Ask anyone who is old enough to remember when star figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s right knee was struck with a “blunt object,” and they could tell you a million stories about the woman accused of being involved in the attack, former rival Tonya Harding. But how much could they tell you about what happened to Harding in the years since? Probably not a whole lot, as that’s a name you only hear about once every four years when the winter Olympics rolls around. What has the former U.S. National champion been up to in the years since her figure-skating scandal captivated the world? Here’s why you don’t hear much from the disgraced athlete anymore.
The Kerrigan scandal destroyed her career
Although Harding has maintained her innocence for more than 20 years, her alleged involvement in the 1994 attack on competitor Kerrigan and the media frenzy that followed devastated her career. In July 1994, the U.S. Figure Skating Association voted to strip her of the gold medal she won at the U.S. National Championships and ban her for life from the association. According to The New York Times, that meant she could no longer compete in an event sanctioned by the federation or serve as a sanctioned coach.
A few weeks later, Harding was “sentenced to three years’ probation, ordered to pay $160,000 and must do 500 hours of community service” after pleading guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, The New York Times reported. The four remaining defendants accused in the act were each sentenced to prison, including her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who received a two-year sentence. By that point, one thing remained crystal clear: Harding’s career as a figure skater was essentially over.
Her success was consistently inconsistent
Even if you remove the drama from the Kerrigan attack, Harding’s success on the ice, much like the media attention she so often attracted, was all over the place. It seemed every time she started to shine, something would happen to set her back from earning legendary status. Although she became the first American woman to land a triple axel at the 1991 U.S. National Championships, she finished a disappointing fourth place at the Winter Olympics in Albertville the following year. The same held true at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, where she finished in eighth place after a disastrous performance that included drama over an alleged broken shoelace.
As the ESPN documentary 30 for 30: The Price of Gold examines, Harding’s personal life was likely one of the main contributing factors to her erratic performances at both Games. “Her problems that she had off the ice sometimes would show up on the ice,” her one-time coach, Dody Teachman, says of her struggles after the 1991 Championships. “She went from an abusive childhood to kind of an abusive relationship [with Gillooly].”
Harding said, “[There were] just too many distractions going on around [me].”
The rest of the world moved on
If you’ve ever wondered why Olympic athletes jump at the chance to make appearances and land endorsement deals so soon after their Games have wrapped, it might have to do with the fact that fame for Olympic athletes can be fleeting. By the time the 1998 Games in Nagano rolled around, people within the world of figure skating were worried far less about Kerrigan and Harding and much more about whether U.S. skater Michelle Kwan would be able to keep the coveted gold medal out of the hands of American rival Tara Lipinski.
Speaking with The New York Times, Kwan’s coach, Frank Carroll, acknowledged the source of figure skating’s new fan base. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling how figure skating became so popular because of that incident,” he said, adding, “As much as we put down Tonya Harding, women’s sports—figure skating in particular—owe her a great debt of gratitude. But it was a terrible, regrettable way to go about it.”
She attempted a skating comeback in 1999
Though she was banned for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association, Harding found a loophole via “non-sanctioned” professional events that allowed her to get back on the ice in 1999, according to The Chicago Tribune. She staged her comeback in Huntington, W. Va. at the ESPN Professional Skating Championships, hoping end her then-reality of obscurity and odd jobs–house painting, construction, and bit parts in cable movies.
But it didn’t work out. Though she placed second overall, Harding fell twice during her performance and failed to impress the spate of national media outlets in attendance. A few months after the event, she was arrested and spent a few days in jail on an assault charge. Two years later, she got a DUI while still on probation for the assault. It was the downward spiral that led away from competitive sport forever and toward the reality TV persona that Harding existed as throughout the early 2000s.
Sadly, Harding seemed to realize her fate immediately after that dismal performance in West Virginia. Speaking to the press, she said, “I take life day by day, and if things come up from this then that’s absolutely wonderful.” But Harding added, perhaps knowingly, “And if it doesn’t, that’s okay, because I got to come out and skate one more time for all my fans, and be able to see all my friends that I just love and it’s just been great.”
People still think she's guilty
Maybe it’s because she never served time in jail, or maybe it’s because she always maintained her innocence, but to this day, a cloud of guilt hangs over Harding’s reputation. Part of it surely has to do with the way media told the story; public opinion is also likely a factor. Whatever the case, much like another athlete, former pro football running back O.J. Simpson, Harding’s name will always be associated with scandal, and a certain group of people will always think she did it. For what it’s worth, Harding is well aware of the conundrum. “I have apologized so many times…[Kerrigan] is not worthy of my time anymore,” she said during an NBC special in 2014 (via TV Guide).
