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On Thin ICE : Figure Skating Has Taken a Back Seat for Tonya Harding Since She Won National Title

January 05, 1992|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She has never surrendered to her asthma, even in the national championships at Salt Lake City in 1990, when an attack turned into walking pneumonia and she went into her four-minute freestyle program with a 103-degree fever. Asked by a doctor beforehand if she would consider withdrawing, she said, "I'd rather die."

She did, on the ice. Among the medal favorites when the competition began because of her third-place finish in 1989, she was judged 10th in the freestyle program and dropped to seventh overall at Salt Lake City, which made it that much more satisfying when she won a year later at Minneapolis.

When the photo session ended, she said that she could sit and talk for an hour or so but then would have to return to her apartment and wait for telephone calls. That morning, she had placed a classified ad in the local newspaper, offering to trade her Mitsubishi Eclipse for a Corvette. But not just any Corvette.

"An '86 Corvette, 3x4 (transmission), 56-inch suspension, glass top, black on black," she said.

Although it obviously is not true in all aspects of her life, she has the air of someone who knows what she wants and how to get it. Often, she succeeds, such as the time she visited the Lloyd Center with her parents when she was 3 and stood transfixed as she watched the figure skaters.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday January 6, 1992 Home Edition Sports Part C Page 9 Column 6 Sports Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Figure skating--A caption that appeared in Sunday's editions under a picture of Tonya Harding stated incorrectly that she performed seven triple axels while winning the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last February. She performed seven triple jumps, including a triple axel.

She said she wanted to skate. When her mother said no, Harding cried until her father said yes.

Eighteen years later, asked whether her mother was concerned about her young daughter's safety, Harding laughed and said: "No, I think she just didn't want to spend the money."

Money is a subject often raised in interviews with Harding because her family had so little.

Although figure skating has a reputation as an elitist sport because of the $30,000 or more per year it costs for nationally ranked competitors to stay in training, some recent U.S. champions, such as Debi Thomas and Todd Eldredge, have come from decidedly middle-class backgrounds.

For the Hardings, the middle class was a castle on a faraway hill.

Tonya's mother, LaVona, worked as a waitress, while her father, Albert, bounced from job to job, never earning more than $5.05 an hour. He sometimes took jobs as a security guard at local ice rinks so he could keep a doting eye on his only child.

Harding contributed as soon as she could, dropping out of school after the eighth grade--she later acquired a high school diploma through an equivalency test--to take a job with a metal company, but her parents insisted that she not allow it to interfere with her skating.

"They didn't always get along too well, and they didn't have any money, but there's no question they loved Tonya and wanted the very best for her," said Tonya's aunt, Sally Reinmann. "They were a good family. They just didn't have any money."

Added her husband, Bob Reinmann: "They didn't have a good car or a good house. They lived in a mobile home in his mother's driveway for a while. But Tonya continued to skate every day. All of their money went into her skating."

That included the $10 to $12 a day that Tonya and her mother could make in refunds for bottles and cans they collected alongside the highway. During the interview, Harding recalled many days when she rode in the bed of a pickup truck, tapped on the window when she spotted a bottle or can as a signal for her mother to stop, jumped out to collect the bounty, jumped back in and tapped on the window again to resume the hunt.

She is more reluctant to discuss a darker side of her youth. Harding had two stepbrothers and a stepsister from her mother's previous marriages who lived at times with others because LaVon and Albert could not afford to raise them. When Harding began to receive notice for her skating, a resentful stepbrother started threatening her. He was killed in a hit-and-run accident that still had not been solved in 1987, the year Harding's parents divorced after 19 years of marriage.

"She's had a hard upbringing," said her coach, Teachman. "Maybe she's not all that proud to talk about it. But it wasn't all bad. There were a lot of good parts."

Such as the dresses her mother made for her.

Even as novice and junior girls, the competitors in figure skating try to outdo each other in the dressing room as well as on the ice. But Harding did not have the means to dress for success.

"We would have people come up to us and ask, 'Why is she wearing something like that?"' she said. "We told them, 'If we had the money to make a costume that was up to par with everybody else's, we would.' I liked my dresses. I was never ashamed at all, but, basically, everybody else thought I was scummy."

Then she would go onto the ice and skate like a million dollars.

"Some kids have money, but the skating is hard," Teachman said. "For her, the skating is easy. So it balances out."

But, although Harding was ranked among the first six in the nation when she was 15, it took time for her to gain total acceptance in the sport.

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