HER BACKGROUND defies everything associated with figure skating. In a sport of petite dancers, she is a gritty, hard-boiled athlete. She never has had an easy life, but it remains to be seen how she will react to her latest struggle.
DETROIT - Her father bought her a .22-caliber rifle when she was in kindergarten, and chopped off the stock so it would fit her tiny hands. Her mother has been married seven times. She once fended off sexual advances of a drunken half-brother by burning him on the neck with a curling iron.
Twice in the past two years, she filed for divorce and sought restraining orders against her husband. Three months ago, police seized a handgun from her after it went off during a late-night argument.
Tonya Harding's background contradicts every stereotype associated with figure skating.
She isn't rich. She isn't spoiled. And there isn't a dainty bone in her 5-foot-1 frame. The newly crowned U.S. figure skating champion enjoys drag racing, rebuilding engines, playing pool, hunting and fishing. She smokes cigarettes, despite a serious asthmatic condition. While other skaters choose classical music, Harding has skated to such tunes as "Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina."
Harding's skating dresses are a far cry from the designer beauties worn by former U.S. champions Nancy Kerrigan, Kristi Yamaguchi and Jill Trenary. In fact, Harding's most recent purple outfit wouldn't have had beads on it had a Portland costume shop not donated the costly decorations.
"I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth," Harding, 23, likes to say. "I am a skater who has had to overcome obstacles. That's why a lot of people like me."
It remains to be seen how she will overcome the latest chapter of her turbulent life.
FBI agents are investigating at least four people and were preparing to make arrests in the recent attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. The plot allegedly involved Jeff Gillooly, 26, Harding's former husband, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eric Eckardt, and two unnamed men from Arizona. A Boston television station (WCVB) reported Harding would be implicated, but the Detroit police said today they had no evidence that Harding was involved. There was no confirmation of the television report by authorities.
Last week, Harding said she hired the bodyguard after receiving a death threat in November at her home rink in suburban Portland, which forced her to drop out of a regional competition there.
Harding won the U.S. title last Saturday, earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that will compete Feb. 12-27 in Lillehammer, Norway. Kerrigan was also named to the team by the U.S. Figure Skating Association's international committee, provided she is healthy enough to skate by the time the team leaves for Norway on Feb. 9.
Although Harding said she was thrilled with her most recent victory, she said her title wouldn't be complete until she "beat Nancy's butt" at the Olympics. The two skaters have an excellent shot at the Olympic gold medal.
A brash tongue is just one characteristic that defines Harding. Her image largely is shaped by conflict and adversity.
"Maybe I am the Charles Barkley of skating," she has said.
Harding, perhaps the most athletically gifted female skater in U.S. history, is one of only two women in the world who has landed a triple Axel in competition. Kerrigan had emerged as a favorite by combining grace and five triple jumps.
An Olympic victory could translate into $5 million to $10 million in endorsements and appearance fees for a female figure skater, several sports agents have said. The high-profile title is something Harding craves.
"I'm not coming home with anything less than the gold," Harding said last week. "I'm going there to win."
It's a wonder Harding has gotten this far, considering her unstable beginnings.
She was the only child born to LaVona Harding, then a waitress, and her fifth husband, Al, who struggled to keep a steady job. Money was sparse, and the Hardings did all they could to keep their talented daughter in figure skating lessons. LaVona sewed Harding's dresses and school clothes.
"They were pure polyester blends, and the other kids made fun of them," Harding told Sports Illustrated. "My first day of high school, my mother made me wear these forest-green pants with white polka dots. We had a big fight over that, and she won."
To this day, Harding complains about her wardrobe. She told reporters before the Skate America competition in October that she was ashamed by her lack of costumes.
"It's kind of embarrassing to keep wearing the same thing over and over," she said. "I haven't bought new clothes in two years."
What she lacked in costumes, she made up for with guts. Harding landed her first triple loop at 9, and began working on her triple Axel at 14. At 17, she placed fifth at the national championships.
The ice rink was Harding's place to escape her troubling teen-age years. She dropped out of school briefly in eighth grade, re-enrolled and then dropped out for good her sophomore year in high school. It was right about that time that Harding's half-brother, Chris Davison, tried to kiss her. He was arrested, spent time in jail and was killed by a hit-and-run driver five years ago.
Harding's mother left Tonya and her father in 1986, right about the time Harding began dating Gillooly. Neither of Harding's parents approved of Gillooly, and LaVona tried to discourage Harding from marrying him in March 1990.
"I knew Jeff had a violent streak," Harding's mother told Sports Illustrated. "Once when Tonya was living with me and my new husband, he tried to break down the door because he thought she had gone out with another boy."
Fifteen months after their wedding, Harding filed for divorce and was granted a restraining order to keep Gillooly away. At the time, she said Gillooly had pulled her hair, shoved her and hurt her arm. She said she feared for her life. The divorce was supposed to be finalized in November 1991, but the couple reconciled.
Harding filed for divorce again this past summer, and again sought a restraining order. They were divorced last Aug. 28, according to papers on file with the court in Columbia County, Oregon.
But again, they reconciled and still live together.
On the evening of Oct. 2, police were called when a gunshot was heard in the parking lot of Harding's apartment complex. Harding and Gillooly were in their pickup truck when police arrived, and they insisted the gun went off accidentally. Police seized the weapon.
The relationship seemed to be on an upswing in recent months. Harding bragged about how Gillooly, who works in a state Liquor Control Commission warehouse, was taking real estate classes and selling T-shirts for her fan club.
In March 1992, Harding was involved in a well-publicized skirmish with another motorist at an intersection near the skating rink where she practices. Police found the 96-pound skater brandishing a baseball bat at another woman after the pair got into an argument. There were no arrests, but the two women reportedly traded punches.
"If anything would stop me from winning this year, it would be lack of money," she said in October. "But I will do whatever I can to make sure I make it to the Olympics. I want to prove that I am No. 1."
This report also includes information from USA Today and Associated Press.