Nancy Kerrigan is one of the most famous American figure skaters in history, but the two-time Olympic medalist and former US national champion is rarely remembered for her achievements in the sport. Due to an off-ice incident that took place during the trials for the 1994 winter games, Kerrigan became a national talking point and found herself under the spotlight of the media, who put her on a pedestal only to revel in tearing her down. What began as a fruitful relationship with the press quickly started to sour and her life took a sharp turn for the worse, but this was nothing new for Kerrigan, who had known hardship from a very young age. Sadly, it seems to have followed her ever since. This is her tragic real-life story.
Her mother lost her eyesight right in front of her
Life first decided to throw Kerrigan a curveball when she was just a child, riding in her mother’s car with her two siblings Mark and Michael like it was any other day. What none of them realized until it was too late was that Nancy’s mother Brenda Kerrigan had contracted an extremely rare virus that would have devastating consequences for the family. Brenda’s vision started to blur on that journey, and by the time the virus was finished with her she was completely blind in one eye and able to see just “a teeny bit” from the other.
“I’ve never had any pain,” she told The New York Times back in 1992. “It was just a virus, like you’d get a common cold.” Brenda insisted that she was grateful for still being able to see her daughter up close, but her practically non-existent eyesight meant that she could never watch her out on the ice — instead, she watched her from a television behind the scenes. “As nice as it is being able to look at television up close, being underneath the stands my husband Dan and I feel we’re missing something. We don’t see people and that’s a loss. It’s really lousy for him. It’s much more fun being part of a crowd.”
Her dad had to work in exchange for skating lessons
Watching Nancy perform from underneath the stands instead of in them was just one of the many sacrifices that her father made in his lifetime. After Brenda went unexpectedly blind, Dan Kerrigan (a welder by trade) was forced to assume all of the duties his wife had previously performed, on top of his own. They couldn’t afford to put Nancy through the skating lessons she wanted, but instead of telling her she couldn’t have them, Dan struck a deal with the manager of the local rink — he would operate the Zamboni and keep the ice in good shape, and in exchange his daughter would be taught how to skate.
“Nancy and I would get up at 4:30, then I’d wake Dan up,” Brenda said of their day to day schedule back then. “I’d make Nancy’s breakfast. What’s the big deal about a glass of juice and a bowl of cereal? Dan would drive her to the rink, get on the Zamboni to make the ice, take a nap while she practiced, drive her to school and then go to work himself.” All of his hard work and sacrifice paid off, as Nancy rose through the ranks and quickly became a skater with Olympic potential.
She was attacked by her rival's ex-husband
It was this raw talent and clear Olympic potential that almost led to Kerrigan’s downfall. Two days before the trials for the 1994 winter games began, she left the ice at Detroit’s Cobo Arena and before she could even remove her skates she was attacked by a man. The assailant (who clubbed Kerrigan in the knee with a baton before fleeing) was later identified as Shane Stant, who had been hired by the ex-husband of Kerrigan’s skating rival Tonya Harding.
“I was walking from the practice rink to the locker room but I never made it,” the former pro told Daily Mail. “After I walked through some curtains, someone came from behind them and ran alongside me on my right. He hit me very hard, just once, then kept running. Fortunately, I guess, his aim was bad. The doctors who treated me told me that if the bar had hit me one finger-width lower my knee cap would have been smashed and I might never have walked again.”
The aftermath of the shocking footage was captured on film and a media frenzy soon ensued, fueled by the revelation that Harding was somehow involved in the plot to crudely remove Kerrigan from the running. The plan backfired, as Harding (caught up in a media storm of her own) only managed to finish eighth at the Olympics, while Kerrigan was able to recover in time for the games in Lillehammer and take home a silver medal, despite her ordeal.
The public turned against her
After the attack, Kerrigan was immediately offered an array of endorsement deals and she made a lot of money before the Olympics even started. According to Business Insider, the 1994 women’s figure skating finals were the most-watched Olympic event ever, coming complete with a narrative fit for a soap-opera. The American public were gripped, tuning in to see poor Nancy Kerrigan triumph over her scheming rival and take home the gold. While she did prove she was better than Harding, the top prize eluded her, with Ukrainian teen Oksana Baiul edging her out on the big day.
Unfortunately for Kerrigan, she did not appear as graceful in defeat as she had been on the ice. In another moment that would change the trajectory of her life, the American was caught on camera rolling her eyes in judgement as Baiul applied her makeup for the medal giving ceremony. “Oh come on, she’s going to get up there and cry again,” Kerrigan said. “What’s the difference?” She later explained that she had been falsely informed that Baiul was holding up proceedings when in fact the organizers were hastily trying to find the Ukrainian national anthem, but the damage to her reputation quickly became apparent.
She started getting death threats
Kerrigan’s time at the Olympics was tainted by the attack, as she couldn’t go anywhere without somebody staring, pointing or taking her photograph. “It was like, ‘Oh, look, there’s that girl that was attacked,'” she said of her experience of the games, which was made all the worse by the fact that the US team forced her to train with Harding. “At our first training session there were over 300 cameramen, a media zoo.” Her misery was compounded when she just missed out on the gold medal, but the icing on the cake was getting uninvited from the closing ceremony by the Norwegian royal family.
Concerned that her new infamy might make her a target, the King of Norway pulled rank and asked her not to attend the event for her own safety. The move seemed over the top at the time (many people thought Kerrigan made it up) but it turns out it was probably the right move, as actual threats had been made on Kerrigan’s life. “I was getting death threats,” she confirmed. “What did I do? They talk of it as the Tonya and Nancy story but I played no part other than being a victim. I was even asked not to go the closing ceremony at Lillehammer in a message from the King of Norway as it was feared I could be a security risk.”
