Jan. 6, 2023

The Attack on Nancy Kerrigan

The Attack on Nancy Kerrigan

January 6, 1994. US figure skating champion, Nancy Kerrigan, is assaulted by an accomplice of fellow skater, Tonya Harding, at the US Championships in Detroit.


Cold Open

It’s February 25th, 1994 at the Hamar Olympic Amphitheater near Lillehammer, Norway.

24-year-old figure skater Nancy Kerrigan grins as she leaps and pirouettes on the ice. She’s pleased with herself. She hasn’t made a single error so far in her four-minute routine—and it’s the most important skate of Nancy’s life. This is her second and final routine in the 1994 Winter Olympics, and Nancy is one of the favorites to win a medal.

Nancy moves into the final element of her routine. She spins as she bends down on one leg before rising up, tucking her arms close to her body, and rotating so quickly that she transforms into a human blur. Then, Nancy stops and lifts her arms into the air triumphantly.

She holds her final pose for a moment. And then breaks into an even broader smile. Nancy knows that her performance was good enough to win an Olympic medal. The reaction of the crowd shows that they are delighted for her too.

So Nancy curtseys to each side of the arena before skating off the ice and into the arms of her coach. She hears him whisper into her ear, “You are so gutsy.” When Nancy sits down to await her scores, she feels a familiar dull ache return to her right knee – a reminder of the brutal assault that almost kept her out of the Olympics.

No event in the 1994 Winter Olympics catches the world’s attention more than the ladies’ figure skating program. Nancy Kerrigan’s silver medal is not just a sporting success but a remarkable comeback for an athlete whose dream of Olympic glory was almost taken away by a vicious and violent rivalry. Just seven weeks earlier, Nancy was injured in an attack designed to benefit her fellow American skater, Tonya Harding, shocking the sporting world on January 6th, 1994.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 6th, 1994: The Attack on Nancy Kerrigan.

Act One

It’s February 16th, 1991 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, three years before Nancy Kerrigan will win a silver medal in the Winter Olympics.

20-year-old Tonya Harding takes her place on the ice and waits for the music that will accompany her free skate routine. She controls her breathing and tries to keep calm. Tonya is currently in second place in the US Figure Skating Championship—but she is about to unleash a new trick that she hopes will send her to the top of the leaderboard.

For most of Tonya’s career so far, she has been an underdog. Many of America’s top figure skaters came from affluent middle-class families and trained at the best rinks. But Tonya's family was different. came from a relatively poor home. Her father was often unemployed and her mother struggled to earn enough as a waitress to support the family.

Life at home had been hard for Tonya. She was sexually assaulted by her half-brother and her mother was abusive, even throwing a knife at her on one occasion. At the age of 19, Tonya married Jeff Gillooly, but he has been controlling and physically abusive too.

Tonya’s one escape from her domestic misery has always been the skating rink. As a child, she had a natural talent and soon learned to complete difficult jumps and moves. She was picked up by a coach,  and soon after began to win professional competitions.

A few months ago, Tonya’s coach had her practicing a triple Axel: three spins in the air after a forward-facing take-off. It’s the most difficult jump any skater dares attempt. And no American female skater has ever landed one in competition before. Tonya hopes she can be the first. And if she lands the jump today, she will certainly become the national champion.

When the music begins, Tonya eases into her routine with some spins. Then she begins to circle the rink, picking up speed for her first jump: a triple Lutz. Soaring through the air, she lands perfectly. But the triple Lutz is simple compared to her next trick: the triple Axel.

Tonya skates a length of the ice to compose herself. Then, she picks up the pace. At speed, she plants her foot and leaps as high as she can, spinning around three times. Tonya finishes the last rotation just before landing back on the ice and turning out of the move.

Even though Tonya is less than a minute into her routine, she cannot help roaring with delight and pumping her fists. The crowd does the same. They know they have just witnessed a milestone in American skating history.

The rest of Tonya’s routine passes without error. And when she skates off the ice, she’s already punching the air. She knows she has just skated the best routine of her life. Tonya turns to her left and a television interviewer thrusts a microphone in her face wanting to know when Tonya made the final decision to attempt the triple Axel. Tonya is only too happy to tell her.

