How Tonya Harding Changed Figure Skating Forever

Photo: Courtesy of Neon.
I, Tonya, the Tonya Harding biopic that arrives in theaters Friday, makes the case that being a figure skater isn't just twirls and frothy costumes. This is something I think we're all faintly aware of, probably thanks to Tonya Harding. In the movie, Harding (Margot Robbie) is ferocious and desperate. She sneers. At times, she's obnoxious. But the movie posits that her thorns come courtesy of a thorny childhood — Allison Janney plays her abusive mother — and, indirectly, figure skating itself.
Figure skating straddles the divide between "sport" and "art," a controversial boundary that the Olympics are still struggling to comprehend. It's beautiful. Skaters fly across the ice like ballet dancers in a ping-pong machine. But they're not dancers. Figure skaters — and ice dancers, who work within different parameters — are athletes, and it's hard not to feel like Harding was the first skater to present as such.
"[Tonya Harding] brought a fierceness and an athleticism that rivaled the men's skating," Jocelyn Jane Cox, a former competitive ice dancer, told Refinery29. "She sort of increased the technical game. Quite a bit."
Cox competed in ice dancing with her brother from 1980 to 1991. She made it to the National Championships in 1991, where she and her brother placed sixth. Though she didn't compete directly with Harding or Nancy Kerrigan, Cox was aware of their looming presence in the skating world. They crossed paths at training camps in Lake Placid, and Cox would see the two of them at skating competitions.
"[Harding] was just extremely talented and placed very well. And yes, she definitely was an outlier," said Cox. "But mostly, it was [that] she was good. She could really, really jump." Cox quit skating in '91, but she currently works as a skating coach in upstate New York.
Mirai Nagasu, an Olympic figure skater who will be competing this week at the 2018 National Championships, pointed out that Harding had the reputation of being "less refined" than Nancy Kerrigan, but that might have been what gave her an edge.
"Nancy was the beautiful skater, and Tonya was just grit and jump, if that makes sense," she said. "That's why she could pull off a triple axel."
It's hard to tell whether Harding's athletic notoriety supersedes her tabloid appeal. Yes, she was involved in the biggest (and possibly only) scandal in U.S. figure skating, but she was also a ferocious skater. Somewhere between being fierce and being widely covered in the press, Harding became a household name.
"You would be hard-pressed to find a figure skater who didn't know her name," said Meryl Davis, an Olympic ice dancer who claimed gold in 2014. (She went on to win first place on Dancing with the Stars. These days, Davis tours with Stars On Ice, and performed at the 2017 Rockefeller tree lighting.) "She was undoubtedly a very athletic skater, and she was the first to accomplish certain jump sequences. It's hard not to admire her athleticism."
Her signature move was the triple axel, which is featured in I, Tonya. In the fall of 1991, Harding became the first American woman to do a triple axel during the short program. The move is so difficult that I, Tonya had to resort to computer-generated imaging to pull it off. (A triple axel is hard. Asking a skater to do it several times over for the sake a movie is even harder. The movie had a figure skater perform a double axel, which was transformed to a triple axel in post production.)
Nagasu incorporated the triple axel into her program in the past year. She accomplished two fully rotated triples at the 2017 C.S. U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, which makes her only the second U.S. woman figure skater ever to have successfully executed a triple axel in international competition. But even for her, the jump is hard.
"It's still a jump that I have to focus and really think on," she said, adding, "I think that I can do a double axel in my sleep with my eyes closed." A double axel, just two and a half rotations, is commonplace in competition. It takes less force, which makes it an easier jump to land.
Landing the triple axel is brutal, so Nagasu wears padding when she practices her triple axel. Think Ice Princess but more professional: Nagasu makes her own padding by slicing up old yoga mats.
"When there's that added extra rotation, you have to jump higher, and it takes a lot more force, and when there's more applied force, you land with more force," she said. The stakes are high. The triple axel is a forward-facing jump. The skater leaps forward, does three and a half revolutions in the air, then must land and let their left leg unfurl. Lean too hard into your right hip, and you'll end up on your right butt cheek. (This is why it might be helpful to have butt pads.)
Explained Nagasu, "To put it in perspective, I'll be the only female at nationals going for that jump, and I think that's a lot of pressure, but I'm always up for a challenge. And I nail it every day in practice, so why wouldn't I go for it?" When we spoke, Nagasu was in Colorado Springs, where she lives and trains with a few other figure skaters. As of now, the U.S. National Championships are underway.
Nagasu is completing a triple axel in 2017, though. A triple in 1991 was different. Nagasu has iPads that can examine her jumps for her. She trains in a harness — yes, literally hanging from the ceiling — that mimics the force created by a spinning jump.
"Those things weren't available back in [Tonya's] day. And, for her to still be able to do a triple axel then is amazing," said Nagasu.
In one of Tonya Harding's most iconic moments, the figure skater's laces broke just before competition. In I, Tonya, a tearful Margot Robbie as Harding glides across the ice, begging the judges to allow her the time to fix it. I asked Nagasu if this happens to her ever — do laces still break?
"Ugh! It happens all the time," she said."What I do to avoid that is I change my laces the week before I compete, so that they're fresh." Some things never change.
The name of the game is getting to the ice, no matter what. Tonya Harding was a national symbol before the pipe hit Nancy Kerrigan's knee because she embodied determination. She made her own costumes. She wedged herself into the figure skating world with sheer force.
"She catapulted into the air with everything she had. You just couldn't deny it, especially if you had the opportunity to see her skate live," said Cox. "You would see the difference between her and the other skaters of that time. She was game-changing."
Twenty-four years following a scandal that rocked the world, Margot Robbie takes on the role of figure skater Tonya Harding in a behind-the-scenes story that will have you questioning what’s real, what’s fake, and how much we truly know about the controversial figures who become cultural lightning rods. I, Tonya hits theaters everywhere January 5th. Grab your tickets HERE
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated when Jocelyn Jane Cox went to the National Championships. She and her brother competed in the 1991 championships, where they placed sixth, not ninth.
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