The Place Was Detroit. The Victim Was Figure Skater Nancy Kerrigan. The Act Was Another Bizarre assault on an Athlete
The Place Was Detroit. The Victim Was Figure Skater Nancy Kerrigan. The Act Was Another Bizarre assault on an Athlete
January 17, 1994

She had wanted to prove she was back, to show the skating community and all of America she had put last year's miserable fifth-place finish at the world championships behind her and was skating better than ever. Training harder than ever. Brimming with more confidence than ever. She had wanted to send a message from Detroit, where the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) championships were held last week, that would be heard all the way to Lillehammer: Nancy Kerrigan is going to be a force to reckon with next month at the Olympics.

She never got that chance. Felled by one savage blow to her right knee by a bludgeon-wielding assailant last Thursday afternoon in Detroit's Cobo Arena, the 24-year-old Kerrigan was forced to withdraw from the national championships. The only message she sent was that no athlete, particularly no woman athlete, is immune to the threat of a new breed of psychopath: the terrorist sports fanatic.

The videotape of the stricken Kerrigan tearfully screaming, "Why me? Why now? Help me! Help me!" seconds after being smashed by a crowbar or blackjack—some sort of short, black weapon—will be the single, lasting image retained from these championships. The attacker was, as SI went to press, still unknown. Had his blow been an inch or two lower, Kerrigan's kneecap and career might have been shattered. As it was, her kneecap and quadriceps tendon were seriously bruised—there was no fracture—and within 24 hours the swelling and soreness had forced Kerrigan, who was the defending U.S. women's champion, to tearfully announce she would be unable to compete. The frightening attack overshadowed the rest of the event, which the USFSA uses to determine which skaters it will send to the Olympics, and left Americans shocked and saddened by yet another example of the senseless violence that pervades modern society. The very day that Kerrigan was struck down, Monica Seles, who was stabbed by a deranged tennis fan in Hamburg, Germany, last April, announced that she would not return to the court, as she had hoped, at the Australian Open. Why Kerrigan? Why Seles? And what famous athlete might be next?

For Kerrigan the timing of the attack could hardly have been worse. In the days leading up to the championships, few people could remember having seen her so upbeat about her skating. Since May, Kerrigan, who lives in Plymouth, Mass., had been working with Cindy Adams, a sports psychology consultant who operates out of Bradford, Mass. Adams helped Kerrigan to look more positively at life after the fiasco at the worlds, during which Kerrigan was heard on national television sobbing, "I just want to die," while waiting for the judges' scores of her flaw-filled routine. Kerrigan cut back on her endorsement activity, which last year distracted her from her training time. On the eve of the attack Evy Scotvold, who, with his wife, Mary, is Kerrigan's longtime coach, said, "She's never worked this hard before.

"She's never done the run-throughs she's doing now. Double run-throughs. Going for perfect run-throughs. She's in fantastic shape. Her power is incredible. When she skates, she looks like she needs a bigger ice surface."

It was a different picture from that of the timid, tearful Kerrigan of last March, who seemed to freeze up at the worlds in Prague. Back then, whenever Kerrigan practiced her four-minute, 10-second program, she would always leave something out. Purposely. Sometimes a spin. Sometimes a jump. But always she would hold back something. The Scotvolds had never seen her skate cleanly through an entire program in practice. Kerrigan wasn't sure why she did it. Perhaps to save energy. Or perhaps out of fear of failure. What if she tried, really tried, to do everything—and found out she couldn't?

"I wouldn't let myself skip anything this year," Kerrigan said with pride just before last week's championships. "I didn't want to get into that habit. I learned to train in a more rigorous way."

This year, after skating her long program once, Kerrigan would ask Evy Scotvold to rewind the music so she could run through it again—some eight-plus minutes of skating. She even did three consecutive run-throughs last month—"and I hit 17 of 18 triples," she gushed. "One time through the program seems easy now."

The new regimen brought results. Kerrigan won both competitions she had entered this season—the Piruetten in Hamar, Norway, in October, which was held in the new Olympic arena, and the AT&T Pro Am in Philadelphia last month. Defending her national title in Detroit would be the final step before Lillehammer, the one that would remove, once and for all, the memory of those disastrous four minutes in Prague.

