Sarah tells Mike the story of a world-class figure skater who worked at a mall potato restaurant. Digressions include “Sleepless in Seattle,” mall walkers, synchronized diving and the difficulty of skating a perfect pentagram. This episode unfortunately contains descriptions of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Tonya deserved better.
Support the show (http://patreon.com/yourewrongabout)
Sarah tells Mike the story of a world-class figure skater who worked at a mall potato restaurant. Digressions include “Sleepless in Seattle,” mall walkers, synchronized diving and the difficulty of skating a perfect pentagram. This episode unfortunately contains descriptions of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Tonya deserved better.
Support the show (http://patreon.com/yourewrongabout)
Mike: People do not understand that like both of us are like curled up in extremely bad recording positions and that like our backs hurt. We just have to take a break.
Sarah: And that we love Tonya Harding, but we are also in our thirties.
Mike: Welcome to Your Wrong About the podcast where we spin around, but always keep our eyes focused on what's spot, wait, no, I fucked it up. Welcome to Your Wrong About, the podcast where we spin around furiously but keep our eyes on one spot, so we never get dizzy. I had three weeks to come up with that.
Sarah: You can't look at any one thing when you're spinning.
Mike: No, but isn't this how they do it to keep from getting dizzy or do they just get really dizzy?
Sarah: No, I think your inner ear just changes you just, when you start doing the fast spins and after a while your body adjusts, I think so.
Mike: I was also going to say welcome to Your Wrong About the podcast where we do a triple lutz through history.
Sarah: Oh, that's nice.
Mike: I think they're both bad, anyway.
Sarah: I liked triple lutz through history using our toe picks to set the record straight.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall and I'm working on the book about the Satanic Panic.
Mike: And if you want to support the show, we are on patreon.com/yourwrongabout. And today we are talking about Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.
Mike: This is our Ulysses.
Sarah: Yeah. Thank you for not psyching me out at all. This is our no-hitter.
Mike: And also our 50th episode.
Sarah: It's our 50th episode. Can you believe that we are golden girls as of this episode? And even after recording 50 episodes of a show that has brought amazing people into our lives and allowed us to connect with human beings in a wonderful way. I am still recording on the floor of my closet in my teenage bedroom. Some things don't change, which is reassuring in this hurly burly cosmos.
Mike: But this is like a big episode for us because the story of Tonya Harding is like how we met basically that you wrote this article about Tonya.
Sarah: Tonya Harding is the Colin Radio Show and the Sleepless in Seattle of our lives.
Mike: Yes. So, background, Sarah wrote an incredible article. What is it, four years ago now?
Sarah: That was five and a half years ago.
Mike: And that is basically how we met, because I wrote you an email after that I had never heard of you. And I wrote to you saying you are amazing; I can't wait to see what you do next. And then we started chatting and I read that article maybe once a year, twice a year.
Mike: Yes, because I credit you with starting this whole thing that we are in the middle of, which I love of recapturing, the maligned women of the 1990s. I credit you with like basically starting that entire genre of entertainment.
Sarah: Thank you. This was an article, the Tonya Harding article, I was pitching this for years before anyone wanted it. And the response that people always had was like, why who cares? Why would anyone want to read an article about Tonya Harding, what's there? And I was like, what's there is that we were all wrong about her. You know, some people were like, if you can get an interview with her then sure.
You know I reached out to her through her website and through her manager and she was like, no, Tonya is not interested in doing that. So there was just nothing to tie it to and so there was this like ski lift coming by. It was the 20th anniversary of Nancy Kerrigan being assaulted.
And I was like, okay, this is my moment. When someone will publish this article, I felt compelled to share this thing that I saw that I couldn't see anyone else expressing publicly. It was essentially that she was a human being. As someone who grew up in the Northwest because Tonya Harding of course is from Oregon. Did you have an experience of her at the time that she became momentarily the most famous girl in the world?
Mike: I mean, I think I swallowed the narrative that everyone in America swallowed. I mean, it wasn't until I read your piece until I realized how much coded language there was in the story of Tonya Harding about sort of her being trashy and her being sort of skanky somehow.
I mean, this is why the piece was so revelatory to me and why I think these pieces resonate so much with people now is because all it takes is for somebody to point something out to you. And it immediately clicks that I did hate her because I kind of thought she was white trash. And as soon as somebody points that out to you, you are like, oh shit, that is what I was doing.
Sarah: Yeah. So, Tonya Harding became notorious after Nancy Kerrigan, who was her primary rival in the US figure skating world. They had been competing against each other for seven years at the time she was assaulted at the 1994 US figure skating championships by someone who appeared out of nowhere and clubbed her on the thigh. Later turned out he was going for her knee.
He was trying to break the knee of her right leg so that she couldn't land her jumps anymore so she wouldn't be able to compete and instead he hit her on the thigh and gave her a bad bruise. So she avoided far graver injury because the hitman was incompetent which is a telling detail about this whole affair. Almost immediately the police and the media connected the assault on Nancy to Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, who she was also living with at the time.
Pretty soon after nationals, the media cottons to this idea of this figure skater, Tonya Harding, who was known for having costumes, that the judges didn't like, and for being quote unquote white trash, and being seen as rebellious for all sorts of reasons that we will dissect in minute detail. Saw a narrative that pitted her against Nancy Kerrigan, who was the favorite daughter of US figure skating at the time and the favorite going into the Olympics.
And so it was a narrative where two women were at odds. One had allegedly sabotaged the other and called out for her to be assaulted. And here in a sport where the women were supposed to be icons of pristine femininity and in six weeks it was going to be the Olympics. And during those six weeks between nationals and the Olympics, the media just had an absolute free for all.
And it was everywhere. And it was just like endless late-night jokes, you know, Leno, Letterman, endless Saturday Night live routines. I think there was a Tonya Harding joke every week during the time the scandal was in the news. It was all anyone is interested in talking about.
Mike: There is something that is hard to explain to younger people now of the way that we would talk about the same story for six weeks back then. And that there would be jokes about something in the media over and over again for months.
Sarah: Months and we liked it, I think, because in the same way that people love all watching the same show, even in 1994, there is five or six networks. And as we talked about in the Murphy Brown episode, we would have these sweeps week events that something like 20% of the population would tune in for it.
Like some huge percentage of Americans would have seen the episode where Murphy Brown has a baby. And then the next day it could be like, hey, Murphy Brown had a baby and Dan Quayle is not too happy, you know? And it was just something that people could talk about because we would all experience it together. And even I, whose whole thing is taking up arms against over-simplistic media narratives, there was something so great about everyone having the same thing to talk about for some period of time. I was talking about OJ with people, and I was six years.
Mike: I mean, one of the other things that I remember about this at the time, and I think is one of the other reasons why it resonated so much is because it was sort of two versions of femininity. I remember Nancy Kerrigan being this like beauty pageant queen, she was conventionally attractive. She was graceful. She had all this, all the feminine stuff that we pack into figure skating and that we expect of figure skaters that daintiness, the sort of slow, graceful ballet style movements.
And then on the other hand, we've got Tonya Harding who is kind of seen as like somewhat more masculine. She's more powerful, she's sort of a little bit more like thickly built. She's less conventionally Abercrombie and Fitch attractive. And so, no one ever put it this way, I don't think, but this like the way a woman is supposed to be, and then this usurping force of femininity of there's this other type of woman who is like doing womanhood wrong.
Sarah: She's like vain or something.
