Harding isn't just another ice princess Troubled past opens up as she bids to keep title

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Figure skating is fantasy. It is bright, light music and shimmering costumes and judges who sling fur coats over the backs of their seats and apply the final marks to performances that are part Broadway, part Magic Kingdom.

And then along comes someone like Tonya Harding who feeds the fairy tale even while distancing herself from a troubled past.

In the last year, the defending U.S. Figure Skating ladies' champion has separated from her husband and her coach, and then reconciled with both, taken up drag racing, and then given it up. Her life story is being pried open even as she trains to reach a lifelong dream of becoming an Olympian.

"It's like a movie is being written on Tonya Harding," said her agent, Michael Rosenberg. "The only question is the end."

At this week's U.S. Championships, Harding is trying to retain her gold medal against a field that includes Kristi Yamaguchi, the reigning world champion. Harding is also working to perfect her elegant and athletic routines to withstand the rigors of a jump-off against Japan's Midori Ito at next month's Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France.

She triple-jumps over all of the sport's traditional stereotypes to emerge as one of skating's unorthodox stars.

She is a 5-foot-1, 98-pound pixie from Portland, Oregon, who can bench-press more than her weight. She is a 21-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed would-be ice princess who can rebuild a transmission and install a new set of shocks.

Above all, Harding is a survivor, overcoming problems of family and money in a bid to become one of the rich and the famous.

Her mother has been married six times.

She once fended off the advances of a half-brother by burning him with a curling iron.

She chopped wood, learned to change the oil in the family car, and collected cans and bottles on the side of the road to help her family meet expenses.

"I didn't come with a silver spoon in my mouth," she said. "If you have a dream, just go for it. There is always a way to make your dream come true."

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It all started with a Christmas present.

Tonya Harding was 3 years old when she went shopping for shoes with her mother in downtown Portland. As they left the mall, mother and daughter wandered out the wrong exit and stumbled in front of an ice rink. The daughter was mesmerized by the spins and jumps of the skaters.

A few weeks later, under a Christmas tree, Harding found a pair of second-hand skates. A year later, she was enrolled in skating lessons.

"I had seen all the great skaters on television," she said. "Peggy Fleming. Dorothy Hamill. Linda Fratianne. I said, 'Wow. That is really neat.' "

But for a working-class family, a skating career can mean bankruptcy. Yearly bills can top $40,000. There is pressure to get the best training, the most beautiful wardrobe, the subtlest makeup.

The Hardings had to work double shifts just to put food on the table, let alone cash into a child's pastime. Her father, Albert, who worked a variety of jobs as a truck driver, rubber worker and apartment manager, never made more than $5.05 an hour. Her mother, LaVona, worked as a waitress.

Somehow, they came up with enough money to keep the career afloat. And when they couldn't, Harding's first coach, Diane Rawlinson, waived her fee and found ice time.

From the beginning, Harding was a natural. She was on the sport's cutting edge, part of the new generation of leapers who were poised to succeed the frilly, feather-laden stylists like East Germany's Katarina Witt.

"People would dare me to do things on the ice, and I would do them," she said.

A traumatic life

But success never came easily for Harding.

An article in this week's Sports Illustrated article documents Harding's traumatic life, and for the first time, she talked of the tempestuous relationship she has with her mother, the devastation that followed when her father left the family in 1989 and settled in Boise, Idaho, and her bitter separation from her husband of 15 months, Jeff Gillooly.

After filing for a divorce last year, Harding also asked for and received a restraining order to prevent her husband from entering the practice rinks or her apartment. In her petition, she wrote of physical abuse, and said her husband had bought a shotgun.

Released on the eve of the nationals, the article temporarily threatened Harding. In a sport built on image and judged by insiders, even the mildest personal blemish can damage a career.

But Harding neatly sidestepped the controversy.

"I'm here to talk about my skating," she said yesterday, a smile on her face.

"My husband has always been really behind me," Harding said. "There has always been a roof over my head and food on the table."

Breakthrough in Baltimore

As for the skating, Harding provided the fire necessary to become a champion. Her breakthrough came in Baltimore in 1989, when she finished third at the U.S. nationals. Some who saw the program said Harding's combination of triples and exuberance was good enough for the gold.

A year later, though, Harding had a setback. Troubled by an asthma attack, made worse by the thin air in the mountain altitude in Salt Lake City, she stumbled to seventh in the nationals. In the tight-knit skating community, there were whispers that Harding was finished.

Actually, she had just begun to fight.

"Losing was a big upset," she said. "I trained super hard. %J Afterward, I was just sitting there and thinking to myself. I put all my time and effort in this. If I wanted to go to college, that would have cost even more money. I just got back up on my feet and went back out on the ice."

Harding finally won her U.S. skating crown last year in Minneapolis. She became the first American woman to unveil skating's toughest jump, the 3 1/2 -revolution triple axel. Dressed in a mint green outfit adorned with 1,296 aurora borealis crystals, she became skating's new standard of sublime beauty and athletic toughness, and she won the gold.

To celebrate her victory, she went out with her friends and shot pool.

At the World Championships in Munich last March, she stumbled on the triple axel, and fell to second behind Yamaguchi. But she was delighted with her season, proud to join world bronze medalist Nancy Kerrigan as part of an American medal sweep.

Question marks

It was only when she returned to Portland that the question marks about her life and her career began to surface.

She briefly broke with her coach, Dody Teachman.

She filed for divorce.

And then, she took her jeep out to a drag strip and started racing.

"I thought it was fun," she said. "Of course, I only got to 70 miles an hour, which you can do on the freeway."

When her insurance company jacked up her rates, she stepped out of the fast lane, gave up racing, and began to concentrate on her Olympic campaign.

She rejoined Teachman. She reconciled with her husband. She went out and got herself an agent.

Michael Rosenberg has packaged pro contracts for Hamill, 1988 Olympic silver medalist Liz Manley of Canada, and former U.S. pairs champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. He says Harding has the looks, story, and charisma to become a star and a millionaire.

"She is the little engine that could," Rosenberg said. "She's a kid from a poor family who lived in a trailer court. She is tough because of that background."

But is the world ready for an Olympic champion who knows her way around pool halls and gas stations?

"People are more realistic about their heroes, whether those heroes are Darryl Strawberry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Magic Johnson," Rosenberg said. "Tonya Harding doesn't have to be a Barbie doll to be appealing around the world. Her appeal is guts, going against, from what a public relations point of view, is the right thing to do. Tonya is tough and sweet."

And she is also ambitious. The 3-year-old girl with the second-hand skates now yearns to be an Olympian, to unfurl her triple axel on a world stage in Albertville, France.

Skating's self-made Cinderella is all made up with grease and guts.

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