"TONYA: I made it yesterday and I knew that I had nothing to lose. I could go out and do everything. And I’m so happy with myself. And I just want to thank God and my club, Carousel Figure Skating Club, for all their support, and especially my husband."

Tonya feels a thrill when the interviewer confirms that her scores have been tabulated. Tonya’s impressive free skate routine has sent her into first place, and for the first time in her career, Tonya is the American figure skating champion. She has earned a place on the US team for the next month’s World Championship.

Tonya's successful completion of the triple Axel will confirm that she is one of the best figure skaters in America. But she will not be the only woman who has the talent to succeed. Kristi Yamaguchi came a close second at the US Championships, and she will beat Tonya at the following month’s World Championship. And in third place at both the US and World Championships will be Nancy Kerrigan, a consistent and hard-working skater whose reserve style many prefer to Tonya’s flair.

And over the next three years, it will be Nancy who will become Tonya’s biggest rival in the run-up to the next Winter Olympics. As stakes rise, this rivalry between the two will become so heated that Tonya and her husband will turn to criminal action in an attempt to keep Tonya on top.

Act Two

It’s the middle of December 1993, one month before the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.

26-year-old Jeff Gillooly picks up the telephone ringing inside his rented house in Portland, Oregon. On the other end of the phone, he hears the tearful voice of his ex-wife, Tonya Harding, speaking to him from Chiba, Japan.

Jeff listens as Tonya miserably explains how she fell on her combination jump at her latest competition. The mistake dropped her down to fourth place. And to Tonya, this is unacceptable. The US Championships are coming up, and she can’t place fourth there. Only the top two skaters in that competition will represent the USA at the next Winter Olympics. Tonya is determined to be one of them.

After winning the US Championships in 1991 with her first triple Axel, Tonya’s skating slipped. She won only one competition over the next three years. She did not medal in the 1992 Winter Olympics. She even lost the ability to land the triple Axel, a move now indelibly associated with her.

Tonya’s domestic life took a turn for the worse too. She and her husband Jeff briefly separated in the summer of 1991. They reconciled, but police were called to domestic disturbances at their house on a number of occasions. Four months ago, a judge granted them a divorce, but they haven’t actually split up. They still live together when Tonya is not away competing, and Jeff continues to act as Tonya’s manager.

So for weeks, Jeff has wondered how to ensure Tonya does well at the US Championships and is selected for the Winter Olympics. Because, if she makes the Olympic team, lucrative sponsorships, and endorsements will follow.

So trying to console his crying ex-wife, Jeff tells Tonya that he’ll think of a solution and ends their call. Immediately after, he dials the number of his old school friend, Shawn Eckardt, who has recently started a bodyguard business—although he doesn’t actually have any clients yet. Over the phone, Jeff explains to Shawn that Tonya is worried she won’t place high enough at the US Championships to make the Olympic team. Jeff waits for a response, but Shawn is silent on the other end of the phone. So, with a sigh, Jeff spells out his request. He asks Shawn if he knows anybody who might be able to disable Tonya’s biggest rival—reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan. Jeff wonders if there's anyone who can make it so that Nancy wouldn't be able to skate at the US Championships. Again, there's silence on the other end of the phone. But then Shawn says, he might know some guys for the job.

Two weeks later, Jeff parks his Ford pickup and walks up to a small house. He rings the doorbell but is surprised when the door is answered by Shawn Eckardt's mother. 

Then it dawns on Jeff, this isn't the office of a busy bodyguarding firm but Shawn's parents’ house where Shawn is trying to build a business out of a converted bedroom inside. Nevertheless, Jeff enters and greets Shawn warmly. He also shakes hands with two men he doesn’t know. They introduce themselves as Shane Stant and Derrick Smith, and they say they can solve any problems Jeff might need fixing.

Jeff takes a deep breath and explains that he wants them to stop Nancy Kerrigan from competing at the US Championships. Derrick asks how much Jeff is willing to pay. Jeff says he has $6,000. And, if Tonya makes it to the Olympics and earns enough from endorsements, they’ll be able to pay the men $1,000 a week to be her bodyguards. Derrick nods and says the fee is satisfactory.

