The 10 Greatest Figure Skaters Who Never Won an Olympic Medal
Recently, Kathy Hovencamp and Sarah Marshall got to talking about figure skating, and the Greats that time forgot. Kathy is a former competitive figure skater, Sarah is a repository of knowledge for all things skating-related, and together they’ve compiled a handy list of the most underrated skaters of the last 30 years. It’s the list you never knew you needed.
10. Tiffany Chin
Sarah: Before Yuna Kim and Shizuka Arakawa won Olympic gold, before Michelle Kwan won nine U.S. Championships, five Worlds, and two Olympic medals, there was Tiffany Chin.
In the 1980s, when Soviet athletes dominated the sport, the idea that Asian and Asian-American women would become the lifeblood of figure skating seemed almost unimaginable. When Chin emerged on the national scene when at fifteen, winning the bronze in the 1983 U.S. Championships, the novelty of her Chinese heritage seemed almost as notable as her skating, which showed a rare combination of grace and athleticism, and an elegance far beyond her years. She was both the first woman of Asian descent and the first non-white woman to win a National title, or to medal at Worlds — and she did all that while apparently managing to not lose her shit at being called a “China Doll.”
Her preternatural poise is also evident in the above video, in which, at sixteen, she performs her freeskate in the 1984 Olympics like it ain’t nothin’ but a thang. An underdog going into the competition, she finished fourth, narrowly missing a medal. From then on she was heavily favored as America’s best chance to bring home the gold at the 1988 Olympics — but, as with so many skaters who started young, her jumps and consistency began to disappear as her body underwent a growth spurt.
Even after taking eight months off and relearning all her jumps, she retired from skating after failing to qualify for the 1987 World Championships, went to college, and later became a coach. And, in 1989, a girl named Kristi Yamaguchi took second place in the U.S. Championships — we don’t have to tell you the rest.
Kathy: Tiffany really changed the game for Asian women! By the 1990s, a number of Asian and Asian-American ladies had taken the sport by storm. In addition to Kristi’s rule in Albertville, Midori Ito of Japan became the first woman to land a triple axel in competition, and China’s Chen Lu effectively built a vacation home on the bronze section of the medal podium at international competitions.
9. Surya Bonaly
Kathy: Speaking of breaking racial and regional boundaries, my first choice is the delightfully dramatic Surya Bonaly of France. Until Surya burst onto the scene in 1990/1991, the only black female skater we’d seen was the flawless Debi Thomas, who had been entangled in the “Battle of the Carmens” for the 1988 Olympic gold with Katarina Witt, and ultimately brought home the bronze for the US.
Sarah: And before you go on about the greatness that is Surya, an impossible-to-resist sidenote re: Debi — her Olympic short program is both amazing AND choreographed to Dead or Alive’s “Something in My House,” and you should probably watch it right now. No, really. Kathy will wait.
The “Battle of the Carmens” was also unforgettable for the competition between the highly athletic Thomas (she described herself, in one word, as “invincible”) and Katarina Witt, who was known not just for her grace and consistency but her anxiety-inducing presence as a competitor. Most skaters perform their routines and then go hide backstage, doing their best to ignore their opponents’ scores. Kati stood right beside the rink and stared down every skater who competed after her — which may or may not have something to do with Debi’s error-filled long program.
Kathy: Which is complete madness, especially because that whole “running to the locker room” thing is a sacred sport-wide superstition about never hearing other skaters’ scores. But it is also totally something I could see Surya doing! After Kati retired, Surya Bonaly was a breath of fresh, drama-loving air in a sea of petite, waif-y, ice princesses. She was the antithesis of what you’d expect to see at a figure skating competition: a muscular black woman from France. France! The French hadn’t medaled in ladies’ singles at the Olympics since 1952, and hadn’t shown up on the ladies medal stand at Worlds since 1963. And suddenly, here was Surya Bonaly, just dominating everyone insofar as athletics were concerned.