She literally went off and lived in the woods
In 1997, Harding moved from Portland, Ore., where she’d lived her entire life, to Vancouver, Wash. It wasn’t a huge move—the cities are across the Columbia River from one another—but it was definitely a symbolic one for the former Olympian, who told The Washington Post, “It was, like, I’ll leave the past over there, and I come over here and I’m in a new life.”
That new life included Harding diving deep into the backwoods lifestyle she’d become known for. In a video on her Facebook page, Harding says her home is “in the middle of nowhere,” pointing out that she’s near heavy woods and regularly encounters “bears, cougars, coyotes, bobcats, deer, elk,” and more. In fact, at the time she recorded the video, she was having a particular pest problem. “I have something that’s up in my roof right now, and I have a friend that gave me a live trap to put it up in the roof, so that way I can throw an old piece of pizza or some cheese up there, so that way I can find out what it is,” Harding says. “We know it’s bigger than a rat, but we think it may be either a raccoon or a ‘possum. But living on the river, everybody gets rats once in a while, and as long as they don’t bother me or come in the house that’s fine.”
She became a boxer
In 2002, Harding was one of a handful of low-grade celebrities who competed on the FOX reality series Celebrity Boxing. For her match, she battled and won against Paula Jones, the government employee who sued President Bill Clinton in 1994 for sexual harassment. That should give you a pretty good idea of what the quality of the show and the subsequent reviews were like. On the bright side: Harding wound up competing in a number of professional boxing matches afterward, about half of which she won. “It was very hard to make living.” she reveals in The Price of Gold. “It wasn’t another career, of course, but it helped me for a few years of surviving.”
Even in her prime, she was at a disadvantage
As touched upon in the The Price of Gold, Harding’s athletic, technical style of skating, combined with her choices of music and costumes, didn’t always fit well within the world of figure skating–a sport known for its grace and elegance as much as its athleticism. That, in many ways, put Harding at a disadvantage, especially when Kerrigan began to climb the podium.
“Here you had the beautiful Snow White—sleek hair, designer costumes—who was so graceful on the ice,” journalist Connie Chung recalls in The Price of Gold. “Nancy fit the mold. She was perfect.” Harding, meanwhile, lacked the artistry and flair—not to mention the endorsements and sponsorships. All of that may have driven Harding to, at the very least, resent Kerrigan, but even if nothing ever happened to Kerrigan’s knee, high school politics seemed destined to rule the ice and shape the figure skaters’ legacies forever.
She now lives a much quieter life
She may no longer be competing on the ice, but Harding seems to have found some peace and happiness by living a much quieter life. In 2010, she married Washington native Joseph Price; the following year, they had a son. “Just having my life with my husband and my son, that’s what I need, and want and have,” Harding says in The Price of Gold.
According to a 2014 piece in USA Today, Harding resides in “rural central Oregon, where she joins her husband on his occasional woodworking jobs.” In The Price of Gold, she also says she’s made ends meet by working on cars and doing landscaping work.
But her story lives on
Harding’s life story and subsequent scandal remains a blemish on her professional and personal life, but for whatever reason, it also remains in the consciousness of every American who witnessed it. That might explain the amount of coverage the ordeal received on its 20-year anniversary. ESPN’s 30 for 30 series rehashed the events, and A-list actress Margot Robbie decided to play Harding in the critically acclaimed biopic, I, Tonya.
Harding herself realizes the persistent fascination with her story, as well as the wide misconceptions therein, which is why she smartly sold her life rights and worked with writer/producer Steve Rogers to help make the movie happen, according to Vanity Fair. “She said, ‘I want people to know I’m a good mother,'” Rogers told Vanity Fair, adding, “She broke the cycle of violence and became the mom that she never had, which is really moving to me. Here’s a girl who was always looking for love in her life. And a family. And I think she got it, finally.”
Harding even surprised the entire cast by showing up to the premiere of the movie, which is a significant public endorsement coming from a woman who has repeatedly dragged the media for misrepresenting her. While she’s enjoying the spotlight again, Harding will likely fade back into the shadows soon, but you’ll certainly continue hearing her story for years to come.