Sarah: And it's so amazing because the rhetoric of the time is so sad. No one ever came right out and said this, but it was always implied that she was somehow monstrous, and she was this like 23-year-old girl with like blonde hair and a big ponytail. She was five foot one, she was like a 100 pounds.
And I was just rereading her memoir and the most she ever weighed was 126 pounds. And she had, you know, like just these beautiful, powerful muscular thighs. So she was famous for jumps. Tonya Harding’s calling card was that in 1991 she became the first American woman and the second woman in the world after Midori Ito from Japan to land a triple axel jump in competition.
The axel is the hardest jump because all of the other jumps: lutz, toe loop, flip, et cetera. You come in to backwards, you skate to get your moment and then you turn backwards and then you take off backwards and land the jump backwards. So you complete three revolutions. And when you do the axel, you take off facing front and then complete three-and-a-half revolutions and land backwards. You need that much more lift. You need that much more time in the air, so you need that much more power to get off. And then a lot of other jumps, when you take off backwards, you use your toe pick, which we all know from the Cutting Edge.
It's a little rough part of the front of the skate that you use on the ice to get traction and to kind of dig in and get momentum. If you are taking off for a triple axel, you don't dig into the ice with the point of your skate. You take off from the flat of your skate blades. So, imagine you know, jumping into the air, not from like the ball of your foot, but just from like flat-footed newness, it's that much more difficult to do. She landed a triple axel at the national championships in 1991 and it's this very interesting moment actually. Do you want to just, can we just watch it?
Sarah: If you get search like 1991 nationals, Tonya Harding.
Mike: Ok, there it is. Triple lutz, crowd loves it. Oh, she does it and then she's immediately overjoyed. She is like overwhelmed with happiness and she does like a little arm pump, yes, I did it.
Sarah: Yes. Which is not part of her choreography, she just couldn't restrain herself. She had to celebrate it in the moment before she skated on.
Mike: Yeah, that is a really nice moment.
Sarah: Yes. This is a really interesting moment in skating because Tonya has been competing since she was a tiny child. One of the things she says and a memoir book of hers called, The Tonya Tapes, which came out to very little ceremony about 10 years ago and is just the transcripts of interviews that she was doing with a biographer named Lynda Prouse for a project that never came to fruition. One of the things she says in there is that she was skating for the US Figure Skating Association, the US FSA for as long as she can remember since she was four. She has been competing under their governing body.
Sarah: Yeah. She said he's always been a US FSA kid.
Mike: What does that mean?
Sarah: It means that they've always been in charge of her life. Because the US Figure Skating Association is very focused on policing the morals and lifestyles and appearances and behaviors of its female skaters. So there was this interesting little ripple in media a few years ago when Brian Boitano came out as gay and everyone who didn't follow figure skating particularly was like, obviously that's implied, he's an Olympic champion figure skater. And everyone who was in the figure skating community or paid attention to it was like, this is actually amazing.
It was also, as you recall, this major thing that Johnny Weir was openly gay competing at the Olympics and many people believe that he received lower presentation scores than he would have if he had behaved more straightly, essentially. Because he was doing this sort of sexy goblin king look, you know, male figure skaters compete wearing outfits with belts at times, they wear watches. There is all of this weird pressure still to perform straightness.
Mike: Yeah. Or I guess to apply the same thing to Tonya and Nancy, it is to perform heteronormativity, right. That it is like the expectation of men is that they're supposed to be like masculine and burly or whatever. And then of women it's to be dainty and graceful and pretty, and you have to smile for your whole routine, right, that's always stuck out to me.
Sarah: Oh my God. Yes. And that always seemed to me like one of the hardest parts. You have to do these jumps, you have to do these spins, you have to have these specific athletic abilities and that's half your score and half your score is, did he do the jumps that you have to do for this program?
Did you do these things at this time, did you do all of these technical elements of the routine and then half of it is artistic. And some of that is that you're being graded on costume and carriage and how do you use the rink and just, how do you make the judges feel like, that's part of the score and that's what makes in some ways more like ballet than gymnastics, right? Is that if you're a female figure skater appearance as part of the game. And of course, the stories of eating disorders in the figure skating world are legion. They're stories about Debbie Thomas's coach watching her do a jump after she came back to training from Thanksgiving and saying you gained five pounds, I can tell you're lower.
Mike: Oh fuck. I mean, it's to judge someone on athleticism, but then also judge what their body looks like to achieve that athleticism seems unfair.
Sarah: Right. And it is Tonya's doing the jumps, that is the question, right? Can she do the jumps or can't she? And so, especially during the scandal, there is so much obsessive attention in the size of her thighs and that she has these huge thighs and she's fat. She's so fat. And it's just you know, not that it matters, her thighs can be whatever size they need to be to do what she needs to do, but they’re not.
Mike: Like objectively.
Sarah: But there is this idea in the narrative that like, she's this big hulking scary. And also, that she's like uncomfortably butch, you know, because she like grew up fishing and hunting and knows how to fix cars. And she always has a big truck and a big dog, which of course, and The Tonya Tapes she talks about the interviewer at one point says, “Well, how does someone who grew up abused as a child and then abused in young adulthood, learn to feel safe? And she says, have a big truck and a big dog.”
There was just the sense at the time that she first became famous in 1991 that yes, she could do this amazing thing athletically. And that was wonderful, but this was not the poster girl that American figure skating wanted to have. They wanted Nancy and they want a Kristi Yamaguchi.
So, Tonya Harding has been competing since she was 4, has been competing internationally since she was 11 or 12. And has been sort of like slowly climbing up the ladder of competitive figure skating for her entire life. I mean, she started skating when she was 3. Her first memory is of the first time she ever skated. And when she was a kid, her mom would drive her to the rank at 4:30 in the morning. And then she would skate for about three hours.
Sarah: And then she would go to school and then she would skate again. And when she was older, she would go to the rink and skate and then go to school and leave earlier and go to one of her part-time jobs and then skate again.
Mike: Oh, so she was working during this too?
Sarah: Oh yeah because she had no money when she was growing up. One of the things that people really cannot debate and have never even really tried to debate because it was always so obvious is that Tonya Harding had a hellish upbringing. Her mom was a mean piece of work, and she was very much in the media at the time of the scandal. So no one could deny it. No one could look at LaVona Harding appearing on Montel and be like, no, I would be fine with her being my mom. It was like, oh yeah, that's Tonya Harding grows up in Clackamas County, Oregon, which is kind of in outer Portland. Now it's kind of a suburb X-er, but at the time it was kind of in the boonies. Her dad is her mother's fifth husband.
Mike: Oh, wow.
Sarah: And she has three older brothers and an older sister. One of Tonya's brothers died of crib death when he was infant. And one of them molested her throughout her childhood.
Mike: Oh my God.
Sarah: So her mother and father got divorced when she was a teenager. And when she said about her dad is that she loved him, but she didn't respect him. He was never able to protect her or never tried when she wanted him to. And so her mom was physically abusive to her when she was growing up.
Mike: What kind of physically abusive? Because we don't associate moms with physical abuse. It's really interesting.
Sarah: It is interesting. It is interesting what happens when you don't look somewhere. The interviewer, Lynda Prouse says to Tonya, “Didn't anyone tell you that you were beautiful when you were a little girl?” And Tonya says, “No, I was always called fat and ugly.”
Mike: Oh my God.