As the legend went, Surya was adopted by two French Zen Buddhists and initially trained in gymnastics, which undoubtedly helped her become one of the best female jumpers the sport has ever seen. She was apparently later “discovered” by her coach during a public skate session (though details on the truth of that rumor are sketchy). She was the first female to attempt a quadruple jump in competition, landing her quad toe loop just shy of four full rotations, meaning it ultimately only counted as a triple. But Surya made sure we saw her land her quads in practices as often as she could. She was also famous for being one of the only women to ever include a back flip in her exhibition performances (they’re illegal in competition), and as far as anyone can tell, she’s the only person – male or female – who has ever landed one of those things on one foot. Her peerless jumping skills helped her rack up 9 French Championship titles, 5 European Championship titles, and 3 World Championship Silver Medals.
While dazzling everyone with her powerhouse jumps, Surya was also earning a reputation for her unapologetic bad attitude. Her frequent and flagrant derision of the whole judging process was so in-your-face that it almost became endearing in a soap-opera-villain sort of way. She had previously expressed outrage regarding her narrow second-place finish to Oksana Baiul at the 1993 World Championship, feeling she had been robbed (many people agree!). But she earned a permanent spot in the fantastic melodrama Hall of Fame at 1994 Worlds. After the Lillehammer Olympics, Baiul, Chen Lu, and Nancy Kerrigan all sat out ’94 Worlds, leaving the field wide open for Surya to finally take gold. Instead, the gold went to Yuka Sato of host country Japan, and Surya was PISSED. She initially refused to step on the medal podium at all, instead standing next to it in protest. Finally, after essentially being manhandled by an International Skating Union representative, she did step on the medal stand, but she tore off her Silver medal as soon as they put it on her. Lots of booing ensued. After the ceremony, a crying Bonaly dealt with a mob of reporters (who were feverishly interested in figure skating drama in a post-Tonya world), saying “I’m just not lucky” before storming off to the locker rooms. This was one of my absolute favorite moments in the history of figure skating, and this woman is awesome.
Surya won a whole heap of medals in her career, but never an Olympic one. She placed fifth in the ’92 games, and during the ’94 Olympics where all eyes were on Kerrigan and Tonya, Bonaly quietly took 4th, after skating what I felt was one of the best short programs of her career. She suffered a major injury to her Achilles tendon in 1996, and though she did return to compete again in the Nagano games, she retired from competition after her 10th place finish.
8. Jill Trenary
Sarah: Jill Trenary — the Molly Ringwald lookalike whose own life sometimes seemed like a brat pack movie (the called her “the queen of the ice!”) — was America’s sweetheart in the late eighties, and heavily favored to win gold in the 1992 Olympics. Her skating had the kind of mannered intricacy and effortless flow that made the sport look easy; athletically, she lacked strength and consistency, but she could make utterly riveting the moments that, in other skaters’ routines, could be adequately described as “screwing around between jumps.”
Like Chin, she had a promising but ultimately disappointing Olympic debut at the 1988 Olympics — a Games when all the American ladies seemed to have been jinxed (see above)—finishing just off the podium. The disappointment and resignation on her face as she waits for her scores makes you wish you could send Jon Cryer in with some balloons and a funny hat to cheer her up.
Remember how, in Tiffany Chin’s entry, Kristi Yamaguchi was an inspiring up-and-comer whose win at the 1992 Olympics changed the sport forever? Well, in this entry she’s the bad guy. Sorry. That’s how lists work.
Now, we’re not saying that Jill Trenary was the victim of some kind of hex dreamed up by Team Yamaguchi, and deployed in a far subtler manner than Team Harding’s approach (although, wouldn’t that be an amazing “X-Files” episode? Jesus). But if any skater had remarkably bad luck and/or a hex to blame for the death of her career, it was Jill.
During the 1990-1991 season, she took a few months off to recover from an ankle injury; at the same time, her longtime coach Carlo Fassi left the country, and she was forced to find a new trainer. Finally, the 1990-1991 season also saw the death of compulsory figures, an element of competition that whose importance had been steadily shrinking throughout the previous decade. It consisted of the painstaking and astonishingly specific tracing of figures on the ice, and is captured here in all its eerie silence. It was also a discipline at which Jill Trenary excelled, and its elimination from the sport signaled a rise in athletic rigor and a decline in the kind of elegant, precise, and dancerly skating that had been Trenary’s milieu.
