Bright Side

The True Story Behind “I, Tonya,” the Movie That Got Margot Robbie Nominated for an Oscar


In 1994, an unprecedented event shook the world of figure skating. The incident would make Tonya Harding one of the greatest villains in the history of sports in the United States. Conspiracies about what really took place made figure skating rise in popularity, but Tonya would never get to enjoy this.

The 2017 movie I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie, based its plot on this story. Her extraordinary performance earned her several award nominations, including the one for Best Actress at the Oscars. Bright Side took the time to do some research on the story behind the film and wants to share it with you.

A mother with a cold heart

Tonya Harding is a villain for many, a heroine for a few, and a victim for others, but she’s undoubtedly an unforgettable figure in American culture. Unfortunately, her skating success was overshadowed by an incident that would impact her life forever.

Tonya Maxene Harding was born in Portland, Oregon in 1970, to parents LaVona Golden and Albert Gordon Harding. By the age of 3, she had already started her figure skating training with instructor Diane Rawlinson and demonstrated how gifted and talented she was for her age.

Besides spending her time in the ice rink, Tonya also learned the ins and outs of mobile mechanics and went hunting with her father. Her mother, LaVona, a waitress, was the one who financed all of Tonya’s skating lessons and sewed her costumes for her competitions. However, she was also a strong-willed and remarkably critical woman, especially with her daughter’s figure skating training, to the point that she would even hit her when she failed a move.

When her parents’ marriage fell, apart and Tonya stayed with her mother, but their relationship was far from perfect. Tonya never felt loved by LaVona. From a young age, Tonya was frequently mistreated and abused physically and psychologically by her mother. Her coach, Diane, knew about the abuse, but did nothing about it. She explained it by saying that it was because she believed that “skating was her ticket out of the gutter,” if she had been sent to live with another family, she would have lost skating and her chance to flee.

Tonya Harding and her coach, Diane Rawlinson

In 2008, Tonya revealed in her authorized biography, The Tonya Tapes, that during her childhood, she was abused by her half-brother Chris. She also admitted that, in 1991, she experienced similar abuse, but this time by a “friend,” although she preferred not to reveal his name.

Skating uphill

Tonya was so involved in skating that she dropped out of high school to focus on training, while also working toward getting her GED. At 15 years old, she started a relationship with Jeff Gillooly, who was 2 years older than her. He was always very involved in Tonya’s skating career, and in 1990, when she was 19, they got married.

Tonya’s name was already starting to rise as a strong contender at national ice skating competitions. Some believed she would win the United States Figure Skating Championship in 1990, but her asthma worked against her back then.

Her big moment came in 1991 when she made history by becoming the first American woman (and the second in the world) to complete a triple axel, basically 3 and a half backward rotations that have a high degree of complexity and demand flawless coordination. She scored a 6.0 for technical merit, something that was unseen since 1973.

That same year she won the United States Figure Skating Championship. She got second place in the World Championship, sharing the podium with her compatriots, Kristi Yamaguchi in first place, and Nancy Kerrigan in third.

As she advanced her professional career, Tonya’s marriage became a nightmare, and it was getting worse. Jeff was a violent man. In 1993 Tonya decided to walk away, and they got divorced.

The start of a perfect rivalry

Tonya’s rise to stardom wasn’t easy for her, but she had a powerful freestyle, and the energy between the ice rink and her skates was almost palpable. However, her rebellious bangs, self-made costumes, toned muscles, and attitude were considered to be less than feminine and made neither the judges nor the sponsors want to fully bet on her.

On the other side of the story was skater Nancy Kerrigan, gaining popularity from one contest to the next. She was a perfect skater, with slim and subtle movements, a swan that overshadowed all the ducks, and the princess of the story in which Tonya seemed to have no place, unless she became the villain.

On January 6, 1994, the story would reach its climax when Nancy Kerrigan was attacked after a training session. She was hit multiple times with an extendable baton over her right knee. The intention was obvious: to prevent Nancy from participating in the national competitions and in the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

Those directly involved in the attack weren’t genius criminals. They kept their real names and their credit cards left an easy trail to follow. It took the police 2 days to find them. They were part of a gang called “The Hit Team,” led by Shawn Eckardt, who foolishly enough had already been bragging down the street that his partners had been behind the attack.

Eckardt turned out to be friends with Jeff, Tonya’s ex-husband, so the rest of the story was easy to guess for the media and the police. Everyone involved, including her ex-husband, accused Tonya of being the true mastermind behind the attack.

Heading to the Olympics

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan avoid each other during a training session in Norway.

Either way, while the police investigation was happening, Nancy was recovering from her injuries, and Tonya won the National Championship and qualified for the Winter Olympics. However, the committee in charge decided that although Nancy couldn’t be in the qualifying competition, she would still have a place in the Olympics.

A month after Tonya and Nancy met each other at the games, the story had already been turned into a media circus. The press stood outside their houses waiting for some statement and followed them wherever they went. While Nancy was preparing in private rinks, Tonya had to train on free shopping center rinks and, now more than ever, sponsors weren’t interested in her.

With the scandal in full swing, the American Olympic Committee suggested that Tonya voluntarily withdraw from the competition. However, she was unwilling to resign, and responded by threatening to sue them for $25 million. She didn’t receive the money, but she did go to the Olympics, since she hadn’t been charged.

The American audience was eager to see Tonya and Nancy meet in the skating final. This caused the event to become the third most-watched sporting event in the history of the country. They didn’t speak to each other. Nancy shone during her routine and won the silver medal (although many claim that she deserved the gold). Tonya barely got 8th place, after a somewhat hasty sequence that had to restart due to a problem with her laces.

After returning to the United States, Tonya pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and confessed that she didn’t know of any plan to attack Nancy, but that days after the event, she found out that her ex-husband was involved and hid it from the police because he threatened her.

Apart from paying a fine and doing community service, Tonya had her title removed as the 1994 national champion. She was also declared persona non grata by the United States Figure Skating Association and expelled for life. They took away what she had fought for all her life. She was only 23 years old but could never compete in professional skating again, not even as a coach.

Her life after skates

Since she no longer had skating, Tonya tried her luck in a new sport and became a boxer. She participated in some fights, but quit because it just wasn’t her thing. She also had other jobs as a welder, a painter in a metal factory, and a saleswoman in a department store. In 2010, she married Joseph Price and had a son named Gordon. She now lives a quiet life in Washington.

In 2014, screenwriter Steve Rogers became interested in sharing Tonya’s story, only this time through her eyes. So, he offered her $1,500 to tell him her account of the events and promised her more money if a film was ever made. That’s how Tonya returned to the spotlight in the film’s premiere in 2017.

Tonya herself thought the film did a “fabulous job,” not only because she was fully vindicated in it, but because it took the time to explain her life before the scandal, the violence she suffered first from her mother, and then from her husband, her frustration about her failures and always feeling insufficient.

Bonus: the characters from I, Tonya

Tonya Harding today

Jeff Gillooly

LaVona Golden

Shawn Eckardt

The film is very accurate in terms of real footage.

Even though Tonya’s innocence or guilt regarding the attack remains unclear, at least this film about her life reopened the conversation about it. What do you think the truth is behind the scandal? Tell us in the comments!