It was snowing on Thursday, a blizzard. Even so, a couple of hundred people were in the stands watching Kerrigan's afternoon practice in Cobo Arena the day before the women's competition began. She had a second practice session scheduled for that night, at 11:30, but because of the late hour, she wasn't sure she would make it. So Kerrigan was the last skater to leave the ice that afternoon.

Security at Cobo Arena was lax. Anyone could walk down from the stands to the edge of the rink and stand for minutes without being asked to show credentials. "You could walk through anywhere without showing a badge," says Frank Carroll, who was waiting for his young charge, 13-year-old Michelle Kwan. It was 2:35 p.m. A man approached him and pointed to Kerrigan. "Is that Nancy Kerrigan?" the man asked. Carroll nodded. "I thought, This is strange," Carroll recalls. "He was an odd man. He was jittery, sweating. He had a camera and was taking pictures very fast. I didn't see where he went or whether he was the man who did it, but the next thing I knew, Nancy was on the floor screaming."

On her way to the dressing room Kerrigan had paused to answer a question from a reporter, Dana Scarton of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. At that moment a man wearing a black leather jacket, black hat and khaki pants ran wordlessly toward the two women from behind. He raced between Scarton and Kerrigan and, without stopping, swung the weapon that hit Kerrigan on the right knee. It was a purposeful blow. Kerrigan both takes off from and lands on her right leg when she jumps—it's the one that endures the most strain. The smack could be heard out by the rink.

As the assailant fled past half a dozen startled witnesses—coaches, reporters, skaters—Kerrigan collapsed and let out three bloodcurdling shrieks, which carried chillingly to the far reaches of the arena. "It hurts so bad," she said, sobbing uncontrollably. "Please help me." A small crowd of skaters, reporters and family members gathered around her as a security guard gave chase to her fleeing assailant. "It hurts, Dad," she sobbed as her father, Dan, gently picked her up. "I'm so scared. Why me? Why now? Why?"

That's a question that may never be answered. Was the assailant a deranged stalker who had felt jilted by Kerrigan? A demented Tonya Harding fan? Was this merely a random attack directed at any famous person? The man escaped by breaking through a Plexiglas door in the back of Cobo and disappeared into the snowstorm. Kerrigan never got a look at his face. Of the six eyewitnesses interviewed by police, four identified him as a white male; two as a light-complexioned black male. They agreed he was about 6'2", mid-30's, 190 to 210 pounds.

That was about all the police had to go on. Television videotapes of the practice were examined and initially revealed nothing. It was more than two days—Saturday night—before two composite sketches of the attacker were distributed, and they didn't resemble each other. No weapon was recovered, no arrest was made. Police did, however, express hope Monday after digital enhancement of the videotape allowed them to determine that the attacker was white and that he had long hair.

The other skaters, though shocked by the incident, were able to stay remarkably focused, and security at the competition was beefed up considerably. It was the first actual assault anyone could remember at a skating competition, although there had been numerous threats against skaters and trouble with fanatic fans in the past. In November, Harding pulled out of the Northwest Pacific regionals in her hometown, Portland, Ore., after receiving a death threat. And Harry Veltman of Westminster, Calif., was convicted of sending more than 50 obscene letters to Katarina Witt. Kristi Yamaguchi and Brian Boitano have had similar, though less extreme, problems.

Manny Millan/SI

Kerrigan, too, had received a couple of particularly graphic letters in the past year, one of which was sent from an address in Ontario, the Canadian province just across the river from Detroit. She remembered it while waiting to be taken to the hospital. "Is Ontario near here?" she asked Evy Scotvold. Detroit police, trying to sound hopeful, said Friday that they were following that lead, plus others that had been phoned in about suspicious characters from Texas, Oregon and various parts of Canada who were at the competition.

Overshadowed by the intrusion of the real world, the skating was robbed of its drama. In the men's competition, which was completed the night of the attack, Scott Davis of Great Falls, Mont., surprised everyone, including himself, by successfully defending his title against Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, who had recently regained his amateur status after five years as a professional. The energetic and likable Davis, 21, simply showed more pizzazz than the 30-year-old Boitano, whose only significant error came near the end of his program when he singled a planned triple Axel. "I've never been under so much pressure," said Boitano, disappointed but not crestfallen. By finishing second, he, with Davis, made the Olympic team. "The last two days are the only time I've said to myself, What am I doing this for? I thought I'd be able to go with the flow more. That it would be like another day at the office." His view of the Kerrigan incident was depressingly fatalistic: "You knew that such a thing could happen. Anybody can do anything to anyone if they want to badly enough."