Sarah: “By whom, my mother, I can eat this, I can't eat that, you're not going to amount to a hill of beans. My mother was an alcoholic, a very bad alcoholic, filling up a thermos, three quarters or half full with brandy. And the rest was coffee at 4:30 in the morning to take me to the rink. She would drink all of that and then once we got home or after she got home, because there were a lot of times I did not go to school. She would be drinking again as soon as she got home, and it made life very hard. You never knew if you're going to get backhanded or whatever. There were so many times when my mother would be upset with me because I didn't skate good and drag me off the ice by my hair. She’d take me to the bathroom and beat my butt until it was black and blue and taking a brush to me, hitting me with a brush. She did that in front of people all the time, slapping me. I mean, it was bad, it was bad.”
Mike: That's heartbreaking.
Sarah: “My dad was always supportive of me, and my skating and he loved me as best that he could. And he worked hard. The interviewer says, what did your dad do? And Tonya says, when I was little, he worked for a rubber factory and then after that, he hurt his back. But after that, he ended up working for, let's see a cement company and he worked for a sporting goods store and the gun department and fishing department. Then he worked for a cop shop where the police officers can go and buy their equipment. Then he worked for a company that manufactured truck beds. When my parents got divorced, I stayed with my father. When my father lost his job, he tried to get other jobs, but nobody wanted to hire him because he was too old, and he didn't have a college education. And he ended up moving and leaving me with my mother when I was 17 and went and moved to Idaho.”
Mike: Can I ask on the mom, why figure skating? Why not gymnastics, or dance, or whatever else?
Sarah: Her mom had a thwarted dream of being an ice dancer. And she had skated when she was young, but also Tonya immediately took to it and had also an immediate natural aptitude for it.
Mike: So, part of it was abuse, but part of it was also, she took real joy in it.
Sarah: Yeah. Oh yeah. It was something that Tonya was never, we're forced to skate. That is also something she's very clear on. It was her idea to do it, she loved it. And it was something that her mother was controlling about, but also like functionally supported her doing. I think partly because she had this thwarted dream of her own.
Sarah: There was a time when the networks were trying to come up with this like the good working-class narrative forever, right? The like little narrow margin we have of tolerance for working-class people. If they behave really well and are always scrimping in a saving. And so their network profiles of her about just like this hardworking girl whose mom makes her costumes and it's always presented as this sweet, you know, hard scrabble detail.
And it's that was a way that Tonya's mom controlled her when she was growing up, she would make he these gross costumes that she had to wear that were just sort of like old fashioned, like sixties, seventies, carpenters on the Ed Sullivan Show looking. And that Tonya, who was a total tomboy really hated and you know, just made her like frilly outfits for her to wear to school. And it was just like the way she tells it, part of the controllingness of the relationship.
Mike: It's like this weird aesthetic control.
Sarah: Yeah. And molding her into, you know, her idea of who she wanted her to be, which she was always very, you know, kind of frilly and old school femininity. So you can see that she would rebel against that by being a little tomboy. And also, that it was also what came naturally to her.
Mike: And then when did the Figure Skating Association get involved? When did gross old dudes in suits start controlling Tonya as well?
Sarah: Oh, I mean, from the beginning, she starts competing at a senior level and when she is in her early teens. There's a documentary that at the time, Yale film student made about her called Sharp Edges that comes out in 1986 and it shows her going to skate America and placing, I believe six. And that was when she was 15 and skate America is one of the major national figure skating competitions in the United States. She was skating very competitively.
Mike: Wow. It's a lot of pressure for a 15-year-old girl.
Sarah: Yeah. In that documentary there's footage of her calling her mom and, you know, hanging up and saying that her mom was like, yeah, I saw how you placed, you sucked. And I guess like her mom's attitude is you are going to be number one or it doesn't matter. You are the best or you are nothing. And so, in 1986, in the mid-eighties, when she becomes competitive at the senior level, the US figure skating world is very different from the world that we're in today.
This is at a time when you can be competitive at an international level, as a female figure skater without any triple jumps in your program, which would be absolutely unheard of today. Triple jumps, which has just jumped with three rotations in it. But what happens is that skating advances and women start doing triple jumps and then more and more of them start doing triples.
And so, in the mid-eighties, there's this interesting thing happening where triple jumps and the kind of athleticism and just profound strength that Tonya has, are being valued more than they ever have before. Because Tonya is a really great high jumper and she's also a great spinner. And then the area where she tends to not score as highly is an artistic merit, which is partly because she doesn't have the look that people want.
I think she had a bad perm when she was young and so she ended up with this kind of Billy Idol haircut when she was at skate America in 86. And she just doesn't know how to put on makeup and like the way that the judges want, you know. So she wears like heavy eye makeup and stuff like that. I mean, the funny thing is it's none of it is wrong.
It's like she has lipstick and long nails and it's yeah, that's how you perform femininity. But it is like the charges and figure skating are so fucking specific. You know, it's it reminds me of footage of the drag balls in Paris Is Burning where you have to do like a look from Dynasty.
And it's those bugle beads are all wrong for Joan Collins’s character, like you are not, you're doing that wrong. You know, it is that degree of precision, but no one will admit to what they're doing. So it's they all want this very specific version of the feminine, but they won't admit that's what they're looking for and grading on. And they won't tell you how to do it. You have to just know how to do it.
Mike: Well, they want you to look affluent, right? I mean, there is a class element of this, of whatever the upper classes are into, they always think that oh, well this is nice. We want you to look nice, but they won't necessarily admit that. No, we want you to suit an upper middle-class white aesthetic. That is what they're actually wanting, but to admit that would take the mask off of what they're actually doing.
Sarah: Right. And then it would mean admitting yes, it's a sport and we are judging you as an athlete, but you're also, we're also judging you for your very specific presentation of socially ordained femininity. And of course, when we put it that way, it's weird that we're doing this at the Olympics. It is just the way that gender occupies the world of sports is just so fascinating because it's of course so much about the body of the athlete and at a certain point that inevitably makes it about the gender of the athlete.
Mike: Totally. So basically, this whole narrative of Tonya as not feminine enough that the country will become familiar with in a couple of years was sort of already the narrative about her within figure skating.
Sarah: Oh yeah, this is her whole life. Something about her is just wrong and they won't tell her what it is or what to do to make them happy.
Mike: Right. It's also interesting because we always socially construct sports as like the great equalizer, right? It's a way for kids to get out of poverty. It is a way for people to judge on their skill alone, it's the last real meritocracy, but then these sorts of things reveal that all this class stuff and race stuff and gender stuff. It's all still there, but it's under this mask of oh no, all we care about is your skills unless we think you're trailer trash basically.
Sarah: Yeah. It also, you know, this comes in with the Tonya/Nancy dichotomy because at the same time, that Tonya starts competing at the senior levels, Nancy is getting her start as well. And you can see Nancy grow up too, and the footage of her performing in the 80s, she in, in about, you know, 87, 88, she had this little Dorothy Hamill haircut. Nancy and Tonya, both interestingly had the same problem, which was tiny teeth.
Mike: That's such a weird problem.
Sarah: It is really specific, right. And yet teeth are like so connected to class. And you have to smile as part of your job, so you have to have the right teeth.
Mike: Which means the right dental work.
Sarah: Which means the right dental work. It was like they both had teeth when they were younger that there were a lot of spaces between each tooth. And they both had dental work done in their late teens, early twenties. Nancy got her teeth bonded and that was one of the reasons that she started to make such impression on judges after that was that her look really came together. Because it's skating so obviously your teeth are very important. You use your teeth to skate.
