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IT WAS A WEEK OK STUNNING IMPLAUSIBILITIES, mixing brutality and bravery and, ultimately, the bizarre. Here was Nancy Kerrigan, America's premier woman figure skater, watching wistfully from a skybox as longtime rival Tonya Harding finished first at the women's U.S. national championships in Detroit. Incredibly, just two days earlier, Kerrigan had been viciously attacked by a club-wielding assailant who seemed to aim his blow deliberately at her knee. Down but undaunted, Kerrigan was nonetheless named to the 1994 U.S. Olympic team by the U.S. Figure Skating Association—displacing second-place finisher Michelle Kwan, 13, who graciously concurred in the decision. A shaken Kerrigan, 24, then returned to the sanctuary of her family home in Massachusetts to mend.

Had it ended then, the incident might have been laid to the work of another deranged fan—a dismaying but no longer unusual event in the aftermath of a similar attack last April on tennis pro Monica Seles. But then an even darker scenario emerged. A minister in Portland, Ore., reportedly told investigators that he had heard a tape in which three men were ploting to injure Kerrigan. Who were these men? He said they were Tonya Harding's husband, Jeff Gillooly, 26, her bodyguard, Shawn Eric Eckardt, and an unnamed hit man.

Harding herself was not implicated in the plot, and Gillooly, for his part, was quick to deny the charges. "I have more faith in my wife than to bump off the competition," said Gillooly. Though no suspects had been charged by Wednesday evening, Jan. 12, arrests were widely reported to be imminent as stories circulated about an elaborate conspiracy hatched to knock Kerrigan out of the Olympic competition. As it turns out, Kerrigan may well find herself competing for the gold medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics—to begin at Lillehammer, Norway, on Feb. 12—while it is Tonya Harding whose career may be forever poisoned by the shocking attack in Detroit's Cobo Arena.

For now, though, Kerrigan is trying to focus on the tasks at hand: rehabilitation and preparation. That means exorcising the fear that is a legacy of her nightmare. "I was at a party Saturday night, and I was watching a little kid," Kerrigan told S. Avery Brown of PEOPLE a few days after the attack. "Suddenly I turned around, and there was someone standing with a bag of potato chips in their hand, which was close to my head when I turned. It scared me for a second—and I jumped."

Returning last Monday to the warmth of her Stoneham, Mass., home north of Boston, Kerrigan found a stack of mail on the hall table—some of the envelopes decorated with children's crayoned drawings. Kerrigan read aloud from one of the letters: "We are so thankful you weren't harmed. We both know how difficult it can be to live in the public eye." It was signed by Nancy and Ronald Reagan.

That same afternoon, Kerrigan went to nearby Peabody, Mass., to take a magnetic resonance imaging test to determine whether her knee had sustained serious damage. The test showed no hidden damage to the kneecap or muscles. Indeed, in a lengthy examination in his Salem, Mass., office later that day, Kerrigan's orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Mahlon Bradley, pronounced the knee dramatically improved. "Nancy has a 75-degree range of motion right now," said Bradley. "That is double the range she had at my last examination 24 hours ago."

Kerrigan, of course, may have to deal with psychological scars as well. She is, she says, ready for the challenge. "I've been a fighter all my life," she declares.

For this, she has her parents to thank—particularly her mother. "I know my daughter," says Brenda, 53. "I don't believe she needs any help to get over this. She's tough. She's strong. It's partly the way we brought her up. When she was a kid, there was a time when she had skates that were too small, and she would complain that her feet hurt. I used to say to her, 'Suffer in silence.' " And she did.

So, in fact, has Brenda. In 1970 she was at the wheel of her car when her vision suddenly went fuzzy. Afflicted with a rare virus, she gradually lost all sight in her left eye and most in her right. She is now legally blind but refuses to be slowed by her disability. She still does aerobic dancing and even skis. Her children—Nancy, Mark, 29, and Michael, 27—learned to adapt to her needs. They would leave notes for her in large block letters and pick up their rooms so Brenda wouldn't trip over things left on the floor.

Household chores:—shopping, cooking, laundry—were left to Nancy's father, Dan, 54, a welder. It was he who drove her to beginner's classes at the local Stoneham rink in 1975. When an instructor commented on Nancy's talent, the Kerrigans started her in private lessons they couldn't really afford. Dan worked extra jobs, look out loans and re mortgaged the family home. Eventually the tab for Nancy's progress would soar to $50,000 a year. "Since Nancy started skating," says Dan, "the family hasn't been on a real vacation. We go to skating events."

If there were ever to have been a bond between Kerrigan and Harding, it might have been forged by their blue-collar backgrounds. But that is where the similarity ends. While Kerrigan has become the sweetheart of the skating establishment, Harding is its hellion—Charles Barkley on ice, as she recently referred to herself. "I'm my own person," says Harding, 23. "I'm open and honest and say what I feel. There are some people who don't like me for that."