Kathy: Figures were both incredibly boring and incredibly hard. To practice them, you had this thing called a “scribe,” which was basically a giant nail attached the end of a stick, and you’d scrape it around in circles so that you could learn to trace those perfect circles. Those dudes standing on the ice in that video are looking at their skate tracks and ensuring they’re using the appropriate edges at all times. Figures most certainly made you a better skater, but they did not make for Must See TV for the Olympic viewing audience. I maintain they got rid of them because they simply couldn’t find any way to make money off of them at any level of competition.
Sarah: They also had the disadvantage of making many competitions almost incomprehensible to the viewers at home—take, for example, the legendary showdown at the 1972 Olympics between Janet Lynn, the effervescent American pixie, and Trixi Schuba, the workmanlike Austrian. Lynn won the freeskate, delivering a performance that won the world’s hearts, but because she was so far behind after figures — a discipline at which Schuba excelled — she left with only the bronze. Though you can watch the figures judging in the video above, it still doesn’t make much sense out of the whole affair.
It goes without saying that some skaters were just as glad as figure skating audiences at the departure of compulsory figures. In January or 1991, Tonya Harding won the U.S. Championships when she landed her famed triple axel for the first time in competition, making her the second woman in the world to do so. Trenary retired from competitive skating in December of that year, and Kristi Yamaguchi — who had loathed compulsory figures and jumped with the best of them — won gold at the 1992 Olympics.
Kathy: And, to further underscore the incestual, Days of our Lives nature of figure skating, she was married to Christopher Dean of Torvill and Dean/Bolero/Best-Performance-in-the-History-of-Ice- Dancing-and-Possibly-Figure-Skating Fame for over 15 years.
7. Marval and Urbanski
Sarah: Picture two people named Rocky Marval and Calla Urbanski, and you’ll probably come up with a pretty accurate picture of the American pairs team the media dubbed “the waitress and the truck driver” — nicknames that described their manner on the ice as well as their former careers. Their performance at the 1992 Olympics — at which the pairs event was still dominated by Russian skaters, who brought to their performances all the intricacy and classical grace of the Bolshoi — was plucky, vivacious, and at times downright pugilistic.
It was probably the last chance they had at an Olympic win — Marval was 25, Urbanski 31, with five previous partners under her belt — and even if they hadn’t been in contention for a medal, they would probably still have been the focus of a media frenzy.
Kathy: For the record, 31 is like Betty White in figure skating years. Her ability to qualify for the Olympics at that age is demonstrably more impressive and unusual than Brett Favre’s “old guy” domination of football that was so well-covered in the press. I’m not sure how that woman had working knees.
Sarah: Exactly! They were the scrappy pair everyone wanted to root for — and the days following their gold medal win at the 1992 U.S Championships, the media coverage was overwhelming. There was even talk of a movie based on their lives. Marval and Urbanski’s stories and personalities were captivating enough without the frothy verve and sheer athletic prowess of their skating — to put things in perspective, Scott Hamilton described their throw triple loop as “bigger than most people’s living rooms.”
On a night when nearly every team’s performance flirted with disaster, Marval and Urbanski skated an almost unimpeachable technical program. But they fell apart in the freeskate, first botching one of their signature moves and then, seeming to have lost their nerve, skating with none of the fearlessness that had made them great in the past and coming in 10th overall.
In another chapter in the massive tome that is “Figure Skating Incest,” Rocky Urbanski ended up marrying Isabelle Brasseur, the Canadian pairs skater who had won a bronze medal that year along with partner Lloyd Eisler. (Eisler ended up with Kristy Swanson, of the original Buffy, after being paired with her on “Skating with Celebrities.” This may not be further evidence of figure skating incest, but we think it’s pretty cool.)
6. Meno and Sand
Kathy: Speaking of pairs teams, one of my personal favorites is real-life married couple Jenni Meno and Todd Sand. There’s really not a lot of salacious intel on these two. They were just adorable, in love, and so much fun to watch. I desperately wanted Jenni Meno’s bangs and perfectly bouncy ponytail.