Mike: No one says this about like Derek Jeter oh no, he got a nose job and that's when his baseball career took off.
Sarah: Right. And then Tonya Harding, a guy who saw her land her triple axel at nationals, decided to donate $6,000 worth of dental work to her and also kind of fixed her teeth so that she didn't have like the gaps between them and stuff.
Mike: Is that nice or is that kind of shitty? How do we feel about that?
Sarah: It's pragmatic because she was getting judged on it. You know, like her teeth were holding her down in terms of her presentation scores and that's just the truth.
Mike: I mean, it reminds me of those emails that we get that are like, if you didn't do so much up speak, people would take you more seriously.
Sarah: Maybe someone who works in the up speak clinic will donate, you know, thousands of dollars’ worth of heteronormative speaking therapy to us.
Mike: Did Tonya and Nancy know each other? I mean, they must've been aware of each.
Sarah: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, no, it's a tiny community. They knew each other for years, they were in the same elite circle of maybe 10 other skaters for years and years, they would be roommates with each other at competitions. They had known each other; they had grown up with each other. They both had tiny teeth.
Mike: Did they get along?
Sarah: They got along fine. I think that the main thing is that neither of them really had many friends when they were growing up. And I think Nancy was even more socially isolated than Tonya was. Tonya had a couple of friends. This is the kind of community that Tonya was living in at its best. She trained at Clackamas town center and there was a guy who owned a food court restaurant called Spud City, which was a potato themed restaurant, which is a very ballsy theme for a restaurant in a mall, I must say.
Mike: And that's not an extant theme in American life anymore, potatoes.
Sarah: But that is what the nineties were, we all just went to the mall and ate our mall potatoes and bought huge pants, you know, worried about the deficit. So this guy ran this restaurant called Spud City and he would, you know, talk to all the mall walkers and kind of knew the mall, the Clackamas town center community, basically. And the mall walkers every morning would all watch Tonya skate because here is this world-class figure skater who is training in the mall at five in the morning. So, it's just this little community of people, all the mall walkers watch Tonya. Tonya meets Jeff Gillooly, her first and at the time only boyfriend and then her husband, when he is like standing there watching her skate. This is like how everything comes into her life.
And so the guy who runs Spud City has a daughter who Tonya also becomes friends with because they're about the same age. And he eventually is like, why don't I give you a part-time job at Spud City to coordinate with your skating. And you can come in for two hours, first thing in the morning and open up shop and get all the coffee ready. And then after two hours we can hand Spud City off to the next person and you can go do your skating. So this is Tonya’s world.
Mike: It is a lot of work.
Sarah: It's a lot of work she's always working. And here on a related note, is something Tonya says, right before she describes her first date with Jeff. “At the grand opening of the ice rink in Clackamas town center, Dorothy Hamill opened it and I was her guest skater. I was wearing a white dress and I fell once in the program, and all of a sudden, my dress had blood all over it. I got off the rink to see where I was cut, but I wasn't cut, I was starting my period.”
Sarah: Who else had that experience of their first period?
Mike: Oh, I thought you were asking that as a rhetorical question.
Sarah: No, there was an answer to that one, go on.
Mike: It's fascinating how all of the milestones of her life are around skating.
Sarah: Oh yeah. It's every spare minute. It's where all the money goes to. And, you know, later on, after everything that happens, Tonya is banned from skating, and she's also essentially blackballed from professional skating. Which is where, you know, like Stars on Ice, where you skate for money.
You know, she describes this, and I don't think this is hyperbolic at all. She describes this as her life being taken away from her. And it was, like, not only was it her vocation, not only was it where she spent all of her time and dedicated all of her effort, but it was like, this was what she was great at. And she is someone who grew up believing and who was told by everyone who she trusted that she was nothing. And this was something where no one could argue with the fact that she was worth something and that she could do what no one else could do.
Mike: Yeah. And losing that.
Sarah: Imagine if someone told you that you could never correct people about city infrastructure ever again. What if you lost the thing, you were great at and the thing you were called to? You have many other areas, of course, so it is not the same thing.
Mike: When does she and Jeff get together? How old is she and how old is he?
Sarah: They go on their first date when she is 15.
Mike: Oh fuck.
Sarah: And let me actually read to you from The Tonya Tapes, the story of their first date. So Tonya is talking about her older half-brother who molested her for the first time when she was five.
Mike: How old was he?
Sarah: He was in his teens at the time.
Mike: Oh fuck.
Sarah: “And then when she was nine and then she said, when he tried it, when I was 15 years old, I was getting ready to go out on my first date with Jeff. I was doing my hair and makeup in a lighted up mirror that you can stand up while I was watching TV in the front room and he showed up at our house, my mom had gone to work, and my dad was at work. The grownups are just always at work. He shows up drunk and asks where my mom and dad are, I said, they're both at work and you need to leave because nobody is supposed to be here. Even you when Mom and Dad aren't here. He was like, they wouldn't care if I sit and wait for them. And I said, well, they will because I'm leaving. And I remember he said, doesn't your brother get a hug. I'm like, okay, fine, give me a hug, but I'm getting ready. So he gave me a hug and he tried to kiss me on my cheek. I was like, whatever, go away, go away. Because I knew he was just drunk, totally drunk, staggering. I told him to go and sit down and then he could stay until I have to leave, but then he would have to go. He stole money from my parents a lot and all kinds of things.”
And in another place, she talks about. They would put her skating trophies on the mantle and just store like change in them. Her mom would put all her quarters from tips in Tonya's trophies, which seems kind of disrespectful. And then her brother would come over and take a bunch of the tip money out of her trophies and then Tonya would get blamed for it and sent to her room a lot, like once a week.
Anyway, back to the brother. “I was sitting doing my hair and he comes over and sits down on the arm of the chair next to me and pushes me back in the chair and tries to kiss me. I said, get the hell away from me, leave me alone. You're drunk, go home, get out of here. And he came back and tried to do it again. So I burned him with my curling iron and ran upstairs. He followed me upstairs, I locked myself in the bathroom and he breaks the door to get into me. I grabbed my stuff again and go downstairs to the other bathroom. He breaks that door handle and comes in. So finally, I go back and say, just leave me alone. I ran over and grabbed the telephone and called 911, he came over to me, put his finger in my face and said, if you say anything to them, you'll die. And then the operator says what is wrong, she says nothing. And then they call back and the person who calls back says, this is the police. Is everything there, okay? If it is not okay, say yes, I said, yes. She said, okay, we are sending out an officer right now.”
Sarah: The police come. And she says, “so I opened the door and five minutes later, I was talking to the police and Jeff shows up, my date.”
Mike: Oh my God.
Sarah: “They said, who is this? And I said, ‘This is my date’. I had just gone through this whole thing. My father comes home, they call my mother. She comes home and they ended up arresting him for child molestation, for driving under the influence, a stolen vehicle and resisting arrest and something else. I'm not really sure what it was. And my father and mother come home and said I was full of shit, basically. My mother told me they were going to put them away for life if I testified against him and all this stuff, making me feel horrible and guilty and all this shit. I had no rights. I was a kid.” They said, she's not going to testify against him.” And so she did not, and he walked.
Mike: Jesus Christ. Just like the moral complexity, the financial strain, the sexual strain, the emotional strain, being between your parents and your skeezy stepbrother. I mean, Jesus Christ.
Sarah: Having your first date with Jeff. It's just like dear diary, you know, it is just like why couldn't she just have a nice first date?
