Remembering the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the figure skating national championships 25 years ago
“They say history repeats itself. It’s been 25 years since Detroit was the epicenter of the figure skating world.”
-- From a U.S. Figure Skating promotional video for the 2019 national championships in Detroit.
Todd Sand’s first response to the question of what he remembered most about the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit is not as surprising as it seems.
“It was the year the pros were coming back,” Sand said. “That was the main chatter leading up to the season and the nationals.”
Indeed it was.
And the 1994 nationals would be the first significant place to gauge the impact of the International Skating Union’s 1992 decision to give professionals the option to be reinstated for Olympic-style events. That put 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano and 1982 world champion Elaine Zayak into the mix for the 1994 Olympic team, a competition made more cutthroat by the U.S. having earned just two spots in both men’s and women’s singles for those Winter Games in Norway.
The denouement of those comebacks figured to be the big story in Detroit.
“Yeah, right,” Zayak said, with a hearty laugh, when reminded of that scenario this week. “I really made a comeback the right year, huh?”
Zayak’s standing-ovation-worthy skating to get fourth place after seven years away from any serious competition and Boitano’s making the Olympic team with a disappointing second to Scott Davis now are among the footnotes to the most attention-getting and notorious story in the history of figure skating in the United States.
You likely remember it: The attack on Nancy Kerrigan by associates of Tonya Harding that marks its silver anniversary on Sunday.
But after 25 years, as the national championships return to Detroit for the first time, even that story has become somewhat fuzzy ancient history to most of those who will compete there Jan. 23-27, notwithstanding its revival in the 2017 mockumentary, “I, Tonya,” which brought actress Allison Janney the 2018 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Harding’s mother.
“I joke around that we’re going back to the scene of the crime,” Sand said.
Sand, a three-time Olympian, was 30 when he won the 1994 U.S. pairs’ title with Jenni Meno, then 23, whom he married a year later. He and Meno, who live in suburban Los Angeles, are coming back to Detroit for nationals as coaches of two senior pairs, including reigning U.S. champions and 2018 Olympian team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim.
“I’ll think about it, for sure,” Sand said. “But it’s pretty far in the past for everyone except our generation and older. The skaters now don’t know what you’re talking about, really.”
So, with a little help from Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine (that’s a Rocky & Bullwinkle reference, young’uns), let’s revisit an episode that would have fit right into one of the TV cartoon show’s segments of “Peabody’s Improbable History.”
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Thursday, January 6, 1994 was a gray winter’s day in Detroit, with the temperature hovering in the mid-20s and a brisk wind. It was the second day of senior competition at the 1994 nationals, with the pairs’ short program (then called the technical program) starting at 2:20 p.m. and the men’s free skate at 6:45 p.m., both in venerable Joe Louis Arena on the city’s riverfront. The women’s singles event would begin Friday afternoon at 3:35.
Nearly all the several dozen media covering nationals, me included, were in Joe Louis Arena for the pairs’ competition. Twenty-five minutes before the pairs began, the women’s singles practice group C, whose six skaters included reigning U.S. champion Kerrigan and a 13-year-old prodigy named Michelle Kwan, took the ice for a 50-minute practice session one-half mile away at Cobo Arena. It was one of three women’s practice groups.
Dana Scarton, then a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, went to the practice to interview skaters and coaches for a feature story. As the group C practice ended at 2:40 p.m., Scarton moved into the hallway skaters entered after coming off the ice and going through a split blue curtain. Security was lax in those pre-9/11 days, allowing media and other credentialed personnel access to nearly all backstage areas but dressing rooms, even though tennis star Monica Seles had been stabbed by a fan of a rival eight months earlier at a tournament in Germany.
“Skating was really innocent back then,” Sand said. “That helped make what happened even more surreal.”
Scarton, whose story in the Jan. 7, 1994 Post-Gazette is the best eyewitness account of what happened, wrote that she introduced herself to Kerrigan and asked for a brief interview as the skater passed through the blue curtain. Before Kerrigan could answer, Scarton reported, a large man charged the skater from behind, crouched near her and swung “something that looked like a crowbar,” then swung it again, hitting Kerrigan in the legs both times. The attacker fled, not only from the arena but the city, leading to several wildly inaccurate suspicions about his identity over the next several days.
The immediate aftermath, with Kerrigan sitting on the hallway floor screaming in pain and crying, “Why? Why? Why?” was captured by cameras from a Chicago-based sports and entertainment company, Intersport, in a clip that would be widely re-used for years to come. The Intersport crew had been following Kerrigan to get footage for a TV special.
Kwan, the youngest skater at the 1994 nationals, came off the ice at that practice just after Kerrigan.
“I didn’t see her being hit,” Kwan said in a text message this week. “I heard her crying and screaming, which was scary.”