Sarah: And speaking of the pairs team partner-swapping that happened in the aftermath of the 1992 Olympics…
Kathy: Both Meno and Sand had successful careers skating with other partners, with Sand and his former partner Natasha Kuchiki winning a US Championship and finishing in 6th place at the Albertville games, and Meno and her partner Scott Wendland earning silver and bronze medals at US Nationals and a couple of appearances at Worlds. As the story goes, Meno and Sand fell in love during the 1992 Olympics, and consequently began skating together only a few months later. They ruled the US pairs circuit during their time as a pairs team, winning three US national titles in as many years. Their win at the infamous 1994 Nationals (a.k.a. the scene of the Kerrigan knee-smacking crime) earned them the top US berth to the ’94 Olympics. Sand proposed in Lillehammer on the day of their short program performance, and though they weren’t expected to get anywhere near the podium (especially with the other adorable married-though-ill-fated couple Gordeeva and Grinkov in the mix), they turned in two absolutely lovely performances, one of which is above, and placed a respectable fifth overall.
They married in 1995 and are still married today, coaching pairs teams and raising their (presumably adorable) children.
5. Christopher Bowman
Sarah: The men’s event at the 1992 Olympics seemed from the beginning to be anyone’s game, and in the midst of that free-for-all was a black sheep named Christopher Bowman — known popularly as “Bowman the Showman,” and with very good reason. Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, called him one of the most talented skaters he had ever seen, and Kurt Browning, one of his competitors at the 1992 Olympics, recalled to the press the moment that he saw Chris for the first time, at a junior competition years before, and how he had thought: “I will never, ever beat him.”
But Browning did beat him — and on numerous occasions. By the time the 1992 Games rolled around, Browning was a three-time world champion and a strong contender for Olympic gold, and Bowman was an unreliable carouser who leapt from one coach to the next as quickly as he leapt across the ice. By the late eighties he had developed a $950-a-day cocaine habit, and finished in seventh place 1988 Games following a brief stint at Betty Ford. If he skated well, he was one of the finest athletes and by far the most consummate performer in the room. But most of the time, he didn’t. By the 1991-1992 season, he was written off by many as a lost cause — until he rededicated himself to skating in an attempt to qualify for the Olympic team, and surprised nearly everyone by winning the 1992 U.S. Championships.
When he arrived in Albertville a few weeks later, Scott Hamilton, NBC’s Olympic commentator and a former Olympic champion himself, told viewers that he thought Bowman had a solid bid for the gold: the current favorites, Kurt Browning and Viktor Petrenko, had both experienced difficult and inconsistent seasons, and could just as easily fall apart on the ice as they could skate flawlessly. It was anyone’s game.
Hamilton was half on the money. (For the record, he pretty much always is.) Petrenko delivered a perfect original program — worth a third of the final score — and an error-filled long program that was still enough to give him a controversial gold medal win. American Paul Wylie, 27 years old and written off as a low finisher by most commentators, won silver, and Czech Petr Barna won bronze. Kurt Browning fell on a triple axel in the original program and never quite regained his confidence, stumbling through a disastrous long program and finishing sixth.
Kathy: Poor 4-time World Champion Kurt Browning, one of the sport’s all-time greats, never could catch a break during his Olympic appearances.
Sarah: I know. Sorry, Kurt! (…At least he was friendly with John Candy?) And meanwhile Christopher Bowman, the dark horse in the running, finished ahead of Browning, just off the podium in fourth place.
While Kurt Browning’s fall in the short program had only increased the pressure going into the long, Bowman — who stepped out of the landing on his triple axel, and claimed later on that he was so nervous he couldn’t feel his hands — essentially took himself out of medal contention from the very beginning, and afterwards was free to skate with no holds barred. You can see, watching the long program above, that this kind of freedom was exactly what he needed: his energy, charisma, and fearlessness on the ice are everything one can want from an Olympic performance. After watching a program like that, the medal seems like a secondary concern.
4. Elaine Zayak
Sarah: Anyone who watched figure skating in the early eighties remembers Elaine Zayak, the baby-voiced power jumper who started skating as a form of physical therapy after a lawnmower cut off part of her foot, and who became the surprise winner of the 1982 World Championships. It was a remarkable victory not just because of her age (she was only sixteen, and at the time the youngest world champion in twenty-five years) but because she had managed to catapult from seventh to first place after a flawless free skate, delivered under all the pressures of a difficult season, and a disappointing short program to boot.
