I saw I, Tonya even though I was kind of dreading it. As a skating insider, depictions of the sport on the big screen have always bothered me, and most of my skating friends. (The exception is Blades of Glory, which was wildly off base and also hilarious.) The I, Tonya trailer made me cringe for several reasons, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to revisit the embarrassing “incident,” i.e. when Nancy Kerrigan was famously attacked at an ice rink.
I competed in figure skating during the same years as Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, albeit in different events and I quit a few years before “the incident”. I was loosely acquainted with them — more with Nancy than Tonya since we were both on the East coast and therefore crossed paths at training camps and qualifying competitions.
I was in the audience, sitting with my friends, when Tonya Harding landed her triple axel in the 1991 National Championships (three years before Nancy Kerrigan was attacked.) That historic performance in 1991 earned Tonya the gold medal, meaning she was considered the best female figure skater in the United States. I had performed/competed on the same sheet of ice in ice dance either earlier that day or maybe the day before. I didn’t know much about Harding’s family, I didn’t know she was abused by her mother and her husband, and I don’t even think I realized that she was married. What I knew about Tonya at the time was that she was a bundle of energy and athletic talent. My friends and I reacted to that performance with amazement. She skated fast, she exploded into the air, and she landed (miraculously, given all that velocity)…on her feet.
I watched the film in a sold-out theater in the center of Manhattan. I have been a skating coach now for over 20 years, and my own competitive years feel like several lifetimes ago. Our story lines and family details are very different. But it was bizarre and almost surreal to see such a familiar persona and familiar world depicted on the big screen with some realism. It was strange to see someone I kind of knew portrayed by an actress. The movie was done surprisingly well; I winced throughout, not so much because of the inaccuracies of the sport (and sure, there were many), but more by the accuracy.
Here is scene that captured the essence of skating for me: [SPOILER ALERT] Near the end, as she is preparing to compete at the 1994 Olympics, Tonya sits in an empty dressing room, rubbing far too much make-up on her cheeks. Looking at herself, she grits her teeth, and smiles through tears.
I have never decided whether skaters smiling through pain is pathetic and fake or the ultimate display of strength. It’s something I had to do; most competitive skaters have. The truth is that figure skating is physically painful and filled with a level of pressure that is difficult to explain or express. Even if you’re not an Olympic contender, you and your family have to sacrifice for so many years to get anywhere near the top…and your success rides on these singular and very public performances that last only a few minutes. The smile is a way of pretending that you’re confident and also an attempt to convince yourself, too. Very few other sports demand this level of composure and this scene managed to capture that challenge for me.
[CONTINUED SPOILERS] A few scenes later in the film, my heart broke as Tonya, in court, tried to convince the judge to give her jail time instead of banning her from skating. This is how much she loved and needed the sport despite what it did to her. This was her level of fearlessness. My heart broke again as they showed her in the boxing ring, making ends meet after her skating career was over. We see her fighting just as much, and getting hurt just as much, in another brutal venue.
But here was the kicker and what took me from merely crying to full-on sobbing: When the movie was finished, they played the real video footage of the real Tonya competing and winning in the 1991 National Championships. Even though the credits were rolling, the entire sold-out audience in that Manhattan theater sat and watched her performance to the very end, the performance my friends and I also marveled at, live, in the arena 27 years ago.
The details and the facts of the Nancy-Tonya incident are still nebulous; the movie doesn’t fully answer the question about what Tonya knew or didn’t know regarding the attack. But here is what was crystal clear: there, on the big screen was the actual person, bursting with raw talent and undeniable strength amid ridiculous odds. We were all watching, and acknowledging this, every single one of us.