Tonya and Nancy saga was just bizarre

It was a melodrama that started in Detroit with the kneecapping of Olympic gold-medal front-runner Nancy Kerrigan, moved like a cyclone to Portland, Ore., where her chief rival, Tonya Harding, lived, then skipped across the Atlantic Ocean and followed them to the sleepy village of Hamar, Norway, where the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games figure skating competition was being held. It remains a maelstrom you had to be in the middle of to fully appreciate.

The saga of Tonya and Nancy seemed too surreal to be true even as it was unfolding in real time 20 years ago. The Zapruder-like tape of Kerrigan wailing "Why? Why? Why?" after she was clubbed on the knee -- in an ill-conceived conspiracy hatched by Jeff Gillooly, Harding's live-in ex-husband, and three cohorts who fancied themselves henchmen-for-hire -- lives in sports infamy. The kicker is, the plot that was clumsily pulled off on Jan. 6, 1994, at the U.S. national figure skating championships at Detroit's Cobo Arena, began to unravel in mere days because of their foolishness and the paper trail they left.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to pick out which part of the tale was most bizarre.

Harding, then 23, grew up in a trailer park, liked to play pool and bingo and once menaced the other motorist in a fender bender with a whiffle ball bat. Gillooly, her childhood sweetheart who was known to have a violent temper, was convicted for arranging the attack on Kerrigan to improve Harding's medal chances. The contrast between them and the chaste Kerrigan, a Hepburn-esque beauty who still lived with her parents at age 24 and said training left her no time for a boyfriend, couldn't have been more jarring.

But there was also Shawn Eric Eckardt, Harding's 320-pound bodyguard who liked to give would-be employers a wildly concocted résumé saying he was a security expert who had conducted successful "hostage retrieval" and counterintelligence operations against "targeted terrorist cells" in the Middle East, Europe and Central America. The truth was, the 26-year-old Eckardt still lived with his parents, too, and he blubbered like a baby the moment federal agents knocked on the door to question him.

The Detroit getaway car driver was Derrick Smith, 29, a former night janitor and paramilitary buff who was remembered in his rural town outside Portland for rigging barbed wire and booby traps on the side of a hill where he lived with his in-laws and grandmother. That would be the same granny who greeted a local TV camera crew when it showed up unannounced by firing two gunshots into the air that sent the crew scurrying for cover.

Shane Stant, the man convicted of hitting Kerrigan with a collapsible metal baton, was a 6-foot-2, 220-pound bar bouncer and self-proclaimed bounty hunter who head-butted the glass panel out of a stuck Cobo Arena door in a panic as he made his frantic escape. Until his arrest, his only other big moment of recognition seemed to be a bodybuilding award for Best Chest of the Northwest.

There was also Tonya's mother, Sandy (LaVona) Golden, who'd been married six or seven times, depending on whom you asked. Golden hired herself out to one of the many hotly competitive TV tabloid shows that descended on Portland. Then she vexed her handlers by routinely violating the exclusive access they'd paid for by speaking over the velvet ropes that had been set up to ward off other reporters.

One day Golden riffed about how she'd been a waitress until recently but was forced to quit because of "artificial parts" in her hands. (She didn't elaborate.)

At the time, I was one of the Olympic writers for The Washington Post, and I was sent to Portland to cover the story in January 1994. The following month, I went to the Winter Games in Lillehammer, too, where Harding skated for the United States after a controversial fight for her right to compete. The U.S. Olympic Committee backed down after Harding filed a lawsuit for $20 million.

The night that she and Kerrigan skated their opening short program crackled with unbelievable tension. The Feb. 23 broadcast still ranks as the sixth-highest rated TV show of all time because nearly half the country -- an unbelievable 48.5 percent of American households -- watched, even though it was shown on tape delay.

A few nights later, Kerrigan performed well in the free skate but lost the gold medal in an upset to 16-year-old Russian orphan Oksana Baiul by one-tenth of one point on one judge's card.

Harding finished a desultory eighth after taking the ice late and stopping midway through her program because of a broken shoelace, which earned her a restart and catcalls from the crowd.

To understand just how big a sensation the saga was by the end, it's important to appreciate the context: The attack on Kerrigan happened five months before the feeding frenzy over the O.J. Simpson car chase and his arrest. It pre-dated the explosion of reality TV, and the now-routine sight of some of the most notorious PED users in major league baseball and track and field and cycling deflecting accusations with their vehement denials, or righteous finger-wagging, or crying crocodile tears on cue at news conferences called to protest their innocence.

Harding held one of those, too.

It happened on a Thursday. With a trembling chin and tears in her eyes, Harding read a seven-paragraph statement on Jan. 27 -- three weeks after Kerrigan was attacked -- before a packed room of reporters at the Multnomah Athletic Club in downtown Portland. Harding still insisted she had no prior knowledge that the assault was going to happen. But for the first time, she confessed that she did learn "some people close to me" were involved shortly after her return from nationals.

