Unanswered Questions: The Tonya Harding Story


By Nellie Shih ’19, A&E Editor

Warning: descriptions of domestic abuse.

I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, Suicide Squad) as the title character and Sebastian Stan (best known for his role as Bucky Barnes in Marvel’s Captain America films) as Gillooly, tells the story of former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, the first American woman to successfully perform a triple axel in a competition, and the debated accomplice in the attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan. The film begins with a disclaimer: “Based on the irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.”

Harding, now Tonya Price, grew up in Portland, Oregon, and began skating at the age of four under the instruction of coach Dianne Rawlinson (played by Julianne Nicholson). In an interview titled Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story, Harding told ABC interviewer Amy Robach she skated because she didn’t want to be like her mother. Her mother, LaVona “Sandy” Golden (portrayed by Allison Janney in the film), worked odd jobs as a waitress and bartender in order to pay for her daughter’s skating expenses. “I was not going to grow up and be a waitress,” Harding said. “I wanted to be better. And skating, I was good at.” As portrayed in the film and as Harding spoke of in the interview, Golden made her daughter take her school pictures in her skating costume so that the photo could double as a school photo and for entrance in competitions.

When asked how she would describe her mother, Harding said, “not a good one.” She would pour brandy into her coffee which she started drinking at four in the morning when her daughter’s skating practices began and finished the thermos by eight. She refused to let her use the bathroom when she was at skating practice, she beat her with a hairbrush, and she even threw a steak knife at her. In 1986, Sandra Luckow made a documentary following Harding to her first National Figure Skating Competition. In the ABC interview, Luckow spoke of how she witnessed Golden beating her daughter with a hairbrush. “I was going to go to child protective services, but I was told to stay out of it,” she said. “I was told if [Harding] was taken from her mother, it would ruin her career.”

Harding’s mother has denied throwing a steak knife at her daughter: “She’s lied so much she doesn’t know what’s true anymore,” Golden said in the interview. Golden did admit she hit Harding once, but only once, with the hairbrush. She claims she never beat her children, but she did spank them. Harding’s mother has also denied drinking alcohol mixed with coffee: “I would have coffee and sometimes I would put brandy flavoring in it. You can’t get drunk on flavoring.”

Harding has not only made allegations against her mother but also against her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who has now changed his last name to Stone. The two met at the ice rink when they were fifteen. Harding said she liked him because he was the first guy that told her she was pretty, and he also had a job. As Harding began to gain popularity from her triple axel, Gillooly became more and more obsessed with making money off of her. He became controlling, and would hit her. Harding remembers the first time Gillooly hit her: they were sitting in their car outside of a 7 Eleven, and Harding was eating her nachos. The two began to argue, and Gillooly ended up hitting the nachos out of her hand, yelling that they would make her fat.

I, Tonya depicts other instances of abuse Harding has spoken up about, including Gillooly smashing her face into a mirror, breaking it, and firing a gun after her. In both the interview and the film, Gillooly barged into Harding’s home after they had been divorced and Harding had filed a restraining order against him. Gillooly pointed a gun at his own head and began rambling about how he couldn’t live without her and threatened to shoot himself. Harding grabbed her bag and attempted to leave, but Gillooly turned the gun towards her. As she tried to leave the house, Gillooly fired the gun and the bullet hit the ground; the debris hit her in the face, drawing blood. Gillooly has denied the abuse allegations, claming them to be “utterly ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, Nancy Kerrigan was poised to be the next big successful skater from the United States. Kerrigan fit the US Figure Skating Association’s picture of a skater perfectly: she was graceful and put-together, with a signature move of putting one arm forward and pulling one leg back. An image of figure skating royalty. Harding, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. She was a chain-smoking asthmatic, didn’t skate to classical music, and looked “trashy” in comparison as she had to make her own skating outfits.

Harding had placed fourth in the 1992 Winter Olympics behind Kerrigan. Most believed that would be the last time Harding would ever skate. In 1986, the Olympic Summer and Winter games, which had been held in the same year since 1924, were separated and arranged in alternating even-numbered years. Harding began training for the 1994 Winter Olympics when “the incident” occurred.

Kerrigan was at the practice for the Olympic Championships in Detroit, and had just stepped off the ice. As she was heading towards the dressing rooms, she was clubbed over the knee by an unidentified man, who was later revealed to be Shane Stant. Stant and his getaway driver, Derrick Smith, were hired by Harding’s “bodyguard,” Shawn Eckhardt to break Kerrigan’s leg. When Eckhardt was questioned by the FBI, he claimed Jeff Gillooly had approached him to do something about Harding’s competition for the Championships. This created the big unanswered question still attached to Tonya Harding: did she have anything to do with it?

The way the film portrays the situation is that Harding had been receiving death threats and was so shaken up that she started skating poorly. When Gillooly suggested they craft some death threats of their own to send to Kerrigan to psych her out, Harding agreed. Harding has claimed she had no prior knowledge of the attack on Kerrigan. In the film, Gillooly and Eckhardt are seen trying to figure out where and when Kerrigan practiced. Harding, frustrated with the two’s inability to decipher the message left on the answering machine, calls the number back, writing down the name of the arena where Kerrigan practiced and the times she would be there. The piece of paper with Harding’s handwriting on it was found in a dumpster and used as evidence she might have had something to do with the attack. The question still stands; if Harding was simply trying to figure out where to send the death threats, why would she need to know what time Kerrigan would be there?

Harding went on to place eighth in the 1994 Olympics and Kerrigan placed second. Harding went to court where she pled guilty to hindering of the prosecution, meaning she knew about the attack after it had occurred, but failed to report it. She was charged with three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, a $100,000 state fine, setting up a $50,000 fund for the Special Olympics, reimbursing the Multnomah County prosecutor’s office $10,000, a psychiatric examination, and the worst punishment of them all, the surrendering of her membership to the US Figure Skating Association, thus banning her for life.

Gillooly, Eckhardt, Stant, and Smith all served jail time. Kerrigan appeared on Dancing with the Stars in 2014. In the ABC interview, she spoke of a time on TV about four years after she’d been attacked when Harding apologized to her: “I want to apologize again for being in the wrong place in the wrong time around the wrong people.” Kerrigan didn’t elaborate much on what she felt about the apology, describing it as awkward and strange, and so old that it doesn’t matter anymore. As for the film, Kerrigan hasn’t seen it. “I’m just busy living my life,” she told The Boston Globe. “As you say, I was the victim. Like, that’s my role in this whole thing. That’s it.”

The movie itself was strange. There was dark humor, and when I saw it, people laughed when Harding was hit by her mother and Gillooly. It’s strange that in this day of the awareness of harassment and violence in Hollywood and Time’s Up that people are laughing at domestic abuse. Additionally, it’s strange that this story was nominated at the Golden Globes for Best Comedy. The award show’s Time’s Up initiative have been accused of being hypocritical by having Tonya Harding present as a guest of honor. Harding admitted she heard Gillooly talking about “taking someone out” about a month before the attack, and still failed to report it afterwards.

Ultimately, nobody knows what really happened and how much Harding had to do with it. Nobody knows if she’s a reliable source as she contradicts herself constantly and refuses to answer certain questions. Still, I would recommend seeing I, Tonya. Margot Robbie’s dedication to learning how to skate is truly impressive, and the acting is amazing; Robbie and Allison Janey have been praised for their portrayals of Harding and her mother, respectively. We’ll see how the cast and crew do at the Oscars, and you can probably expect Harding to be there as well. She is set to skate an exhibition at the Rockefeller Center later this month.