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Harding in Albany, ready to start her engine

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Ali and Frazier, Magic and Bird, Ben and Jerry -- Harding and Kerrigan, names linked together for eternity.

Tonya Harding would like to change that.

It's been more than 16 years since the 1994 incident that made Olympic figure skaters Harding and Nancy Kerrigan household names.

Harding would like a divorce. Well, sort of. What she wants, and has been working so hard to get, is an identity away from Kerrigan and the whole nightmare.

"There's a lot more to my

life than (the incident),'' said Harding, who is in Albany all week as a part of a promotion for the U.S. 19 Dragway, where she will actually take to the track Friday night in a street-legal passenger car.

No, Kerrigan won't be in the other car. That would bring in ESPN and probably the folks from Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Harding is good friends with track owner Tim Pafford, who met her 18 months ago at an event in Douglas, where he was overwhelmed by her.

"I've had a lot of celebrities (guests at the track),'' Pafford said. "I've brought in Steve Austin, George Jones, Loretta Lynn and others. And she's the best with young children I've ever seen. People who think she's all bad just have to meet her. Everyone who meets her likes her. She is just a special person. What is so special about her is her heart.''

Harding is 39 now, and she continues to put distance between her and Kerrigan and the infamous image that lingered after one of the most bizarre chapters in sports.

It was called the whack heard around the world and created a media frenzy after Kerrigan was assaulted and hit on her leg by a man carrying a police baton during the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships practice. The idea was to break Kerrigan's leg and keep her out of the competition against Harding, who was her biggest rival.

Kerrigan suffered a bruised leg, but still dropped out, and Harding won.

Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, hired Shane Stant to break Kerrigan's right leg. They were later arrested. Harding admitted to helping to cover up the attack, and the USFSA and United States Olympic Committee initiated proceedings to remove her from the Olympic team, but Harding threatened legal action and finished eighth in Lillehammer. Kerrigan won the silver medal.

It was chaos. Harding appeared on the cover of both Time and Newsweek magazines, and CBS assigned Connie Chung to follow Harding's every move in Lillehammer during the Olympics.

Both Harding and Kerrigan became not only sports figures, but part of American pop culture. In many ways -- strange as it sounds -- they put figure skating on the map in America. Almost anyone who was around in 1994 can tell you about Harding and Kerrigan, but almost no one remembers the woman who beat them to win the gold medal in the Olympics that year (Answer: Oksana Baiul of Russia).

Harding has now traded her skates for a microphone, and is on the road these days as a motivational speaker, telling her life story. It's a good one, good enough for her to tell it on Oprah, good enough for her to touch people when she gets a chance to speak -- good enough for her to write a book along with author Lynda Prouse called "The Tonya Tapes in Her Own Voice." Harding said writing the book was a catharsis.

"It was like a new beginning, like putting my whole past behind me and being able to make a fresh new start,'' she said. "There were so many bad things happening in my life, you've got to kick it under the carpet. When bad things happen, you want to put them in the past and look to the future. You can't go back and change it. The only thing you can do is control yourself and you have to look to the future. Start with small goals, and then go to bigger ones.''

She has spent the past three years speaking to groups and telling her story.

"I've spoken all over the country,'' she said. "I really enjoy it, because too many people want to give up, and life is too damn precious to give up. You may have problems. It may rain on you, but the sun will shine again, and it will shine on you."

Harding then added: "I've always wanted to help people. I worked with Special Olympics children when I was in my teens and (raised money for the Special Olympics). Even when I did get into trouble and had to do community service, it was one of the most uplifting things I had ever done in my life. I worked for an elderly community center, and I met some of the most amazing people there.

"I've seen a part of life I didn't know existed. It's the same with children I meet all over the country. I meet so many neat and really wonderful people. If I hadn't gotten into trouble and hadn't been a skater I wouldn't be doing all these things, and I wouldn't have met them. I feel very fortunate for that.''

Harding feels it's been a long -- and difficult path -- but a path that brought her to where she is today. Over the years she has had her troubles, and made a living as a singer, actor and even as a celebrity boxer, once boxing Paula Jones, who had her own infamous moment as the alleged girlfriend of President Bill Clinton. Harding has also been a pro boxer and has her own website as well as gaining fame as a contributor to TruTV's "The Smoking Gun Presents: World's Dumbest..."

Asked why she chose to box, Harding simply said, "To make my bills.''

It's been a long journey, but Harding believes everything happens for a reason.

"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today and would have never met all these people I've met,'' she said. "Without me being the first woman to do the triple axel, without me being a two-time Olympian, being in trouble, and taking care of all of that and turning my life around -- hitting rock bottom and not wanting to be in this world any more, and turning my life around and realizing, you know what, God put me on this earth for a reason and that reason has to be for me to put a smile on people's face and helping people.''

Harding said the low point in her life was after the incident when she had a gun put to her head. When pressed about who it was that put a gun to her head, she smiled, "Read my book."

She then added: "I've hit rock bottom several times. Believe you me, I've got several of the rocks still at the house. Being human is what we are.

We all make mistakes. As long as you learn from those mistakes, those pebbles (rocks at rock bottom) become huge boulders and you can build from them. That's where I am today.''

Harding will be on the track Friday in an exhibition race against Sheryl Nichols Giles, the sister of speedway legend Skip Giles, and after the race anyone can race against Harding on the Dragway's go-kart track. Then on Sunday, Harding be part of the WJIZ Car and Bike Show.

She said all people have to do is give her a chance.

"All they know is the black and white,'' she said, referring to the incident with Kerrigan. "There are two sides to everyone. That's what being human is all about, and part of that of making the best (of any bad situation). There are so many people out there who could do that, but they don't know how.''

That's why Harding believes it's important to tell her story, to show others how to overcome adversity and move on with their lives.

"That incident happened one day in my life,'' Harding said. "There is so much more to my life. It's like my (figure skating) program. The triple axel was a small part of my program. There was a lot more to it than the triple axel. That's the way I look at my life. The (incident) was a small part of it, and there's a lot more to my life. There's a lot more to this program.''