Then Harding returned to practice the very next day at her Clackamas Town Center shopping mall rink. And critics shrieked "How could she?" But Harding skated in full view of a huge media throng and estimated 2,000 people -- including one woman who kept riding the escalator up and down to get a better glimpse of her.

On still another day, two Harding supporters slung a homemade sign over a mall railing one floor above the ice that read:

"We love Tonya.

"Deal with it America."

The reason the conspiracy unraveled within days was because Eckardt couldn't resist bragging to the wrong guy -- in this case Eugene Saunders, an ordained minister who was also a classmate of Eckardt's in a paralegal course they were taking. After Eckardt played him a scratchy tape of one of the planning meetings for the Kerrigan attack, Saunders went straight to authorities. They had him arrange a meeting with Eckardt at a diner and wear a tape recorder on his back.

Eckardt arrived as promised, but insisted on speaking in the parking lot. So the 26-year-old Saunders -- heart racing now -- agreed to step outside, contrary to FBI instructions.

"Are you wired?" Eckardt asked.

"Why would I be wired?" Saunders answered.

"Well, I didn't want to lie," the minister said somewhat sheepishly in a phone interview we had a few days later.

Harding's ability to soldier on with her Olympic training only created more harping that she was a cold-hearted, sawtooth-edged woman capable of anything.

It didn't help that it was estimated whoever won the gold medal could earn as much as $10 million in endorsements, and that by Jan. 14 -- just six days after the attack -- CNN began running an undated interview in which Harding said of Kerrigan: "We're teammates, we're friends. But when it comes down to it, there are little dollar signs swirling around my head.

"I didn't have the money that other people had growing up. And I still don't …"

Kerrigan didn't come from money, either. Her father, Dan, was a welder and her mother, Brenda, was legally blind. She grew up in blue-collar Stoneham, Mass., playing hockey with her brothers. She and her parents would often stay in the same hotel room at her skating competitions to save money.

Still, by the time she and Harding were on their collision course to qualify for the '94 Games, Kerrigan had been beautifully packaged and expertly campaigned as America's next Ice Queen. She'd gotten her teeth straightened. Vera Wang designed Kerrigan's costumes pro bono, and she'd signed a flock of pre-Games endorsement deals. With her porcelain skin and auburn hair swept up in a classic bun, Kerrigan had an ethereal look as she glided across the ice.

Harding, in contrast, was all firepower and explosive jumps and unapologetic aggression. "A little barracuda," former coach Dody Teachman once called her.

She came along just as figure skating decided to emphasize athleticism and jump-packed programs as well as artistry, and the shift perfectly suited her. By 1994, Harding and Midori Ito of Japan were the only women who had ever performed a 3½-revolution triple Axel in competition. Though Harding stood only 5-foot-1 and weighed just 98 pounds, she could bench-press 110 pounds.

She was known to boast: "Nobody skates like me."

But in the insular world of skating, Harding always had a hard time shaking her wrong-side-of-the-tracks image or living down the many stylistic faux pas she made, like the program she once skated to the rap song "Funky Cold Medina."

She was once prevented from competing in a costume that was deemed too risqué. Her hair and makeup were often derided as garish. She met Gillooly when she was 15, dropped out of high school in 10th grade (but later got her general equivalency diploma), and married him at 19 against her parents' wishes.

By many accounts, it was an abusive relationship.

Harding twice sought restraining orders against Gillooly, and she divorced him in fall 1993 -- only to let him move back in during the run-up to the Games.

Kerrigan would later say she was grateful that Gillooly and his co-conspirators were so bumbling. She missed only a few days of training after the hit. By the start of the Lillehammer Olympics a month later, everyone connected to the attack had been arrested except Harding. After her news conference confession of limited involvement, she later pleaded to a felony obstruction of justice charge and had to pay a $160,000 fine, as well as perform 400 hours of community service. She also was stripped of her '94 national title by the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

Today, at 43, Harding lives in central Oregon with her second husband and their son, who soon will turn 3. Kerrigan, 44, married her agent, Jerry Solomon, and they live in Boston with their three children.

The anniversary of their story is sure to prompt more reminiscing when the Winter Games begin next month in Sochi, Russia, especially because Kerrigan has been hired to work there as a commentator by NBC, which is planning to air its own show looking back at the incident.

Kerrigan recently said she and Harding have never spoken since the attack. And Harding -- speaking in director Nan Burstein's ESPN 30 for 30 documentary "The Price of Gold" that premieres this week -- continues to maintain she never knew about the plot beforehand, though Gillooly and Eckardt told authorities otherwise.

"The people who say I did this -- I mean, 'Huh?' " Harding tells the camera, wagging her head with both palms turned up and disdain flitting across her face.

Harding was never going to be America's sweetheart no matter how wonderfully she skated, and she always knew it. Twenty years later, she remains forced to settle for being the most notorious figure skater who ever lived.