In Minneapolis in 1991, she won her first national championship with a daring triple axel—a 3½-revolution jump never before completed by an American woman in competition—then skipped out of the official reception to shoot pool in the hotel bar. In 1989 she parted with her longtime coach Diane Rawlinson and hired another coach, whom she left in 1991, rehired, then fired again after the 1992 Winter Olympics, at which she failed to win a medal while Kerrigan captured a bronze. Frustrated, she rehired Rawlinson shortly afterward. "Tonya's true to herself," sighs Rawlinson. "She decides what she wants to do and she does it."

Frequently with tumultuous results. In March 1990, Harding married Gillooly, who worked in a warehouse for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Fifteen months later she filed for divorce. She also asked for—and was granted—a restraining order against Gillooly. "He wrenched my arm and wrist and he pulled my hair and shoved me,"-she wrote in her petition, adding, "I recently found out he bought a shotgun, and am scared for my safety." By October-1991, the two had reconciled, and Harding said, "Jeff and I love each other more than ever...I know he's changed. I see it in his eyes." Last October, Portland, Ore., police seized a gun from Harding after a shot was fired early one morning at their home. (The couple said the gun went off accidentally, and no charges were filed.)

In a sport dominated by old-fashioned notions of femininity, Harding is a street fighter—sometimes literally. After a minor traffic accident in Portland in 1992, she got into a scuffle with the other driver, whom she threatened with what looked like a baseball bat. (It was a Wiffle bat, she later explained.) Harding's gamy reputation has kept corporate sponsors at bay, and until last fail she had to struggle to meet her expenses of about $50,000 a year. Then New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, stepped in with financial support after being approached by a U.S. Olympic official. "Without him, it would have been harder for me to concentrate," she said. "I can't thank him enough."

For Harding, hard times had begun early. Reared in Portland, she first laid eyes on an ice rink at a local mall when she was 3. She began to show some talent as a skater within a year, but there wasn't much money with which to cultivate it. Her mother, LaVona, was a waitress; her father, Albert, the fifth of LaVona's six husbands, was an unskilled laborer who left Portland in 1987 after their divorce. To help pay for coaching, LaVona and Tonya began patrolling the roadsides, collecting returnable cans and bottles. For the competitions that followed, LaVona sewed her daughter's skating outfits by hand.

Both Harding and Kerrigan, in fact, would sacrifice much of their childhoods to skating. When Kerrigan was in her teens, she would rise at 4 a.m. to skate before heading off to Stone ham High School. After school she would lace up again, then turn to her homework before sacking out at 7. Her monastic regimen left her with little time for cruising the malls. "I lost a lot of friends when I started skating," says Nancy. "But I just wanted to skate. It was an irresistible challenge."

After graduating from Stoneham High in 1987, Nancy earned a two-year associate degree in business at nearby Emmanuel College. Under the tutelage of coach Evy Scotvold, she started entering—and medaling—in national competitions.

Crowned by her hometown Boston Globe as "America's ice queen" after her bronze medal at the '92 Olympics in Albertville, France, Kerrigan was soon doing endorsements for Northwest Airlines, Reebok, Seiko and Campbell's soup. She was named one of PEOPLE'S 50 Most Beautiful People last year and made the cover of LIFE. The problem was, her skating was falling, apart.

"I just want to die," she was overheard saying last March in Prague as she waited for her scores al the world championships. Her long program had been a disaster, dropping her to a fifth-place finish. Her career in the post-Olympic season had gone, she said, "from poor to terrible to horrific."

Part of Nancy's problem, apparently, was that she simply couldn't stand prosperity. In the five years before the '92 Olympics, she had always skated in the shadow of others—moving from 12th to second nationally. But now she was expected to win. By last June, her practice sessions with Scotvold had degenerated into protracted arguments. She objected to doing full run-throughs of her four-minute routine—not, she later realized, because she was lazy, but because she was frightened. "I was really afraid to put my music on," she said. "If I wasn't perfect, I'd be hard myself, put myself down." Things got so bad between skater and coach that Scotvold refused to instruct her for a month, turning her over to his wife, Mary.

Working with Boston sports psychologist Cindy Adams, Kerrigan says she dredged up a surprising insight: that she had always been motivated not by the possibility of success but by the fear of failure. "It's kind of scary, giving everything you have," she told interviewers last December. "What if you're not as good as you think you are?"

In July, Kerrigan reapplied herself. She cut back on her personal appearances and trimmed down from 115 to 111 pounds The new regimen paid off with a win in October, on the Olympic ice in Hamar, Norway, and at the AT&T Pro Am in Philadelphia last month. It was this new, improved Nancy Kerrigan whom she was eager to put on display at the nationals in Detroit.

Kerrigan remains bravely optimistic. "I think I'll be fine at Lillehammer, and I believe I will do great," she says. But the last word on the nightmarish events of the past week remained for figure-skating statesman Dick Button, himself a two-time Olympic champion, to pronounce. "I think," he said gravely, "that it was a tragedy for both women."

WILLIAM PLUMMER and SUSAN REED
FANNIE WEINSTEIN and SCOTT BOWLES in Detroit, S. AVERY BROWN in Stoneham, and BILL DONAHUE in Portland

  • Contributors:
  • Fannie Weinstein,
  • Scott Bowles,
  • S. Avery Brown,
  • Bill Donahue.