Harding believes it is her upper-body strength, first acquired while splitting wood for her father, that enables her to land her triple Axel.
"She jumps like a male skater," said Brian Boitano, the men's 1988 Olympic champion, after watching Harding win the prestigious Skate America competition in Oakland in September. "There's an incredible strength and control in her jumping." Among the contestants Harding defeated at Skate America was Yamaguchi, the defending world champion, in the only time they will meet before this month's 1992 nationals.
Harding even became pretty serious about a young man she met in Canada, a banker. She met him at a dance club in Vancouver, where, with characteristic assertiveness, she asked him to dance. He came to visit her in Portland in October, and her friends and family liked him. He seemed to have a calming effect on Harding. She talked about taking him elk hunting with her father. "She wanted me to meet him," David Webber recalls. " 'I really love him, Pop,' she said. I told her, 'Tonya, you can't just meet a guy and fall in love with him like that. Love grows.' But that's just how fast she goes."
That is how fast she goes. A few days after the young man had returned to Canada, Harding shocked everyone—her lawyer, her agent, her father, her mother, her coach, the Webbers—by announcing she was getting back together with Gillooly. They had talked things out. He had not bought a shotgun, after all. "I'm a complete person again," Harding says now. "I know it seemed like I was happy, but something was missing, and now I know what it was. Jeff and I love each other more than ever. We're going to get a counselor and work it out. I know he's changed. I see it in his eyes, and I believe in him. I'm going to be married once in my whole life, and that's the way I'm going to look at it. I don't want to lose him. I really don't."
Gillooly, who declined to be interviewed for this article, would only say, through Harding, that he was happy they were back together and that they were going to make the marriage work.
"She wants more than anything to have a happy home life," says Teachman.
So we shall see. Life unfolds for even the most stable of us in unpredictable ways, and few lives are less predictable than Tonya Harding's.
"You read about these perfect lives in magazines and all," says David Webber, the man whom Harding calls Dad. "But that's not the real world. Tonya's lived in the real world. That's where she gets her toughness. Years ago, when I first met her, her goal was to win the Olympics. Not the world championships. The Olympics. That's what she wanted, and if she keeps her act together"—here he pauses, as if considering that possibility, and adds—"I think she'll make it."