At 28, Zayak was four and a half years older than anyone else in the women’s event (Kerrigan, 24, was next oldest). A decade had passed since her last “amateur,” or OIympic-style, competition, a sixth place at the 1984 Olympics and a third at the 1984 world championships.
Zayak said this week she had decided to return to the sport because the erratic skating she saw from Kerrigan and Harding at 1993 nationals made her think, “Is this really all we have for the Olympics?”
As an amateur, she was, like Harding, famed for her jumping, which included Zayak’s unprecedented six triple jumps at the 1982 worlds. Because four were the same jump, a triple toe loop, the ISU soon passed the “Zayak Rule,” limiting triple jump repetitions to one of each type, and one of those repeated triples needed to be in a jump combination.
Zayak, in the Jan. 6 afternoon practice group after Kerrigan’s, said she was going into a dressing room when she saw the chaos and heard Kerrigan screaming. “There was too much screaming for it to be just from a fall,” Zayak recalled. Then she found out Kerrigan had been hit and heard others say, “We think it has to do with Tonya.”
“I was like, ‘What, you’re saying Tonya hit somebody?’” she said. “I was scared and a nervous wreck. I didn’t want to go out on the ice. I just fooled around out there. It was hard to concentrate. I was thinking there might be somebody trying to get me out of the competition, too.”
In the middle of the pairs’ competition, someone came running into the press area at Joe Louis Arena with news of the attack. As we all headed immediately for the press room to begin reporting that story, which would consume most of our lives for the next three months, Mark McDonald of the Dallas Morning News joked, “Where was Tonya?”
Boitano, resting before the men’s free skate that night, said his reaction upon learning Kerrigan had been attacked was the same as McDonald’s. The rough-edged Harding already had earned a reputation for unusual behavior – an asthmatic who smoked, a skater prone to equipment malfunctions and a chip on her shoulder against the sport’s establishment.
“We found out right after we skated the technical program,” Sand said. “We couldn’t understand what was happening or why. The thought it could happen to anyone passed through our minds. We were very focused on what we were doing and pretty confident things would be locked down after that. But you were more aware of your surroundings when you were just walking around.”
Harding, in the practice group after Zayak’s, later said she was still in her hotel room when the attack occurred. But the jokesters were onto something, no matter that Harding would steadfastly and implausibly maintain she learned of who was involved and the plans for it only after it happened.
Over the next few days, Zayak found herself on the same shuttle bus to the rink as Harding.
“She talked like she didn’t have a care in the world,” Zayak said. “All she talked about was the inhaler she was using.”
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At 26, pair skater Jason Dungjen was excited about competing at the 1994 nationals because they were taking place in his hometown for the first time in the event’s then 80-year history. Dungjen, now a coach at the Detroit Skating Club, grew up 20 miles north in suburban Troy, Mich., and he spent many days watching the NHL Red Wings play at Joe Louis Arena.
“Now I was going to be out on that ice trying to make the Olympics,” he said.
Dungjen and partner Kyoko Ina of New York were 13th of 16 in the starting order for the pairs’ technical program. They had yet to skate when he heard about the attack.
“People started running around and yelling about someone who had been hit on the knee,” Dungjen recalled. “I wasn’t sure what was going on but I thought, ‘OK, I feel bad for whoever it was, but I’ve got to focus.’
“Once you step on the ice, everything hopefully goes away, which, thank God, it did. It became a massive distraction after that.”
Dungjen and Ina would finish second in both the short program and the free skate two days later to make the Olympic team. They finished ninth in the 1994 Winter Games and fourth four years later in Japan. Meno and Sand were fifth in 1994 and eighth in 1998.
Veterans like Boitano, then 30, and Zayak were experienced enough not to be rattled by the unsettling circumstances.
“All the medals and titles I had won outdid most of the girls that were there,” Zayak said. “I had been to the Olympics and five world championships. I could handle myself. I expected to skate great.”
When Zayak went into her hotel lobby a day after the attack, she saw a media swarm that included a reporter from the National Enquirer. Figure skating, perceived as the most genteel of sports, had hit the supermarket tabloids and, even in an era before social media, went viral on national TV and print news outlets for the next two months. One revelation after another about Harding and her associates ultimately turned the story into something even a B movie screenwriter would have rejected as too bizarre and too improbable – even for Mr. Peabody.
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Kerrigan withdrew from nationals soon after the attack because the damage to her knee, while fortunately not serious in the long term, would not allow her to skate in Detroit. U.S. Figure Skating officials, unaware of their own rules, first said the withdrawal would keep her out of the Olympics, only to learn shamefacedly that was not necessarily true from Newsweek writer Mark Starr, who found a rulebook and noted it allowed Olympic selection of athletes who had not competed at nationals.