The USFSA, meanwhile, was scrambling to find out whether it could place Kerrigan on the Olympic team if she didn't compete in Detroit. By the morning after the attack the swelling had moved from the front to the back of her knee, so she could barely bend her leg. She was given a local anesthetic, and two ounces of blood were drained from the joint. Even then, when doctors asked her to hop on her right leg, she was unable to do so with any control. They told her she would have to withdraw. "I cried and cried," Kerrigan said later. "I'm pretty upset and angry that someone would do this, but I'm trying to keep my spirits up. I want to prove all this work hasn't been a waste. This could have been a lot worse."

Her spirits got a big boost when USFSA officials found rule 5.05 on page 193 of their guidelines, which stated that the International Committee of the USFSA could select skaters who had not competed in the most recent nationals. The skating community gave a collective sigh of relief. "We're not so cutthroat as a sport that we don't recognize the right thing to do," said Carol Heiss Jenkins, a member of the international committee and coach of Lisa Ervin and Tonia Kwiatkowski, two of the top-ranked U.S. women. "Even if one of my skaters were bumped because of Nancy, I'd vote for it."

"It's a tragic thing," said Carroll, whose skater, Kwan, was, in fact, named first alternate behind Kerrigan after finishing second in the competition. "It'd be more tragic if Nancy wasn't given the opportunity to go. There's no question in my mind that if she'd competed, she'd have finished in the top two."

As it was, Kerrigan gamely watched the women's competition at Joe Louis Arena from Red Wing owner Mike Ilitch's personal box, holding her seven-year-old cousin, Alison Shultz, in her lap. On Monday, Kerrigan underwent an MRI in Boston under the supervision of orthopedic surgeon Mahlon Bradley, which revealed no ligament or kneecap damage. Bradley expects Kerrigan to resume light skating on Jan. 17—with jumps to follow in perhaps a week—and to be close to 100% by Feb. 6, when a committee from the USFSA will evaluate her skating to see if she's fit enough for the Olympics. The U.S. team departs for Lillehammer on Feb. 9, although the women's figure skating competition does not begin until Feb. 23.

Adams, Kerrigan's sports psychologist, was seated beside her client in the Hitch box. "Nancy Kerrigan's not a victim; she's a survivor," said Adams. "That's how we're going to look at this. She doesn't understand what's happened or why, but she's not going to let this get in the way of what she's set out to do. She's going to be a little cautious around people for a while, but we all should be a little cautious. Nancy's not a worrywart. She's not someone who dwells on things. She's a strong individual, and she is loved a lot—and that helps a great deal."

Long after Harding, skating better than at any time since 1991, had won her second national title, that love was touchingly apparent. Seated high above the ice in an otherwise deserted arena just two days after a stranger had tried to shatter her dreams, Kerrigan signed autographs for hundreds of orderly young fans for more than an hour. "Nancy might be fragile mentally when it comes to her skating," said Mary Scotvold, "but she's a tough little girl off the ice. She's not as vulnerable as she might seem."

No more vulnerable than all athletes must now feel.

PHOTOWILLIAM ARCHIE/DETROIT FREE PRESS/APAfter Kerrigan stepped off the ice (left) and into the news, her parents were as baffled as police, who released conflicting sketches. PHOTOL.A. TIMES[See caption above.] PHOTOREUTER[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSDETROIT POLICE DEPARTMENT[See caption above.] PHOTOBILLFRAKESKerrigan and her seven-year-old cousin watched the women's long program from a private box. PHOTOMANNY MILLANFor the triumphant Harding, it was on to Lillehammer; for the second-place Kwan, it was no ticket and no beef. PHOTOBILL FRAKES[See caption above.] PHOTOHEINZKLUETMEIERAlmost six years after his gold medal in Calgary, Boitano found it was no longer so easy to go with the flow, and settled for second. PHOTOBILL FRAKES[See caption above.] PHOTOMANNYMILLANDavis surprised even himself with his successful defense of his national title.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)