Why Tonya Harding never did her triple axel at the Olympics
California-born ice skater Mirai Nagasu pulled off a massive milestone last night. She was the first American woman to do a triple axel in the Olympics, and only the third woman ever to land the jump during the winter games. She’s also one of only eight women in ice-skating history who’ve landed the triple axel during competition.
But if you watched the movie “I, Tonya” in the last month or so, you might be wondering: why didn’t Tonya Harding ever land her triple axel at the Olympics? She was the first American woman to land the trick in competition. She did this not once, but twice in one program, at the Skate America competition in 1991. She competed in two Olympics after that, in 1992 and 1994. So why didn’t she land a triple axel at either of those competitions?
Well, judging by Tonya’s own comments, it seems like nailing the triple axel ruined her life.
In “I, Tonya,” there’s a memorable moment where both Tonya and her husband, Jeff Gillooly, say in interviews, “After the triple axel, everything changed.” Tonya says it in an excited way, and Jeff says it in a considerably more bummed-out tone.
Tonya’s marriage began to fell apart after she landed the jump — not that it was so amazing to begin with. Just like her mother had been, her husband was allegedly physically abusive.
“Everything about life after that point became confusing,” she said. “You don’t know who to trust, who to believe.”
At the 1992 Olympics, Tonya attempted the triple axel and fell.
“My skating was great, but my life was in shambles,” she later said. “There was so much going through my head that it was difficult.”
Between the 1992 and 1994 Olympics, she started running into personal troubles, many of which were recounted in a New York Times story in October 1993.
Tonya was divorcing her husband, but apparently still seeing him — police were once called to her home after a gun went off. She and her husband told them it had been an accident.
Another time, she was accused of threatening a driver with a baseball bat during a traffic altercation. She also had asthma and smoked anyway, and was bothered by an ovarian cyst in the lead-up to the 1994 games. To top it all off, her skates and uniforms bizarrely would fall apart or malfunction during competitions when no one else’s would.
Still, she made it to the 1994 U.S. Olympic team. Her main rival in the U.S. was Nancy Kerrigan, a pretty skater with a more refined style and wealthier upbringing who was pretty much Tonya’s opposite.
In January of 1994, just weeks before the Olympics were slated to begin, Nancy Kerrigan was attacked after a skating practice when a man came up behind her and whacked her knee with what appeared to be a police baton.
No one really knows whether Tonya was behind the attack. Her husband was found guilty, though, and ended up doing jail time for it. The movie “I, Tonya” implies that Tonya and Jeff only wanted to send menacing anonymous letters to Nancy, but that their boneheaded friend and bodyguard, Shawn Eckhart, took it to another level by asking the would-be letter-writers to bash Nancy’s knee in instead.
The FBI started questioning Tonya and her husband, Jeff, within days. As the movie shows, Jeff and his cronies were dumb enough to leave an easy-to-trace paper trail while planning the attack. The attack took place on January 6, and by early February, pretty much everyone in America knew Tonya’s husband Jeff was behind it, so they suspected that she knew as well.
The United States Olympic Committee tried to bar Tonya from competing in Lillehammer the next month. Tonya sued to retain her place on the team. They settled and allowed her to compete, but made it clear that if she was eventually found guilty of conspiring to injure Nancy, she’d be stripped of any medals she might win.
So imagine the amount of stress Tonya was going through the day of her free-skate competition at the Lillehammer Olympics. Pretty much all of America despised her. Her husband had just ruined her career and life and would probably be going to jail. And this was her last chance to land the triple axel that no other woman in the competition could do.
It seems the pressure broke Tonya. She was late getting onto the ice, and after skating for under a minute, she approached the judges’ bench sobbing and asking them to let her fix her broken lace. The audience was reportedly booing her, but the judges gave her another shot.
During her second attempt, she was supposed to do a triple axel. But she ended up doing a single instead. She also shortened another jump combination. This led to her coming in 10th place, while Nancy Kerrigan — who was America’s sweetheart times 10 after the attack— took home a silver medal.
Below, you can see Tonya’s dramatic late entrance and the moment when she asks the judges to let her start over after flubbing her first jump.
As Margot Robbie says in character as Tonya Harding, Tonya “was the best skater in the world, at one point in time.” It’s just that unfortunately, that point in time didn’t coincide with her two Olympic performances — and being the best kind of ruined her life.