After that, however, her career began to lose momentum. She was forced to withdraw from the 1983 World Championships after suffering a stress fracture, and had the dubious distinction of lending her name to the “Zayak Rule,” which stated that a skater may only use the same jump twice in a given program, and was put in motion by the International Skating Union after Elaine used four triple loop jumps in her routine at the 1982 Worlds. This, along with her difficulty in figures — which she attributed partly to her foot — and what judges and commentators described as a lack of maturity in her skating, led to a sixth-place finish at the 1984 Olympics. She retired from competition soon afterward, toured professionally for a while, and eventually left the sport altogether. But the story doesn’t end there…
In 1992, seemingly anticipating many moons before TonyaGate that the 1994 Olympics would be a shitshow of epic proportions, the ISU decided to allow skaters who had turned professional to reinstate their amateur status during the 1993-1994 season in an attempt to qualify for the 1994 Olympic team. Many — including past Olympic champions Katarina Witt, Brian Boitano, pairs team Gordeeva and Grinkov, and ice dancing team Torvill and Dean — reinstated and ultimately competed at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer. Gordeeva and Grinkov were the only ones to recapture Olympic gold (although I don’t think it’s unwarranted to say that Witt’s short program, in which she not only skated to the theme from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves but performed as Robin Hood, archery-miming and all, is one of the most memorable non-Tonya-related moments of the Lillehammer Games).
There was another skater who reinstated amateur status had neither won an Olympic medal in the past nor was successful in her bid to make the 1994 Olympic team — but she did make it as far as the Olympic qualifying event, and her performance there was electrifying.
Elaine Zayak was 28 years old when she skated at the 1994 U.S. Championships, and hadn’t skated competitively in a decade. It was a blast from the past in more than one way, and even if you’ve never watched her skate before, seeing her in the video above should tell you all you need to know about the journey she made from a girl-prodigy to an adult and still athletically fearless woman. She skates the same music that accompanied her in her freeskate in the 1984 Olympics, and all the triple jumps she was famous for landing back then — and which she hadn’t landed in years at the time of this performance — are there. She has finally earned grace and maturity the eluded her during her career in the eighties, and her performance has all the vibrancy of her youthful efforts and all the wisdom of her decade off the ice. She came in fourth and was named as an Olympic team alternate, which can be also seen as earning the right to stay at home and watch the drama unfold on TV.
Kathy: And unfold it did! God, 1994 was such a mess in figure skating. A wonderful, insane mess.
3. Nicole Bobek
Sarah: Following Tonya Harding’s lifelong ban from the sport in 1994, Nicole Bobek emerged as the new bad girl of figure skating — in the post-whack world, it seemed like there needed to be at least one.
Ladies’ figure skating was an incredibly deep field in the 1997-1998 season. Michelle Kwan, who made her senior debut in the 1992-1993 season, had finally come into her own, and was a marvel of artistry, athleticism, consistency, and poise. Tara Lipinksi had made her entrance on the senior circuit the previous season, snatching the U.S. Championship title away from Kwan with those weird little jumping passes of hers in which she seemed to get about six inches up in the air and still manage three rotations before she landed.
Kathy: Ugh. Don’t get me started on Lipinski’s jumps. Those dinky little things made even the most casual of skaters cringe. But I digress!
Sarah: Yes, because this entry is about Nicole Bobek, who along with Tonia Kwiatkowski was favored to win bronze at the 1998 U.S. Championships. Tonia was the staid, steady competitor who had been competing at the senior level since before the death of compulsory figures, and who, at twenty-six, was still fighting for her last chance at a trip to the Olympics: always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
Kathy: Tonia Kwiatkowski was like the 27 Dresses girl of 1990s figure skating. She wasn’t ever even the Maid of Honor! That woman has a storage locker full of pewter medals somewhere.