Then, the conspirators begin brainstorming ideas to take Nancy out. Shawn floats the idea of cutting her Achilles tendon. But Shane thinks the blood spatter will be too easy to trace. So, Shawn offers a new idea: running Nancy off the road when she’s driving. But Jeff quickly interrupts saying he doesn’t want to go that far. They don't need to kill Nancy, they just need to injure her, maybe her right leg, the one she lands on when she jumps on the ice. Eventually, the men agree to a plan; Derrick and Shane will break Nancy’s right leg.

Soon after, Jeff explains the plan to an impatient and nervous Tonya. He says he needs to return to the house later with cash and photos of Nancy so the attackers can pick out their target. But as Jeff continues to explain the plan, he begins to feel a little uneasy. This is serious business and wants Tonya to make the final call. He’s surprised by her levity when Tonya giggles and replies, “Let’s do it.”

Jeff and Tonya’s decision will become one of sport’s most infamous incidents of rivalry. The fallout will cast Nancy Kerrigan as an innocent victim in a quest for a fairytale comeback, while forever tainting Tonya Harding’s reputation as a vindictive schemer.

Act Three

It’s 2:30 PM on January 6th, 1994 at Cobo Arena in Detroit, Michigan, one day before the ladies’ competition at the US Championships.

22-year-old Shane Stant loiters at the side of the rink watching Nancy Kerrigan practice her routine. He glances around. The seats are empty, but there are plenty of other competitors and officials in the arena. He glumly stares at the television cameraman filming Nancy’s preparations. He is annoyed that so many potential witnesses are here and he’s running out of time to break Nancy’s leg before the US Championships start. Already Shane has faced plenty of problems in the lead-up to today.

He originally planned to attack Nancy at the rink where she trained in Massachusetts. But Shane couldn’t rent a car at the airport because he didn’t have his credit card. When he eventually made it to the ice rink, he was told Nancy had already left for the US Championships in Detroit. So, Shane boarded a greyhound bus and traveled West. Now, he is as close as he has ever been to Nancy. But he’s still waiting for an opportunity to carry out the attack.

A sudden swish of skates catches Shane’s attention. He sees Nancy step off the ice and fit guards of the blades of her skates. He watches her walk through a curtain and down a corridor underneath the auditorium seats. Then, Shane notices the cameraman lift his camera off his shoulder and turn it off.

Shane realizes this is his chance. He pushes past the cameraman and through the curtain. As soon as he’s in the corridor, Shane takes a collapsible steel baton from his pocket and extends it to its full length. Nancy has stopped to speak to a woman. Shane walks up to them, swings his arm, and smashes the baton into Nancy’s right leg, just above the knee.

Nancy collapses to the floor, screaming. But Shane doesn’t wait around. He runs down the hall and pushes against a plexiglass door leading outside. But it’s locked. Shane panics as he hears people rush to Nancy’s aid. Fearing he will be caught, Shane begins smashing the glass with the baton, breaks through, and runs to a parked car jumping into the passenger seat. In the driver seat, his fellow conspirator, Derrick Smith has been waiting and speeds away from the Cobo Arena even before Shane has a chance to tell him that he pulled off the attack.

But Shane actually hasn’t done the job. Nancy’s leg is not broken. The assault leaves her with a bruised knee and tendon. And she is forced to withdraw from the US Championships, leaving Tonya to come first. But given the extenuating circumstance, the US Olympic Committee agrees to grant Nancy space on the Olympic team. Seven weeks later, she will ride a wave of sympathy and popular support to the silver medal, while Tonya Harding is booed as she finishes in eighth place at the Winter Olympics.

And soon after, the conspiracy unravels. Law enforcement begins to put the pieces together, and for their roles in the attack, Jeff Gillooly and his conspirators will all face jail time. Tonya Harding will avoid prison but face three years probation, a fine, and community service. Later, she will also be stripped of her national title and banned for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association, not at all a result that Tonya was hoping for following the infamous attack on Nancy Kerrigan on January 6th, 1994.


Next on History Daily. January 9th, 1957. Sir Anthony Eden resigns as Britain’s Prime Minister following ill health and controversy surrounding the Suez Crisis.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.