Sarah: Please look up a picture of Jeff Gillooly, GILLOOLY.
Mike: Oh, I mean, he looks a lot older than her. He's got like a cop mustache.
Sarah: He does have, he looks like he's on the show Cops.
Mike: He is wearing like one of those paisley knit, woolen sweaters that they wore in the nineties.
Mike: Sort of like the pattern that they had on MC Hammer pants but like on a sweater. He just looks very pleased to be dating a girl that's way out of his league.
Sarah: Yeah. I think he kind of knew what he had.
Mike: And she was radiant though. I found a picture of the two of them together. She's got beautiful blue eyes. Her hair is wavy and kind of reddish. She is just super pretty. And she looks really happy in whatever photo this is.
Sarah: I know. And she was always so pretty. And I find that also very frustrating then in the discourse around this, where we are policing her femininity all the time, it's like in Tonya, no one ever say she's pretty. And there's often the implication that she's sort of like trashy and ugly. And it's she was a beautiful, scrappy, little princess. So Jeff was three years older than her. So he was 18 when she was 15.
Mike: So, okay they get together. I assume the first date goes okay because they get together. She wants to move out from her folks. So she moves in with him relatively quickly.
Sarah: I think she moves in with him when she's 18, they got married when she's 19. So they were together for a long time.
Mike: When does the abuse start?
Sarah: Okay. So first of all, Tonya says of Jeff, “obviously I thought he was a great guy because he was interested in me. Other than that, I really don't know.”
Mike: Oh, that sucks.
Sarah: This is another one of our stories about a woman who married the first guy who ever showed any interest in her.
Mike: Which is also completely nuts because she is like super pretty. She's the sixth best person in the world at something so it is actually.
Sarah: Yeah, and I'm good enough to date Jeff.
Mike: Yeah. It's amazing how people can wall themselves off from that.
Sarah: I think that really shows how you can have no self-esteem, even if you are literally one of the best people in the world at something, I was thinking this, when people talk about depression in this like really one-dimensional way where they're like, how can you be depressed? You have a well-paying job, and you have a happy family and blah, blah, blah.
Sarah: You have one of those really deep sinks.
Mike: And this is how it works, right. It's like it doesn't get in. You define success to mean whatever you don't have, and you define what you have as meaningless.
Sarah: Yeah. Whatever you can do is not a value because if you can do something, then obviously it's not a valuable thing.
Mike: Yeah, exactly.
Sarah: So to refer to The Tonya Tapes, Lynda Prouse, the interviewer, says “You really loved him, you were head over heels?” And this is after they get engaged and Tonya says, “Well, I thought so then, but when I look back now, I was stupid. He used to beat me all the time. He would get pissed off and he'd beat me. He would go out with the guys, and I would stay home. He wouldn't take me out. And Lynda says, this was after you were married. And she says, yes, but even before, what was I thinking then, being stupid and young and naive. My mom hit me, and she loved me. He hits, he loves me. It's just the way life goes, he's a man, that's how it goes.”
Sarah: From the way she describes it here, it feels like she doesn't see it as anything worth complaining about really.
Mike: This is what love is. This is what men are.
Sarah: Yeah. And then later she says, “once we moved in together, he became very abusive. He would be mad or would punch me, hit me, or kick me whatever. And I would take it because I thought I deserved it for being bad. Oh, sorry, I didn't clean the house good enough or I didn't clean the house because I didn't get to it.”
Mike: How is she cleaning the house?
Sarah: Good point, Michael.
Mike: Jeff should be cleaning the fucking house. Your wife is the best at something in the world. She should not be cleaning the house, Jeff.
Sarah: I just wish you had been able to marry her. She should have married some 12-year-old boy from the greater Seattle area.
Mike: What is her money situation? Is she getting rich off of this, I mean clearly not?
Sarah: Oh my God, no.
Mike: But like where is the figure skating money going, is there figure skating money?
Sarah: So one of the things about figure skating, I think in the nineties, you could spend $30,000 a year on your skating if you were an elite skater. And if you are an amateur figure skater, which is what you have to be competitive at elite levels. You cannot be paid for skating; you can't skate in ice shows. Tonya talks elsewhere in this book about she was saving up bottle deposit money because she would go collect cans and bottles and was getting money that way and she was saving up to get a bike.
Mike: You're kidding.
Sarah: And her dad before one of her skating competitions was like, if you win this competition, we will go get that bike. And so she wins the competition and then one of the judges comes and says we heard that your dad was bribing you with the bike for winning the competition. So we have to strip you with that title.
Sarah: Which like I haven't independently confirmed, who knows how different the, you know, the details of that could potentially be. But even if that particular story didn't happen exactly the way she's described it here, it's you can tell that degree of surveillance is going on from everything else that you hear about the way that your judged in the sports starting in childhood. And that it's a tiny community everyone's spying on each other. People are known to sabotage each other's equipment, you know, skate blades and stuff.
Mike: It's like we want to believe that people are playing sports because it's fun. But then once the myth, no longer has any purchase in reality, it's like no, no, we have to enforce the myth. We have to make sure nobody's making money because then they'll only be doing it for fun. But that doesn't mean that people will be doing it for fun. That just means that they will be exploited. What value are we really upholding here by making it impossible for somebody to make money? It just seems completely nuts.
Sarah: Here is the loophole though and here is where it gets so gross, is that you cannot be paid to skate, but you can be paid in endorsements and that is where the money is. And so kind of the same way actually that today, you know, if you're a millennial, there are a lot of industries where you cannot find any kind of work unless you consent to be abused. But you can sell your own image and get a bunch of Instagram followers and then get people to watch you eat smoothie bowls and buy your bath water.
It's the same thing you have to sell yourself. You know, so one of the things that starts happening that is like a very marked difference between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in the early nineties is that Nancy starts getting a ton of endorsement deals. She does ads for Reebok, she does an airline commercial and also has an endorsement deal with Disney World at the time of the scandal, very important. Oh, she did a Cheerios commercial.
Sarah: I can tell you're tiring of this list. The point is she did a lot of ads for a lot of companies, and she made a lot of money that way. And Tonya did one commercial.
Sarah: Which I will show to you.
Mike: Oh, it's for Texaco. The energy to go as far as we can, and then go even further and it has got slow motion footage of Tonya spinning around.
Sarah: Yeah. And that's her one ad. And then she did a local ad for a dairy when she was a kid.
Mike: So that's her only source of income basically.
Sarah: And then it's you get sponsors, and you get, you know, you fundraise, and you work and I suppose, I don't know if she was taking out loans or anything, if that was part of it for her. But she had a fan club that was like small, but tenacious and local. And they would fundraise for her. They had a little newsletter that would go around, and they would be like this week we're fundraising for Tonya's manicures. So please give, so that Tonya you can get her nails done. In 1994, she was being sponsored by George Steinbrenner.
Mike: The guy that owned baseball thing?
Sarah: The guy that owned baseball things, it's this very weird thing where, you know, you make money by being ad friendly and by having a marketable personality.
Mike: And not necessarily, you're not selling your skill, you're selling yourself.
Sarah: Yeah. And it's such a Faustian deal, right. It's like you give your life and your youth and your energy and your health and you become the greatest at something. And then if you become the best, then your sport will reward you and it will pay you to be in gum commercials and to judge the young women who have taken your place.
Mike: It's also like the number of people that get taken care of by the sport is vanishingly small, right? There is a lot of people that gave their life to the sport and then got a knee injury when they were 22. And could not really skate again and just got nothing.