Harding won the event, with Kwan second and Nicole Bobek third. Harding and Kerrigan were named to the team, provided Kerrigan could show fitness. Kwan became the first alternate.
Uncertainty over Kerrigan’s condition meant U.S. Figure Skating sent Kwan to Norway to train in case she was needed as an 11th-hour substitute. It was the first time U.S. Figure Skating sent an alternate to the Olympic site in advance of the competition.
Kwan’s 1993-94 U.S. Figure Skating media guide bio said, “...she lists Tonya Harding as having had a major impact on her career,” a connection that drew on Kwan’s being known as a jumping jack at that point in a career when artistry eventually became her calling card. Ironically, even after Kerrigan’s fitness was clear, Kwan nearly wound up replacing Harding.
“I didn’t know many details but was prepared just in case I was told that I was on the team last minute,” Kwan recalled in the text message.
Four days after nationals ended, the Portland Oregonian reported the FBI was investigating allegations that Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, were involved in the attack. Over the next several weeks, the likelihood increased that Harding herself was aware of – and had not objected to – a plan to attack Kerrigan, the 1992 Olympic bronze medalist whose on-ice elegance made her a Madison Avenue darling.
The motive was money: without Kerrigan in the competition, Harding, who was fourth at the 1992 Winter Games, and the gang who couldn’t whack straight stood a better chance to reap rewards that would accompany an Olympic medal.
“When it comes right down to it, I see those little dollar signs in my head,” Harding had said before the 1994 nationals. “Nancy has already seen some of that.”
Harding’s lawyers threatened a $25 million lawsuit if USFS and the U.S. Olympic Committee barred her from skating in Norway. Utterly overmatched by Harding’s legal team, the USOC agreed to keep her on the team if the suit was dropped. Early in the morning after the Feb. 12 Opening Ceremony, the USOC held a press conference to announce Harding could compete. The media circus had just moved into a fourth ring.
Kerrigan recovered well enough to win the Olympic silver medal behind Oksana Baiul of Ukraine. Harding finished eighth, famously delaying the free skate with a broken skate lace. Boitano had a disastrous Olympic technical program and wound up sixth.
“At the time, it bothered me that this dark cloud overshadowed everything else about nationals,” Boitano said. “I had done photo shoots for the cover of TV Guide and Newsweek, and both were taken over by the attack.
“I didn’t think at first it helped the sport a lot, and it hadn’t even become the hype it would at the Olympics, where it was all Tonya and Nancy, all the time. I could have gotten straight 6.0s (perfect scores under the old system) in the Olympics, and people would have asked, ‘Well, what are Tonya and Nancy doing?’
“In retrospect, it was good for most of us. It catapulted skating to another level of interest, one that it will never get back to. I was able to work at a high level for many more years to come.”
Or, as Dungjen said when asked about the edgy message about history repeating itself in the USFS promotion for 2019, “At this point, any press is good press.”
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Tonya Harding pleaded guilty March 16, 1994 to conspiracy to hinder prosecution and was sentenced to three years’ probation, a $100,000 fine and 500 hours community service.
Three months later, U.S. Figure Skating stripped her of the 1994 national title and banned her from participating or coaching in USFS-sanctioned events. The USFS media guide says “Vacant*” in the box for the 1994 women’s champion. The asterisk is explained at the end of the list of annual champions.
The senior events at this year’s nationals will take place at Little Caesars Arena, about one mile from where Joe Louis Arena stood. “The Joe,” site of the Skate America Grand Prix event in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2013, is scheduled for demolition. Cobo Arena now is used as exposition space in the Cobo Center, a meeting and convention facility.
“Even without the same arenas, I think there will, of course, still be memories for anybody who was there in 1994,” Dungjen said. “It will be in the back of your mind.”
At this year’s nationals, Dungjen will be coaching lower-level skaters whose events take place at the Detroit Skating Club in suburban Bloomfield Hills. Boitano is coming for the USFS athlete alumni event.
Zayak, who lives and coaches in northern New Jersey, will not attend. She has been back to the Detroit area just once, for her 2013 induction into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.
As her 16-year-old son, Jack, has become more involved in sports, Zayak has reduced her coaching to three days a week, working with local rather than national-level skaters. She has come to terms with the idea that her heralded 1994 comeback was swallowed up by what the mockumentary scriptwriter called, “THE INCIDENT.”
“I don’t think anyone outside the world of figure skating would remember I was part of that nationals,” she said. “Even my son asked me, ‘You were there, mommy?’
“The first thing that comes to my mind about it was I got two standing ovations. Even with all that craziness, it’s a memory I will never forget. I couldn’t have asked for a better year to come back.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating. Look on this site for his stories at the 2019 U.S. Championships.
As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.