The Disney drama
The biggest gig that Kerrigan managed to land following the attack was with Disney, who struck a deal with the skater worth a reported $2 million that involved a book, a movie and public appearances. While her teammates enjoyed the closing ceremony at Lillehammer, Kerrigan was back in the States riding a fire engine with Mickey Mouse as part of a Disney World parade, just one of the many duties she had to carry out as part of her new role. She was already on thin ice with the public following her sour grapes at the Olympics (on top of criticizing 16-year-old winner Baiul, she was catching heat for calling the integrity of the judges into question), so when she once again spoke out of turn without realizing she was being recorded, the daggers came out big time.
“This is so corny, this is so dumb,” Kerrigan was caught saying during the parade. “I hate it. This is the most corny thing I have ever done.” The skater later explained that she was actually talking about the fact she was being asked to wear her silver medal during the show, not the parade itself, but the public’s opinion of her worsened all the same. “The Walt Disney company doesn’t associate with people who are perfect,” the Mouse House said in a statement (via The Independent) defending her, but they went ahead and canceled her book and the movie based on her life anyway.
Her brother was involved in her father's death
Kerrigan fever eventually died down and the press moved on to other matters, though the skater was thrust into the limelight once again in January 2010 when her father died following an altercation with her brother. During an argument over use of the telephone, an inebriated Mark Kerrigan allegedly grabbed his 70-year-old dad Dan around the neck so hard that he snapped his larynx and caused his heart to fail. “It took this defendant — an angry, mean, nasty, drunk son of his — to take Daniel Kerrigan down, to end his life,” Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Keeley told the court during his trial (via NY Post).
His defence lawyer argued that it was his father’s pre-existing coronary heart disease that killed him rather than the scuffle that night, and despite a history of violence, Mark managed to evade murder and even manslaughter charges. He was sentenced to two and a half years for assault and battery in 2011. “I’d just like to say that I loved my father and I miss him very much,” Mark was quoted as saying by NECN. “I’d like the opportunity to return home with my family so that we can finish grieving my father’s loss and so I can be there to help my mother.”
She spoke out against her brother's conviction
When Mark Kerrigan became eligible for parole, he made a shocking decision — he asked the judge not to release him. This wasn’t out of remorse over his actions, but to avoid the bail conditions that would have been imposed upon him if he left prison six months early, which included counseling sessions and regular sobriety tests. Defense attorney Janice Bassil argued that the cost of such programs were too high for her client to afford, but judge Kathe Tuttman rejected that notion. “It is not up to Mr. Kerrigan to decide that he wants to serve the sentence instead of the conditions of the order,” Tuttman said according to a report in CBS Boston.
The decision was welcomed by Mark’s family (they had stumped up $10,000 for bail and were eager to have him home) but according to Nancy he should never have been locked up to begin with. Not for the first time in her life, she criticized a judge’s ruling, telling Matt Lauer that her brother’s sentencing was a mistake. “He shouldn’t have been charged,” she said during her 2013 appearance on Today. “My dad had a heart attack and that’s that. Since then, we did the same thing we’ve always done — take things one thing at a time, and you get through it. Life’s challenging and hard, and we stick together and move on.”
Hollywood chose Harding over her
Sadly, the defining moment in Kerrigan’s life will always be the time she got kneecapped by a goon in the employ of Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. Kerrigan’s fortunes did improve in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but through no fault of her own (the way she tells it, at least) she lost it all. In 2017, a movie based on figure skating during its so-called golden age did eventually come out, though instead of making Kerrigan the focus, Hollywood decided that Harding’s story was more interesting.
Screenwriter Steven Rogers was drawn to the disgraced Olympian’s tale after watching an ESPN documentary on her rivalry with Kerrigan and immediately began work on what would become I, Tonya, a black comedy with Margot Robbie starring as Harding. “Nothing against Nancy Kerrigan, but I wanted to tell the story of the people who potentially thought [the attack] was a good idea,” Rogers told Entertainment Weekly. Director Craig Gillespie was a little more apologetic when he spoke about snubbing Kerrigan, insisting that she deserved recognition for her achievements.
“I knew it would be a hard journey for [Harding] to take, to have to bring all of this up again after 25 years, but I feel actually even worse for Nancy because this has nothing to do with her, and it’s going to all be coming up again,” he said. “Tragically, for her, it’s like she’s still known for this even though she won two medals at two different Olympics.”
She suffered a series of miscarriages
2017 might have been the year that her old rival got the big screen treatment that she was once promised, but Kerrigan at least had Dancing with the Stars to keep her busy. The former Olympian took part in season 24 of the show, during which she shared some heart breaking information about “at least six” miscarriages she went through over the years. Kerrigan married her agent Jerry Solomon in 1995 and the couple welcomed her son Matthew the following year, but it would be another eight years before she gave birth to a second child, and not through a lack of trying.
“I always thought I’d have three kids by the time I was 30,” she said (via People). “The first time that you go in and they tell you, ‘Oh there’s no heartbeat,’ it’s devastating. I felt like a failure.” The silver medal winner revealed that one of her failed pregnancies went wrong at such a late stage that she had already told her son that he was getting a younger sibling. “How do you explain [a miscarriage] to a little kid? Having to tell them that it was now gone and they had to take it out? He asked why and we had to explain, ‘Because it’s dead. It’s not alive anymore.’ That was awful.”