Sarah: No doubt about it. But in keeping with the wedding analogy, if Kwiatkowski was the bridesmaid, Nicole Bobek was the glamorous interloper who told guests from the bride’s side she was related to the groom, guest’s from the groom’s side she was related to the groom, hijacked the mic at the reception to sing a gorgeous rendition of “Faithfully,” disappeared to the bridal suite with the best man in tow, and left with fourteen pieces of silverware and a slice of cake in her purse.
The question during the 1998 U.S. Championships — whose medalists would go on to the Olympics — was whether or not Nicole would catch the bouquet. The gold and silver medals had already essentially been given to Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinksi; the one real question that night was who would be lucky enough to snatch up the bronze and win a trip to Nagano.
Like Christopher Bowman before her, Nicole Bobek only had two settings: off and on. When she skated well, she was charismatic, graceful, consistent, and captivating. And if she wasn’t good, she was a disaster. Recent performances had trended more toward the disastrous, with a 13th place finish at the previous year’s World Championships. The recent death of her coach and surrogate father figure Carlo Fassi had apparently removed the center of gravity from her life, and it was hard for some commentators to expect much of anything from her that night.
True to form, Bobek surprised everyone and delivered a world-class performance that night, winning a bronze medal and a trip to the Olympics. The sad postscript to her Olympic story — a 17th-place finish, lower than any other American woman since 1936 — somehow doesn’t affect the beauty of the performance she delivers above.
Kathy: Ok, so with Nicole and Bowman, we’re definitely dealing with “sad aftermath” types — Bowman continued to struggle with drug addiction, and was found dead in a cheap California motel room in 2008. Nicole Bobek retired from competition soon after the Olympics and was arrested for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine in 2009 — though it seems she is turning her life around. In a slightly more uplifting look at coping with tragedy, let’s discuss Kristi Yamaguchi’s gay boyfriend, Rudy Galindo (I really wish he was also my gay boyfriend! <3 u, Rudy!).
2. Rudy Galindo
Kathy: Many people are unaware of the fact that Yamaguchi was a 2-time National Champion pairs skater before she became America’s Sweetheart. Her pairs partner was the son of a truck driver from San Jose named Val “Rudi” Galindo (He later exchanged the “i” for a “y”). When Kristi decided to focus on singles skating full-time, Galindo did the same, as he didn’t feel there were any pairs partners available that could possibly replace Kristi. He spent over half a decade finishing in the top ten at U.S. Nationals — no small feat — especially when the series of off-ice tragedies he was facing is taken into account.
In 1989, Galindo and Yamaguchi’s coach Jim Hulick died of AIDS-related complications. His father, who had given up so much to ensure that he could afford the price of Rudy’s skating, died of a heart attack in 1993. After his father’s death, Rudy moved back into his parents’ trailer home in order to care for his older brother, who was also dying of AIDS. His brother succumbed in 1994, reportedly at the precise time Rudy was skating his long program at a competition in Vienna. In 1995, the coach he’d been with since Hulick’s passing also died as a result of AIDS. I mean, basically, like so many gay men at that time, poor Rudy was living in his own version of “Rent.” Broke and depressed, Rudy decided to take some time off after placing eighth at ’95 Nationals to do some soul-searching and determine whether or not he wanted to continue to skate at all.
Sarah: This tragic string of losses is also a reminder of the problem faced by the figure skating community in the eighties and nineties, when many men who had contributed to the sport — skaters, choreographers, coaches, costumers, and the like — were dying of AIDS, and figure skating officials were forced to confront the strict stiff-upper-lip policy they had always maintained about the large gay male population in the skating world. Christine Brennan detailed the problems caused by this unofficial code of silence in Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating, a book that got her temporarily banned from covering skating competitions.
Kathy: And incidentally, Rudy himself officially came out in that book, though unlike many before him, he had never made any real efforts to hide, cover up, or deflect his sexuality. Brian Boitano still won’t comment on his.
