The assault on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, which occurred on January 6, 1994, after practice at the Cobo Arena in Detroit, Michigan, would become one of the most infamous scandals in the history of sports.
Shane Stant was the hired assassin, and he used a baton that collapsed to a length of 21 inches to strike Kerrigan in the right leg. Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband of Tonya Harding’s rival figure skater Tonya Harding, and Shawn Eckhardt, Harding’s bodyguard, recruited him and his uncle Derrick Smith, along with Derrick Smith himself.
So what exactly was Harding’s role in this? Kerrigan had been her adversary for a very long time, and he was the only one standing between her and a spot on the Olympic team. Gillooly was the one who devised the plan of attack because Harding was so determined to win at whatever cost. (Harding eventually said in 2018 that she “known something was up,” even though she claimed that she had no idea what was going on.)
Therefore, the motivations for taking down Kerrigan were strong competition and the desire for fame and wealth. As a result, a motley squad of amateur hooligans that was stranger than fiction was brought together to complete the mission. The crime had all the makings of a sensationalist soap opera, which was most recently portrayed in the edgy comedy film I, Tonya, released in 2017.
Explore the infamous affair via the lens of our photographic chronology.
February 14, 1991: Harding defeats Kerrigan
Harding’s victory over Kerrigan at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships provides a glimpse into the two skaters’ long-running competition with one another. The following month, she achieved success again, this time at the ISU World Championships held in Germany, when she placed second, behind only Kerrigan, who won bronze. During the same year, Harding made history by becoming the first woman from the United States to complete a triple axel during a competition successfully.
January 6, 1994: Kerrigan is attacked
Fast forward three years and Kerrigan finds herself the unfortunate target of Harding and Gillooly’s insatiable desire to triumph. Kerrigan’s right knee is struck by the hired assassin Stant, and the incident’s immediate aftermath may be seen on the cameras. The following day, on January 7, newspapers all over the world plastered the devastated face of Kerrigan all over their covers while she wailed in anguish, “Why? Why? Why? Why me?”
Kerrigan was fortunate in that the injury did not cause any broken bones and instead only left her with bruises. Kerrigan was forced to withdraw from the national championships scheduled to take place the next night due to the severity of the injuries she sustained the previous day.
January 8, 1994: Harding wins gold
On January 8, 1994, Tonya Harding celebrated her victory at the women’s championship by pumping her fists after completing the routine that earned her the gold medal.
Harding skates to a victory at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, taking home the gold medal, and ensuring that she will compete in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, exactly as she had dreamed. However, to show their support for Kerrigan, who was forced to withdraw from the competition because of the assault, her fellow skaters also sent her an invitation to participate in the Olympics.
January 12, 1994: Eckardt confesses
After the FBI opened an investigation into Harding’s bodyguard, Eckhardt, on January 12, Eckardt came forward and admitted his participation in the assault. He also named Stant, Gillooly, and Smith, the driver of the getaway car, responsible for the crime.
January 14, 1994: Kerrigan holds a press conference
At a press conference held after a handful of the perpetrators of the crime were legally accused, Kerrigan does her best to maintain a cheerful attitude. In the meantime, the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) discusses whether or not Tonya Harding should be allowed to compete in the Olympics. In the end, they decide that she should be allowed to compete because, in addition to her repeated denials that she was involved in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, no evidence has surfaced to contradict her claims.
January 27, 1994: Gillooly confesses
Gillooly, who was ultimately revealed to be the mastermind behind the attack on Kerrigan, turned himself in to the FBI four days after a warrant was issued for his arrest. Gillooly would admit on January 27 that he was the mastermind behind the assault and would also accuse Harding, Eckhardt, Stant, and Smith of the crime. Harding, however, would continue to deny any role in the incident.
However, at this time, Harding denies any role in the incident and issues the following statement to the press: “Despite my faults and rough edges, I have done nothing to break the norms of perfection in sportsmanship that are expected in an Olympic athlete.”
On February 1, Gillooly entered a guilty plea to the racketeering charge in exchange for testifying against his ex-wife. He does this so that he can receive a reduced sentence. A few days later, the trash left by Gillooly and Harding was found, and it contained notes about Kerrigan’s training routine in Massachusetts. The notes were written by Harding, according to a handwriting expert who examined them.
Following some tense back-and-forth between the United States Olympic Committee and Harding regarding her eligibility to compete in the Olympics, the committee ultimately decides that she is allowed to do so.
February 17, 1994: Harding and Kerrigan take the ice
When Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan take on the rink together at an Olympic practice session for the first time since the assault on January 6, the press goes into a frenzy. There have been a lot of claims flying around about Harding. When Kerrigan skates around Harding, she does so while wearing the same clothes she wore when she was attacked. This is done on purpose. After some time has passed, Kerrigan is quoted as saying to the press, “Humor is excellent; it’s powerful.”
February 25, 1994: Harding’s shoelace breaks
On the last night of the Olympics, Harding has to cut her performance short during her first skate because the shoelace on her skate snapped. Even though she is given the opportunity to re-skate, it is ultimately fruitless. Harding finished eighth in the Olympic competition; many people referred to this outcome as “karma.”
February 25, 1994: Kerrigan wins silver medal
Kerrigan skates better than she ever has, but despite this, she cannot win gold because of an unexpected upset caused by Oksana Baiul, who is only 16 years old and is from Ukraine. The infamous events that brought her to the public front led to strong anticipation that she would win gold. Kerrigan gives the impression that she is disappointed after receiving the silver medal. She is later captured on tape expressing her frustration with Baiul, who delayed the presentation of the medals. Oh, give it a break. Therefore, she is going to come out here and cry once more. The question is, “What’s the difference?” Kerrigan said this without realizing that there were cameras present.
March 16, 1994: Harding pleads guilty
In light of the growing body of evidence pointing in her direction, Harding enters an official guilty plea to the allegation of “conspiracy to delay prosecution.” She is placed on three years probation and must pay a fine of $160,000 in addition to the sentence. After a few more months, her victory at the national championships in 1994 is overturned, and she is expelled from the USFSA for the rest of her life.
Everyone else who participated in the attack on Kerrigan is currently doing time in prison, except for Harding.