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With movie set to be released, a look back at the Tonya Harding story

Hollywood is bringing the Tonya Harding story to the big screen. “I, Tonya” comes to theaters next year.

Twenty-three years ago Harding was 24 years old and surrounded by a horde of media, overwhelmed by the circumstances she suddenly found herself in.

So why is it that more than two decades after the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, we’re still fascinated with what happened that day in Detroit?

To make sense of that is to understand the genesis of Tonya Harding. She was born in Portland and was ice-skating by age 3. Small in stature but big in courage, Harding never shied from obstacles. Perhaps it was because she was covered in thick skin from a rocky childhood.

At the U.S. championships in 1991, she landed her first triple axel. The rough and tumble local girl was making it big on a stage normally reserved for the more polished.

The world embraced Harding. She was different. Then came Detroit.

Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s main rival, was attacked after a practice session. Kerrigan withdrew from the competition and Harding won it. But the suspicion about Harding’s involvement in the attack – and the media frenzy – grew daily.

Michael Hanna, a former KATU reporter, was on the front lines of the Harding story back then. He’s a business owner now.

“I think the thing that became this daily pervasive activity was showing up at the Clackamas Town Center where there used to be an ice-skating rink, and Tonya Harding would be there – despite all the turmoil – she’d be there doing her daily workouts – getting ready to go to The Olympics at Norway,” Hanna said. “And surrounding that ice rink were not only her fans – The Tonya Harding Fan Club – there were hundreds of news reporters and photographers from around the world. Every country on earth was represented there, videotaping Tonya.”

Harding would finish eighth in The Olympics.

Back on American soil, her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, accepted a plea deal in exchange for testimony against her in the Kerrigan attack.

Gillooly and three others served prison time. Harding did not by pleading guilty to hindering the prosecution.

In 2002, she traded in her skates for boxing gloves -- first fighting Paula Jones – in a short-lived career.

In 2010, Harding set a new land speed record for a vintage gas Coupe on the Bonneville salt flats.

And in 2011she gave birth to a son.

KATU tracked her down to a small Washington town, where she lives with her husband and child.

She declined to comment because of a contract agreement with the movie company.

For Hanna, those days of covering Harding will always stand out in his career, but with one caveat.

“I may not have been as forgiving as I should’ve been,” he said. “I realized she really was a tragic figure. She was stuck in a particular place where she didn’t have a lot of money. This was going to be her big break. She was surrounded by men who were not very nice guys, who may have been an influence on her to be involved in this entire escapade. So in some ways I ended up feeling sorry for her. The longer I have to ponder the whole thing – as crazy as it was – she is, in many ways, a tragic figure.”

Norm Frink was the Multnomah County prosecutor at the time.

“It was kind of a soap opera that had everything,” he said Monday. “I mean as an actual crime case it certainly didn’t have the intrinsic magnitude that a lot of cases that we have had. But as far as a soap opera, which is what most of these TV shows are – really – it had it all.”

Watch the full interview with Frink, below.


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