Sarah: It's very similar to how time you're in academia works. It's you have to give everything and then maybe you will get something.
Mike: Right. You are climbing up this pyramid, but there's only room at the top for three people.
Sarah: And so this interesting thing happens kind of in the years that both Tonya and Nancy ascend. So 91 is Tonya’s breakthrough year. The interesting thing about that national is that Kristi Yamaguchi has been ascending as well. She started out as a pair of skaters, skating with Rudy Galindo, and then ended up focusing on single skating. Basically, everyone kind of figured that she would win and then Tonya Harding skates, and she pulls out the triple axel and lands up for the first time in competition. And so she wins. And so Tonya finishes with the gold, Kristi gets a silver and Nancy Kerrigan finishes on the podium and gets the bronze.
Mike: That is it, that is the trifecta that we're used to.
Sarah: That is the trifecta. And it's a major upset because you know, Kristi was supposed to get it. And the way that the sport works is that, you know, the judges who are judging you at a competition, do not come out of nowhere. They had been watching you throughout the season, they potentially have judged you on other competitions. They will also be watching you at practice. Your score when you compete, at least at the time that Tonya and Nancy were competing was going to be based on not just how you skated that night, but how they had seen you skating in practice sessions as well.
Mike: God it's a system like perfectly set up for class based invisible shittiness, isn’t it? Because they're not really judging you on your performance. They are kind of judging you on like the person that you are and knowing you throughout the year. Oh, I said hi to her and she didn't say hi back two months ago. And so I'm going to give her a bad rating today.
Sarah: Yeah. Figure skating judging is much like our legal system and then it leaves all this space for like how the judges feel about you. And maybe it shouldn't or maybe it should to a lesser degree, like maybe we shouldn't leave so much to the discretion of random older, white men. And so, this is the big upset year, and then they all go to worlds. And this is also a very exciting thing because Kristi Yamaguchi is already a star in the figure skating world.
She has a very bankable image. She gets a lot of endorsements too. Although some argue at the time that she gets fewer than she would, if she weren't Japanese American, but she's also a big breakthrough athlete in that way, too. She's representing a community that doesn't see itself represented in American pop culture at all, let alone sports.
She's having this breakthrough season as well. And what ends up happening is that the American women's sweep the podium at worlds in 1991, but Kristi and Tonya switched places, Tonya lands the triple axel again, but she wins silver. Kristi wins gold and Nancy wins bronze again. So it's this really exciting time for American figure skating on top of everything else.
Mike: The attention on women's figure skating is already at a fever pitch by the time the scandal happened.
Sarah: Yeah. And then all three women, you know, they are the American team for women's figure skating at the Olympics in 1992.
Mike: Oh yeah, because I keep forgetting, they did the years, the same years back then. So summer and winter in the same year, and then the next Olympics would have been 94 in Norway, and that's when the shit goes down.
Sarah: Yes. And this is the weird fluke thing that happens where normally the winter Olympics are four years apart, but they're reshuffling things and moving them to alternate years from the summer Olympics. And so the next Olympics is going to be in two years. And another thing that has happened also in skating between the 88 and the 92 Olympics. Oh my God, I’m just I'm so happy to be talking about this. I'm sorry, I get to talk about the differences in figure skating in the early nineties, it's just ah, yes, my dream. One of the aspects of figure skating that Tonya has always struggled with for her entire life is compulsory figures. Do you know what those are?
Mike: I know what those words mean separately.
Sarah: Do you know why it is called figure skating?
Mike: Oh, I actually don't.
Sarah: Right. No one knows we never think about it. Okay, I'm going to blow your mind a little right now. The reason it is called figure skating is because originally the first year that figure skating was in the Olympics, there were two events. Each was worth 50% of your score and one was compulsory figures, which is where you skate basically in different shapes, and you skate over the shapes multiple times. And then you were judged on the precision of your skating. Is it all like one deep line as opposed to multiple close together lines? And like seriously look at videos of judges in the compulsory figures portion of figure skating competitions through the end of the eighties.
Because it's the most hilarious thing you can see because it's all these very serious experts in like nice outfits, getting down on their hands and knees on the ice and like peering with their faces, you know, centimeters away from the surface of the skating rink, peering at like the shape of just like a groove or like the curve of a groove. And it is judge down to where you are using the correct edge of your skate blade.
Sarah: Like an unbelievable degree of precision, like doll house making level.
Mike: My favorite thing about this is that whenever you hear about old or exotic sports, they always sound so stupid. But then when you think about like real sports, they are also stupid. We have to put the ball through this hoop that we've designed and put 10 feet off the ground. Like every sport is equal arbitrary, but they only seem arbitrary when you are not used to them.
Sarah: It's cause some of them, we watch enough to not realize how strange they are.
Mike: What shapes do they skate?
Sarah: What a good question.
Mike: I am just imagining you doing a pentagram that is what I would assume you would start with for your program.
Sarah: That would be hard to do because it's a lot of acute angles. You need something with rounded edges. Okay, so I sent you the page and then if you scroll like halfway down, there's pictures of the figures that you have to do.
Mike: Oh my God, fascinating. One of them looks like a butt, it is like a circle with a butt crack in it.
Sarah: And so you have to skate over that multiple times.
Mike: That's actually really hard. I mean, it's just as hard as any other sport.
Sarah: It is a ridiculous amount of muscular control.
Mike: But then by the nineties, is it still around? Are there remnants of this still?
Sarah: Well, here is what happens. It starts getting chipped away at. The other thing about compulsory figures is that they're not a spectator thing.
Sarah: Well, compulsory figures, right? It's like someone tracing patterns on the ice over and over again. And then people kneeling to judge them. So the thing that's being judged is you can't really see it as a viewer. It's the kind of thing that you have to have an expert degree of knowledge to even notice the difference. And so it's not satisfying as a viewer. And the great thing about the Olympics is that we all become experts in sports that we hadn't heard of two weeks ago. And we all become momentarily really passionate about you know, the one with canoes or whatever.
Mike: I become extremely passionate about male diving for obvious reasons once every four years. And then I always get like really good at it. I'm like, oh, he's rotation was a little bit slow, completely ridiculous.
Sarah: Or if you ever watched the synchronized diving.
Mike: Are you kidding me Sarah? You see my YouTube history, Sarah.
Sarah: So, you know, you can like intellectually to understand the compulsory figures, but there's no joy in them as a spectator. So, they invent the short program, which is something that gives you more points. So if you're like a great performer and a not so great compulsory figure skater, then you can get more of a lead in the original program. And then that takes points away from compulsory figures. So it's no longer worth half your score. And so compulsory figures are getting whittled away and kind of every few years, they're worth a little bit less of your score.
And then the last year that they are skated in international and national competitions is 1990. And what that means is that Tonya Harding suddenly has this thing that has been blocking her and keeping her down, taken out of the sport. Because she has always been a not-so-great compulsory figure skater.
Her strength has always been an athleticism and jumps and spins. Kristi Yamaguchi, you know, she wins worlds in 1992. She's kind of the golden girl heading into the Olympics, and she wins gold and Nancy Kerrigan wins bronze and Tonya falls on her axel attempts and finishes in fourth place. And I'm still bitter about it.
And then Tonya is experiencing that thing where she is the person who the rules were written to apply to, and everyone can break the rules, but she can't because Nancy didn't skate a clean program at the 92 Olympics. Her program had mistakes in it, and one of the problems that she has at this time is that she is not a very consistent competitor.
