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Frostbitten

updated 01/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

BEFORE DAWN ON THE RECENT MARTIN Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, two Olympic skaters tested the ice in rinks 3,000 miles apart. In Stoneham, Mass., Nancy Kerrigan was trying out her damaged right knee. In Portland, Ore., Tonya Harding faced a much greater repair job—pulling a smile on a future that all but lay in ruins.

Sadly, both skaters' careers have been injured, possibly by the same man: Jeff Gillooly, 26, Harding's on-again, off-again spouse since 1990. His control over Harding had already worried her supporters. After his arrest last week on charges of conspiracy in the Jan. 6 attack on Kerrigan, and further reports that Harding had been implicated in the plot, many of her friends had no doubt as to who bore the greatest blame for the potential damage to her career. "If it's true and he is convicted, it is unfortunate that he did not have enough confidence to have her skate and win on her own ability," says Dody Teach-man, who coached Harding from 1988-92. "It is a shame he would sloop to something this low."

The day before Gillooly's arrest, during a more than 10-hour grilling by local and federal authorities, Harding announced she was separating from her live-in ex-husband, the latest split in their tumultuous relationship. "After a lot of agonizing thought and evaluation, I have decided that it would be best for Jeff and me to separate," Harding said. The separation may have come too late, however. This week skating officials will decide whether Harding will remain on the U.S. Olympic team that goes to Norway next month.

Putting distance between herself and Gillooly is something coaches, friends and relatives have wanted Tonya to do for years. Harding's friends claim that he had physically, mentally and emotionally abused her. "I've seen him hit her and attack her at parties, and other people saw it too," says Stephanie Quintero, Harding's maid of honor at her March 1990 wedding to Gillooly.

Quintero's father, David Webber, befriended Tonya and was a father figure to her at about the same time Harding's own father left his family when she was 15. "My daughter had this expression where she held up four fingers to Tonya every time she had a disagreement with Jeff," he says. "It means, I told you so.' She created that because she got tired of lolling Tonya 'T told you so' so many times."

"If she had left him for good," says James Golden, Harding's stepfather, "none of this would have happened. But now it won't do her any good if she goes lo the Olympics and wins it—corporate America won't help her. It's sad. she's thrown away her whole life."

Gillooly has supporters too, however. "Maybe they didn't know how to handle some problems, but they never resorted to violence," insists Mark Anderson, 20, who has known Gillooly since childhood. Asked if Gillooly drank alcohol excessively, Anderson responded, "It wasn't like he was an alcoholic. Sometimes he'd get silly...but drinking never gave him an attitude."

Whatever the cause of Harding's problems with Gillooly, they seem to date back to 1991, the year she first won the U.S. figure skating crown. That summer she filed for divorce and also got a restraining order to prevent him from visiting her at home or at the Portland-area rinks where she trained. In a report filed with the police soon after, Harding said that she had been cornered by Gillooly and his brother John. She says Jeff told her, "I think we should break your legs and end your career."

During her separation, Harding dated other men, including Mike Pliska, now a physics doctoral candidate living in Portland. "I wouldn't put anything by Jeff," says Pliska, 26. "He obviously had physically abused her on several occasions. I heard it firsthand from her, and I saw marks on her." Pliska believes that while Gillooly exhibited "classic jealous possessive behavior," Harding was fragile. "There were limes when she was the vulnerable little girl that just needed to be held," he says.

By early 1992, however, Harding shocked even her closest friends by reconciling with Gillooly. "I'm a complete person again," she said at the lime. "I know it seemed like I was happy, but something was missing, and now I know what it was."

In February, Harding had the restraining order dismissed. But by last July she was again seeking a divorce and another order of protection, slating, "It has been an abusive relationship for the past two years, and he has assaulted me physically with his open hand and fist.... He follows me and has broke into my house and into my truck." In September she reversed herself once again with an explanation that strained credulity: "I found out it was not Jeffery S. Gillooly who was harassing me and following me."

The couple continued to live together last fall, even though their divorce was granted in August. But the fireworks continued. In October neighbors say they heard a gunshot at 3:15 a.m., and Harding later admitted she fired a round from a 9-mm handgun into the pavement. Residents recall that Gillooly carried Harding—some say forcibly—into their pickup truck and drove off as neighbor Tad Parks tried to stop him by standing in front of the truck. According to Parks's wife, Mechelle, Harding was no angel either. "She'd come flying into the parking lot in her big honking Jeep," she says, "smoking a cigarette, cranking her stereo and just blaring the music."

Despite such criticism, those who know Harding best still refuse lo believe she knew about the planned attack on Kerrigan. "Tonya is really angry that the whole thing happened," says her coach, Diane Rawlinson, who notes that Harding was too frightened to sleep alone in her Detroit hotel room the night after the assault against Kerrigan.

Many of Harding's fans remain staunchly loyal to the dream the iconoclastic skater has sought all her life. A week ago a car pulled up to the driveway leading to the rented cabin outside Portland where Harding was staying. A small boy jumped out and hammered a heart-shaped sign into the ground. "We still believe in you," it read. "Go for the Gold."

MARY H.J. FARRELL
LORENZO BENET and BILL DONAHUE in Portland, JANE SUGDEN in New York

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