But anyway, after eight months off the ice, with his sister as his coach, Rudy returned to the sport and began training for 1996 Nationals, deciding that it wasn’t a coincidence that his hometown of San Jose was hosting competition, and that he’d skate one more time so that his friends and mother (who did not travel) could have a chance to see him perform. He trained harder than he’d ever trained, losing 20 pounds, and dramatically improving his jumps. And, for better or for worse, he reportedly took his sister’s advice to “tone down” his traditionally flamboyant costumes and programs in order to appease the illogically homophobic judges on the skating circuit (There is a great story about how he complained to his sister about the lack of sequins and rhinestones on the costume he wore in the video above. He told her he wanted to spray paint a swan onto it, but she somehow got him to avoid following through. However, you’ll be pleased to hear that after going pro he immediately returned to his roots).
And then 26-year-old Galindo skated two near-perfect programs. He (along with skaters like Brian Boitano and Paul Wylie) was one of a select number of male figure skaters who took the artistry seriously, making us feel something while watching his programs, rather than solely using choreography to set up a series of jumps. His long program above is a perfect example of that talent, and is easily among the best male performances I can remember seeing. It earned him a couple of 6.0 marks for artistry, allowing him to effectively come out of nowhere to upset Todd Eldredge and become the first openly gay man to win U.S. Nationals, in addition to earning the distinction of being the oldest male skater to win the U.S. Men’s gold medal since the1920s.
He went on to take the bronze at Worlds that year, and then retired. He was diagnosed as HIV positive in 2000, but continued to tour with Champions on Ice until it folded in 2007. Today, he is living with HIV, coaching some very impressive up-and-comers. I would not be surprised if we see our boy Rudy sitting in the kiss-and-cry area watching a student or two in the 2014 or 2018 Olympic games.
1. Tonya Harding
Kathy: Okay, Sarah, it’s time. Can we talk about the 5’1”, 105-lb gorilla in the room?
Sarah: The time has come. And I’d like to preface my thoughts on Tonya by saying this: I am absolutely in love with Ms. Harding. I always have been and I always will be. She was my costume last Halloween, and I had to cope with the realization that, after putting on a periwinkle leotard with a tasteful tutu and a huge, bedazzled scrunchie, I still needed something more to convey the essence of Tonya-ness … and so borrowed a wrench to complete the outfit. It finished the job, but it felt like a betrayal. (Even worse, most people didn’t get it — one guy guessed “ballerina with a day job.” Another, “…yourself?”)
Before we go any further, here are the facts: Tonya Maxene Harding was born on November 12, 1970, in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in neighboring Clackamas County. Her parents were often out of work, and they sometimes slept in the family car and collected cans and bottles to scrape by. She moved thirteen times before she was in the fifth grade, and was assaulted by her half-brother when she was fifteen. During her troubled early existence she had one thing she could depend on, one thing that came easily to her, one thing over which she could exert complete control: skating.
Tonya skated for the first time when she was three years old. Her mother — against whom Tonya later leveled allegations of abuse — was smart enough to recognize talent when she saw it, and convinced coach Diane Rawlinson to take her under her wing. Throughout her career, her calling card was her athleticism: she wasn’t the most graceful skater, and she was never known for her consistency, but her sheer power on the ice — her speed, her stamina, and her dynamism — were unmatchable. She landed her first triple jump at eight years old, and her first triple lutz — the second hardest triple jump and the hardest triple regularly performed in ladies figure skating — at twelve.
Kathy: I don’t think my background in skating is necessary to say with confidence that landing triples at age eight is basically some Mozart-of-figure-skating shit. For comparison’s sake, the very best skaters at my rink — the ones who ultimately moved to California to go train with like Michelle Kwan’s coach — were maybe landing some really nice doubles when they were ten.
Sarah: Right? She began competing on the senior level at fifteen, coming in sixth at the 1986 U.S. Championships and slowly working her way up the ladder during the years that followed. She landed a triple axel for the first time in competition at the 1991 U.S. Championships — you can watch her performance in the video above, and I don’t think it’s just my bias talking when I say that it’s nothing short of magic.
Kathy: The triple axel cannot be understated. Our girl Surya — who attempted quads — never landed one. I mean, I can’t even tell you how hard it is to do that jump. The thing about axels is that you’re taking off totally flat, AND because you’re taking off going forwards and landing backwards, you have to squeeze in an extra half a rotation as compared to any other jump. They are so incredibly difficult. I landed my double salchow before I landed my single axel. I can’t fathom a triple. Truly.