She tends to get into her own way, she tends to get nerves. You know, she's just not one of those skaters who can like consistently pull it out and get in the zone and perform. And yet it doesn't matter. She can still be championed as being the kind of athlete who is everything that is great about her sport because she has the look that people want from the sport. Like so much of it as her look.
Mike: And she doesn't have to save up for a fucking bike, she has it easier.
Sarah: And here's the other thing is that, you know, Nancy Kerrigan can also, this is the period when people start seeing her, the way that she's portrayed in her ads and in her, in the media hype, that starts appearing around her as New England Grace Kelly, elegant ballerina, refined. You know this kind of sparkling creature and she is not she's from working-class, Massachusetts.
Mike: Oh, is she as well?
Sarah: Yeah, she's also working as a working-class girl.
Mike: Oh, see, I didn't even know this in my head. She was like, silver spoon, she's like from the family in Wedding Crashers.
Sarah: No. Yeah. Well, and that's the image that was created of her. And then she looks the part, right? It's that Cinderella quality where like you can pass, she passed. And, you know, she talks about they saved up quarters for her ice time and for her lessons, I mean, this is two girls for whom quarters are like a very central part of their childhood.
Mike: I always get sad when people should have been friends and allies ended up rivals that always bums me out.
Sarah: Yeah. Well, and the other thing is that I don't think they saw each other as rivals, you know, even as Nancy's career was taking off where Tonya's wasn't, they both recognize that their biggest enemy was themselves. And that was what they were both struggling with and focusing on. And we made it about a rivalry between them. And Tonya's, ex-husband made it about a rivalry between them, I think, more than anything. But yeah, so Nancy, she grows up in a working-class home, her dad starts driving the Zamboni around the rank to get her ice time in exchange.
Sarah: She also like her whole world is skating, her mom is legally blind. And so this also is something that really endears the media to Nancy at the 92 Olympics, because if you're producing fluff pieces, you know, for NBC, you're like, okay, we need a heartwarming thing. So, oh, there's a skater with the blind mom, let's do that because Tonya's mom is like a mean waitress who smokes all day, and no one wants to watch a four-minute NBC piece about that.
Mike: You just see the NBC producers, like casting around in Tonya's life for something that is going to humanize her. And no, her husband's kind of weird, her mom's sort of sucks, her brother might have gone to jail. What do we have here?
Sarah: This is the thing like Nancy has exactly the right kind of misfortune for like TV to understand.
Mike: I mean, the whole thing is there's certain kinds of hardship that we're willing to recognize and certain kinds of hardship that we're not.
Sarah: And one of the other things, Tonya talks about a lot in The Tonya Tapes is like a longtime friend of hers who raped her. And she was like, “And I didn't tell the police and the interviewers, like why? And she's like well, I was the national champion at the time, I couldn't tell anyone it would be shameful.”
Mike: I mean to some extent she is right.
Sarah: Yeah. That's the thing, she is right about how the world would respond to that. That is the terrible part, they would use that as evidence of her being trashy somehow, that she was a victim of rape. I mean, because she alleged terrible domestic abuse against Jeff. She said he did awful things to her. And that was available to anyone who was interested in listening at the time that everyone was writing these articles about the mystery of what happened.
The only time people mention it, for example, in a Rolling Stone article in 1994 is what a trashy national champion. She had this hair and this eye makeup, and she filed a restraining order against her husband. What a trashy thing to do? And this is how we talked about people in America. Like what a trashy thing to do to have an abusive husband. What the fuck is that?
Mike: You'd also imagine a narrative in which we place a rape into that frame.
Sarah: Absolutely and we can recall if we look back at our previous work that like Jessica Hahn alleges this terrible rape and the headlines are all like Jim Bakker embroiled in a sex scandal, sex, sexy sex. And no, this is about rape. We were so confused about that. So, Tonya lands a triple axel in 91, wins a national championship finishes silver at worlds, and then the following year finishes just off the podium at the Olympics. And starts to decline from there. And what we know from what she said later is that her marriage to Jeff is in a really bad place too. And he's being extremely abusive. You know, there were periods where she would train at night because Jeff had beaten her up.
Mike: Oh my God.
Sarah: So she couldn't train in public during the day when people could see the bruises on her.
Mike: Oh Jesus.
Sarah: And she stops being able to land the axel and she stops training as hard and kind of gets in bad shape. And what emerges during this period is that judges will prop up a weak performance by Nancy, but they won't prop up a weak performance by Tonya. And so we're starting to see also this narrative at the time of Nancy is the contender. Nancy is the great hope for the Olympics. Tonya is just like white trash and inconsistent and she's lost her axel, which was the only thing that made her worthy as a competitor anyway. And Tonya is like I'm working on my artistry, and I have really good triple lutz. And which is considered really athletic for any other woman. And they're like, fuck you, Tonya. Because they have almost, it feels like a morals clause where they feel like she is not behaving according to their aesthetic.
She gets the divorce from Jeff in 1993. And this is unheard of love for a female figure skater. It was weird enough to have a married one and now she is divorced and they kind of, I have this feeling of okay, well, like Nancy is the only one who we really want to be representing us because she's the one who's doing femininity right. So, at the same time, Tonya is faltering, Nancy is subject to yes, the privilege and the money. But also, it's like overwhelming attention. Nancy starts feeling essentially like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she has to win for everyone because they expect her to win.
And she's a golden girl now that Kristi has retired, and she starts to really get in her own way and get in her head when she competes. And she's also living apart from her parents for the first time in her life. She is 23 or 24 and she lives away from her parents for the first time and that's a really big deal.
Mike: God, these kids are so young.
Sarah: Yes, and so inexperienced. They're so unworldly they're like these little Amish kids on Rumspringa. I don't know but it feels to me a story about how her entire life is about her sport has not treated her in the best of ways, leading up to this time. And maybe the scariest thing in her life is not another woman, but this world where she has to sell herself in order to be financially able to do the thing that she loves.
Mike: So that's where we are in when the attack happens.
Sarah: Well, let me tell you another thing. Because we've talked about kind of where Nancy is going into the attack, and then we have the story of Tonya Harding who married Jeff when she was 19, they separated a couple of times. She had restraining, at least one restraining order against him. And what she says in The Tonya Tapes is that she and Jeff were divorced. And then in 1993, the US FSA told her that if she wanted to go to the Olympics, she and Jeff needed to reunite because they felt that he was like an adult influence on her. And that she was more stable when she was with him.
Mike: No fucking way.
Sarah: And that they would feel more comfortable about her lifestyle if she was married. You know, this is something I have not confirmed anywhere else. We are only taking her word on this, but it doesn't seem at all implausible to me that happened based on the degree of control that, you know, figure skating's governing body is exert on skaters’ lives in other ways that we know about.
Mike: God, what is the purpose of this? We have to present this beautiful face and this perfect family to the world, but like, why is that so important and like more important than somebody's safety? Who are we protecting with this weird thing?
Mike: That is to easy Sarah.
Sarah: For Campbells and so forth. I mean, I don't know. That's the only answer if there is one, right? Because yes, here's Tonya, here's this woman who like needs help, needs someone to take care of her without trying to profit off of her in some way. And all she gets is people using her for their own purposes. And so what she says is that the US FSA says, get back together with Jeff and we will feel more comfortable with you as a competitor, and we'll send you to the Olympics. And she does.
