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Video: Tonya Harding tells her story

TODAY contributor
updated 5/15/2008 10:45:10 AM ET 2008-05-15T14:45:10

After a “roller-coaster life” that she says includes a childhood of abuse at the hands of her mother and a rape at gunpoint by her husband and two other men — a roller coaster that took her from the pinnacle of sports stardom to turmoil and ignominy — Tonya Harding says she’s at peace.

And she wants people to know that she’s not the cartoon figure that she’s been portrayed to be. “I am just a person who has led a roller-coaster life my whole entire life,” Harding told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday in New York, where she is promoting the publication of her tell-all book, “The Tonya Tapes.”

There is much in the book that is not pretty, from the abuse she claims she suffered at the hands of her mother to the alleged rape, a story she had never told before.

For one shining moment, Harding was the greatest figure skater in the world, a smiling ice princess swathed in sequins and glory. She won her first national championship in 1991, when, at the age of 20, she became the first woman ever to pull off a triple axel jump in competition.

Career in eclipse
But by 1994, her career was already in eclipse, her spotlight usurped by the tall and elegant Nancy Kerrigan. It was that January, on the eve of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships that would determine which skaters would go to the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, that Harding was swept up in what would become known as “The Whack Heard Round the World.”

Her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, with whom she still lived, was ultimately identified as the mastermind of the attack and was sentenced to prison for it. Three other men were also implicated in the plot, and Harding — who would finish a disappointing eighth in Lillehammer while Kerrigan finished second — would admit to hindering the FBI’s investigation.

In the book, she writes that she decided to call the FBI shortly after the incident, when she first learned of Gillooly’s involvement. Gillooly terrified her into silence, she writes:

“"Jeff and two other guys — don't know who they were because I couldn't see who they were — they were in a different car — decided to drive me up to the mountains, put a gun to my head, and take themselves upon me ... They told me, this is what you are going to say. This is what you are going to do, and if you don't, you're not going to be here anymore.”

Gillooly, who has changed his name to Jeff Stone, told TODAY Harding's claims are "utterly ridiculous."

"Her saying that I gang raped her is ridiculous," he said.  "I am surprised that some publisher would even print this."

Why did Harding wait so long to tell this story?

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“Ashamed,” she told Vieira. “Scared.”

Embarrassing episodes
Harding was banned from figure skating, and ever since, her life has seemed to be one embarrassing episode after another — a DUI conviction; a charge of assaulting her second husband with a hubcap; participation in a celebrity boxing match with Paula Jones, who had accused President Bill Clinton of sexual assault.

Now, Harding finally tells why she behaved as she did and why she’s waited so long to tell the world what she says is the real story of her life. And she hopes that by speaking out, she will empower others to do the same.

“[I was] embarrassed and ashamed of my life,” she told Vieira. “There’s so many people out there that have had bad things happen to them and they can’t tell anybody because they’re afraid to tell someone,” Harding added.

Harding’s parents had slender financial means, and saw her as a way to success and a comfortable life. Her mother, LaVona Harding Golden, used physical punishment as a motivational tool, Harding said.

“There were so many times when my mother would be upset with me because I didn't skate good and drag me off the ice by my hair, take me to the bathroom, and beat my butt until it was black and blue,” Harding wrote.

Golden told NBC that her daughter’s allegations are false and that she struck her only once — lightly — on the arm with a hairbrush. “I did the very best I could as a mother. I still love her. I always will,” Golden said.

The two don’t talk, and Harding said they never will. “I gave her the opportunity to be a mother and it did not happen. I have forgiven her for everything she had done to me as a child, but I’m OK. I’m all right.”

Her only retreat
Harding said that skating was her only retreat, her only safe place as a child. “The only thing I could look forward to was stepping out on the ice. That was my sanctuary. That’s where I felt the best and I actually felt good about me, no matter what anybody said to me.”

Harding has been plagued by financial problems ever since she was banned from skating and her life unraveled so publicly. Vieira said that many believe she wrote her shocking book to make money and to deny personal responsibility for her actions.

“I wrote the book to just be able to lift my spirits and also to help other people out there,” Harding said. “A lot of people out there don’t get their voices heard. Life is too precious to just throw it away. I just want people to realize when it’s time that you need to speak to somebody, talk to somebody. It’s not shameful. It’s not losing pride, not losing face. If you need help, ask for help. It’s OK. That’s what life’s about. It has ups and downs.”

Harding said that she also wants to bring closure to her childhood and everything that’s happened to her. “I feel I’ve matured a lot. I have to have a fresh new beginning for my future.”

She said she feels that she has turned her failures into triumph.

“I’m successful. To me success is having inner peace and being happy, and that’s where I’m at,” Harding said. “When you go to hell and come back, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”

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