Melting the Ice

updated 02/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

ONCE THEY CONCLUDED THEIR business at Waterloo, Napoleon and Wellington went their separate ways. So, after Appomattox, did Grant and Lee. If those great rivals could get on with their lives, you might think Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan could live without each other too.

You might think it, but you would be wrong. They're back, together again, in what is surely the most improbable duet of the season. The reunion, to be televised by the Fox network on Feb. 5, the eve of the Winter Olympics, will feature separate skating exhibitions by the two and a joint studio appearance. "We've already done some of the taping," says Kerrigan, 28, apparently un-scarred by the experience, "and it was very interesting."

Interesting, but who would have imagined it happening? Kerrigan and Harding, 27, last skated against each other during the '94 Olympics at Lillehammer, not long after Kerrigan was whacked on the knee with a club by a friend of Harding's husband, Jeff Gillooly. Harding pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution in the case and was banned for life by the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Kerrigan went on to win a silver medal at Lillehammer anyway, but the two did not part pals, and bringing them together again seemed pretty unlikely, even to the parties responsible.

"We were just joking around, saying, 'Let's bring Nancy and Tonya together,' " says David Krieff, one of the producers of the Fox special. But the joke wouldn't die and, after 10 months of negotiations, the deal was made. Although Fox will say only that both are being paid standard skating rates, with Kerrigan getting a bit extra because she commands a higher fee, skating insiders put the purses at $200,000 for Kerrigan and $100,000 for Harding.

What was it like on the set? "Intense," says coproducer Danica Krislovich. "They weren't exactly bonding." Kerrigan, at first, had been reluctant to do the show at all. What convinced her, says Krieff, was the opportunity to put her own spin on a story that will undoubtedly be revisited frequently during the Olympics. And Harding? "She was very insistent on approaching Nancy and making peace with her," says Krislovich. "I don't know if that was ever accomplished.... I don't think anyone ever warms up to one's assailant." For Harding, ostracized and at a dead end, the special represented a chance for redemption. "She had nothing to lose," says Krieff. "She'd lost it all already."

Since Lillehammer, the two skaters have gone their separate ways—happily, in Kerrigan's case, not so happily in Harding's. Kerrigan married her manager, Jerry Solomon, and gave birth to their son, Matthew, in December 1996. She joined the pro circuit, made a skating video and produced TV specials including Halloween on Ice. The Incident, as she calls it, no longer seems of paramount importance. "I have a husband, a baby," she says. "It really doesn't affect my life anymore."

Though Harding never served time for her part in the clubbing caper, Gillooly and three other men did. Harding was sentenced to being the butt of a thousand jokes and to eking out a living at the tattered edge of celebrity. She acted in a C-movie, Breakaway, briefly managed pro wrestler Al Barr, and was the pregame figure-skating entertainment at a minor-league hockey game. Divorced from both Gillooly and (after three months) second husband Michael Rae Smith, a machinist, last February, Harding reported a kidnap attempt that same month by "a bushy-haired man." She said she foiled the crime by crashing her pickup truck into a tree. Gillooly, who is out of prison, remarried and now known as Jeff Stone, suspects his ex "comes up with fantastic that she can somehow, in her mind, gain public sympathy. It's unfortunate that she keeps doing it at everybody else's expense."

Harding, estranged from her mother, LaVona, has moved across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore., where she grew up, to Vancouver, Wash., a blue-collar town where she apparently has not made many friends. "She doesn't give you a smile," says a neighbor. "She's a loner, except for men." Harding reportedly spends many of her nights in smoky beer joints shooting pool, line dancing and putting up with the occasional taunt—e.g.: "Tonya, you want a club sandwich?" She has a new pickup truck and, word is, a new boyfriend. Whether or not she has Nancy Kerrigan's forgiveness is Fox's little secret—for now.

CYNTHIA WANG in New York City, MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Vancouver, ULRICA WHIIILBORG in Los Angeles and ALEXANDRA HARDY in Portland

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