Mike: Oh, really? So they got back together.
Sarah: So we've heard about Nancy's lowest moment. Now let's hear about one of Tonya's lowest moments as she describes it in The Tonya Tapes. “I remember in 93, before I left, I ended up staying with another friend, her name was Angela. Well, one night I got out with my friend, Wendy. We went shopping at the mall. I told Jeff I was going to be back at a certain time, and I was running late, and I called him. I was about half an hour late because we wanted to get something to eat. So I called him up and told him I was on my way home and just a few minutes and then we were finishing up our dinner. He told me to get my ass home. I was like, I will be there when I get there. So they get home and Wendy says to come out if she has a problem with Jeff. And then she goes in, and she tells Jeff that she's getting her stuff and starts packing. He came in threw my bag down and punched me. Jeff pushes her through a glass window into a bathtub.”
So, she gets cuts on her, he grabs her and throws her on the floor. She runs into the other room. She says, he grabs her by the leg and twisted her leg and ankle. So she thought he was going to break it. And then she runs out. She tries to start her truck and then she says, “He grabs the coil wire out from the engine and rips it out, which means that she can't start the car,” which is like this absolutely horror movie scene that she's describing.
And then she just takes off running. She says, Ggrabbed my stuff, picked it up and started running. There was a drug store at that time about one mile up the road. I start running, carrying my skate bag, my purse, my clothes bag, and my coat and Keds tennis shoes running down the street. And he comes running after me. I kept running, I just ran as fast as I could. I had pretty good endurance back then, but I was carrying all this stuff. My adrenaline was so high that I kept running, finally, he stopped he's yelling and screaming, I'm going to get you bitch.” Finally, he stopped. So Jeff’s endurance gives out basically.
“I just kept running. It was finally about eight blocks from the store is where I knew there was a telephone. So I started walking because I was getting so tired. All of a sudden, I could hear the truck coming, he jumped back into the truck, had put the coil wire back on it and fixed it and was coming, so I started running again. Finally, I make it out to the main road, and I could hear him coming. So I started running again and there's a new housing development there behind the store. I heard him and saw him turn onto the main road. So I ran into the new housing development. I ran in and hidden some trees and saw him drive by and park on the other side that I saw him coming, running down.
So I'm running through these trees, couldn't see a damn thing tripped a couple times. Finally, he saw me ran around the other side and jumped back in the truck.”
And then she ends up in a parking lot and hides behind a pillar while he looks for her and then finally gets to her friend's house and they call the police. When she says they go and talk to Jeff at work the next day. And he sweet talks them out of doing anything.
Mike: Of course.
Sarah: It bears repeating. She's one of the best people in the world at what she does. And she's in an abusive marriage. And this is something that the governing body of her sport that is controlling her life and all these other ways has the ability to know about. And they don't see it as in their best interest to try and protect her.
Mike: It's like when we talked about homelessness, it's like how much of a difference would a couple thousand bucks and like a hotel room in a different part of town have made, right? They easily could have stepped in with all the authority that they represent and said we're going to help you get away from this guy. And we're going to make sure this guy doesn't come within a mile of you. They could've moved her to whatever San Diego to train there. They are like, there's all kinds of things they could have done.
Sarah: And they have the resources for that, and she didn't. There's just like no uncomplicated source of love in her life because the skating world can love her and can give her resources. But only if she's walking a tight rope the entire goddamn time. It's not good enough that she's a world-class skater and that she's succeeding athletically even without the triple axel in ways that are almost unheard of for a woman, she needs the axel. And so that pressure that both these women are facing is just unbelievable.
I should also say that this description in her book about Jeff, these are her allegations. I don't have any other source of information that says this happened. I personally believe her and one of the problems that I had with the movie I, Tonya, which when people ask me what I think of it, I say, it's fine.
One of the things I find frustrating about it is that it does is kind of, he said, she said with her abuse allegations, where it's like, Jeff says he didn't abuse Tonya at all, and we're going to share it. You know, there's this thing, like clue. They do Jeff's version where he never laid a hand on her. You know, Jeff Gillooly couldn't hurt a fly.
And then they do Tonya’s version where it's like, he abused me, but they show her getting hit a couple of times they show her, you know, like getting backhanding her in the face, I think, which is awful. And which no one should do. If you're going to do, you know, his allegations, her allegations.
I see no reason to not show what she really alleges which is that he was chasing her down a dark road in a truck, while she was running away from him, you know? And then she is like running through the forest in Keds. You know, what she's claiming is that he was a terrifying force in her life. And if we are doing, he said, she said them like, let's do the, she said.
Mike: Right, right.
Sarah: This reminds me of the article that you read a few months ago called, White Trash Nation, which had our angel, Anna Nicole Smith on the cover and which talked about Tonya quite a bit.
Mike: That's one of the worst articles I've ever read, that's like when long form goes bad, that was so terrible.
Sarah: It is really like on another level, it was published in 1994 in New York Magazine. And what is it, I mean, what's thesis?
Mike: Just that like the aesthetics and morality of “white trash” have taken over the country. It's the same bullshit, moral decay thing that you can find in the letters to the editor of any local newspaper of like people don't hold open doors anymore. And kids are always on their phones. It's basically the same thing, but it's blaming and Anna Nicole Smith, Tonya Harding.
Sarah: Paula Jones.
Mike: Paula Jones, of course, it's basically just like an excuse to like shame these women for their clothes and their hair and their makeup and how they look and how they talk, especially.
Sarah: Because this is one of the things that makes me feel like there is something that other people see that I can't see where you know, this idea that there's something that white trash is and it's bad. And it's what are we saying when we say that? What does that mean, literally?
Mike: I mean, the way that we usually frame these things, especially when women make claims of abuse and claims of sexual assault and other things. Is that there's just like an air of chaos around people. And so this is sort of the way I think that women get blamed for their own abuse, because it's like she's in a tumultuous home. And what makes somebody white trash is kind of this like instability that like, they're always fighting. They're always shouting.
Sarah: Or Jeff and Tonya were having altercations and it's like yeah, an altercation is what happens when your husband is abusive, and you fight back maybe sometimes.
Mike: It's exactly the same, how actresses and directors get called difficult. It's the same thing that they just get put into this bucket of like chaotic and unstable without any like more than one dimensional analysis of what that chaos actually is, and who's responsible for it. So all of this has led up to the attack.
Sarah: All of this is lead up and going into nationals in 1994, which is where the attack takes place, Tonya has embarked on a new training regimen, she is working her little hinder off and getting ready to compete. She has also taken up residence with Jeff again, and Nancy is feeling the need to get back her status as America's hope for the games, you know, and the, in the 1993 world. She came in as the favorite and she had one minor error in her first job where she put a hand down on the ice to stabilize a wobbly landing.
And then after that, you can see her getting in her own head. You can see her starting to overthink each jump and turning a bunch of triple jumps into singles. And then when she comes off the ice, you can see her feeling like she is disappointed everyone. She's coming into the championships in 94, ready to show the world that she has rebuilt herself as a skater. And so two women coming in with a lot to prove. And also, there are some men around.
Mike: Let's leave it there, let's do a little cliffhanger to be continued.
Sarah: Are we doing a cliffhanger? Is this sweeps week? Okay, next week, we're going to get married, kill someone, have a baby, and learn about the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and the ensuing aftermath.
Sarah: I guess all aftermath is ensuing really so it's kind of redundant. We are going to learn about the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and the regular aftermath.