Sarah: It was incredible. She won the national title in the process and the silver medal at 1991 Worlds. It seemed like a wonderful beginning; instead, it was to be the high point of her career.
Kathy: Most of us know the story. On January 6, 1994, Nancy Kerrigan’s knee got whacked by a police baton as she was walking toward the ice for an official practice at 1994 Nationals. It turned out that Tonya’s deadbeat husband, and her “bodyguard” (all these years later, still no word on why Tonya Harding required a bodyguard) conspired to commit the whacking. To this day, Tonya only admits knowing about it after-the-fact. Because everything was so unclear in the immediate aftermath, and the US Figure Skating Association obviously had zero precedent for this kind of thing, Tonya was allowed to maintain her ’94 title and Olympic berth, and although Kerrigan was unable to compete at Nationals — what with her whacked kneecap and all — USFSA opted to give her a spot on the Olympic team anyway, leaving a pre-pubescent Michelle Kwan stuck at home.
Nancy was able to shine at the Olympics, claiming the silver medal, while Tonya fell apart completely, stopping her program after she botched her first jump — the famed triple axel — and asking for a redo after her skate lace reportedly broke (which does happen and can totally mess you up, but like, maybe do an equipment check before you skate AT THE OLYMPICS when all eyes are on you after your husband paid a guy to club your teammate in the knee?). In spite of a shaky set of programs, she still managed to place eighth.
When the fact surfaced that, at the very least, she knew about the attack on Kerrigan after-the-fact and aided in covering it up, she was stripped of her ’94 Nationals gold medal and title, and in an act of Shakespearean-style reprimand, was banished from the sport forever. And during this whole time the figure skating world was basically spontaneously combusting. For months, it was truly the only thing anyone could talk about at every rink I frequented. And suddenly, everyone in America seemed to actually give a rat’s ass about figure skating. Forty-five million Americans watched the ladies long program at the Lillehammer Olympics, making it the fifth most-watched television program ever at the time. Go figure (pun marginally intended).
Sarah: So, that said: what is there to love about Tonya Harding? Or, backing up a bit — why were we so fascinated by her back in the day, and why is she so polarizing? I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have an opinion about her — you either think she’s a scrappy tomboy with boundless talent who paid the ultimate price for proving to be too easily influenced by the people around her, or you think she’s an avaricious, cheating no-goodnik who took her problems out on poor dear Nancy Kerrigan and deserved every bit of punishment she got.
Of course neither of these versions is entirely true. No one is all good or all bad, all victim or all victimizer. I don’t know how active a role Tonya had in the attack, and the fact is I don’t really want to. I think she allowed her sleazebag husband and his entourage to treat her as a meal ticket, but I also think that the attack on Nancy — whether she planned it or just covered it up after the fact — was more than anything else an expression of her deepest fears. Even though they both came from working-class families — and were, in fact, almost eerily similar, down to the violent older brothers and overbearing mothers in their lives — Tonya and Nancy were portrayed as opposites, with Nancy eventually serving as the embodiment of everything — grace, charisma, gentility, stoicism, and style — that Tonya would never be. In the wake of the attack, Tonya was painted as a greedy, vicious tramp who couldn’t control her desires for gold. Again, some of this is true and some of it isn’t. But more to the point I think that the spectators who became obsessed with the story — especially the women — found Tonya so intriguing because she was such a pure expression of id. Everyone had a Tonya Harding buried deep within them, a fearful, insecure girl who can never get her costume quite right. And everyone wanted to be Nancy on the outside. But sometimes — especially when you’ve got a few drinks in you and your man is leaning in a little too closely to the tramp at the bar — you have to let your inner Tonya come out.
And finally — the whack aside, the aftermath aside, the changes that came to skating aside, and my endless theory about Tonya-Harding-and-what-she-means-for-women-everywhere-aside — she was a hell of an athlete, and we may never see her kind again. She may not have an Olympic medal, but she’ll always be the queen of the ice to me.
Kathy Hovencamp and Sarah Marshall are both graduate students who enjoy putting off thesis work by watching figure skating videos on YouTube.