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From the Kerrigan attack to Battle of the Brians: A look back at the biggest moments in US figure skating

As skaters hit the ice and make new memories in Beijing, we remember past moments that captivated us.

The athletes are just getting started at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and Team USA’s figure skating stars are already making moves to remember on the ice.

So, it’s the perfect time to look back at some of the biggest wins, losses and absolute surprises that have taken place in the past.

Here are six moments we’ll never forget!

The attack on Nancy Kerrigan

Lillehammer: "Kalter Krieg" auf olympischem Eis
Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan preparing for their routines at Cobo Arena in 1994.picture alliance / Getty Images

In 1994, with the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer just weeks away, the figure skating world was rocked by an unprecedented and brutal assault moments after a top contender stepped off the ice.

American skater Nancy Kerrigan was preparing for her performance at the U.S. championships at Cobo Arena in Detroit, when she was suddenly attacked by a man who hit her right knee with a baton. The assailant escaped, leaving Kerrigan in tears, crying out, “Why? Why? Why?” and, “Help me!”

The injured Kerrigan was unable to compete at the championships, leaving a clear path to the win for fellow figure skater Tonya Harding. It was a title that was later stripped from Harding, after she pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution.

1994 Olympics - Women's Figure Skating
Nancy Kerrigan of the USA participates in the awards ceremony of the women's figure skating singles competition of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 25, 1994. David Madison / Getty Images

Despite Kerrigan’s injuries, she was able to compete in Lillehammer and took home the silver.

Michelle Kwan came so close to the gold

The Winter Olympics 1998
Michelle Kwan in action during the women's figure skating long program at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, on Feb. 20, 1998.Simon M Bruty / Getty Images

When Michelle Kwan competed at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the hugely popular figure skater seemed like a shoo-in for the gold — at least until another rising star on the ice eked out a win against her in the free skate.

Kwan delivered a nearly perfect routine packed with seven triples — but fellow Team USA skater Tara Lipinski did the same, and she even included a couple of unexpected elements that pushed her score just above Kwan’s. Lipinski took the gold, and Kwan, who’s won five world championship titles and nine U.S. championship titles (and is widely considered the greatest female figure skater of all time), took silver.

In fact, despite Kwan’s decorated status, as well as her celebrated return to the 2002 Winter Olympics, she never went on to win Olympic gold.

Tenley Albright makes history

Tenley Albright Skating
American figure skater Tenley Albright in 1955. Already a U.S. and world champion at the time of the photo, she won the Olympic gold medal the following year.PhotoQuest / Getty Images

Over four decades before Kwan’s quest for gold came up short, Tenley Albright made figure skating history with her own gold-medal performance.

In 1956, at the Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, Albright, a 20-year-old pre-med student and veteran of the 1952 Olympics, became the first female American figure skater to win the gold medal.

She followed up that feat by retiring from competitive skating and moving on to her next ambition. In 1957, she started at Harvard Medical School and then went on to become a surgeon.

Battle of the Brians

Canada's Brian Orser and Team USA's Brian Boitano went head-to-head in 1988.
Canada's Brian Orser and Team USA's Brian Boitano went head-to-head in 1988. Getty Images

The rivalry between Team USA’s Brian Boitano and Canada’s Brian Orser began long before the competitors arrived at the 1988 Calgary Games. In fact, the top-ranked skaters swapped first and second place at the World Figure Skating Championships during the two years prior to their Olympic showdown.

By the time they made it to Calgary, all eyes were on the two men who’d excited viewers around the world with their neck-and-neck competition, which was informally called “Battle of the Brians.”

The men were evenly matched going into the contest at Calgary, and they remained so after their compulsory figures — Boitano finished in second place and Orser in third — and short program, Orser took the top spot followed by Boitano. So everything came down to their respective military-themed long programs. Orser packed his performance with seven triple jumps, while Boitano, known for his ‘Tano triple lutz, landed eight triples, and by a small margin, won the gold.

The excitement around the Battle of the Brians and the outcome propelled Boitano to a level of fame few male skaters have come close to, eventually seeing him become a pop culture fixture and song-worthy character on “South Park.”

Battle of the Carmens

Katarina Witt of East Germany and America's Debi Thomas made for the other big battle on the ice in 1988.
Katarina Witt of East Germany and America's Debi Thomas made for the other big battle on the ice in 1988.Getty Images

The Brians weren’t the only ones to prove that 1988 was the ultimate year for Olympic rivalries on the ice. While Boitano faced off against Orser in his quest for gold in the men’s competition, Team USA’s Debi Thomas faced her biggest challenger, East Germany’s Katarina Witt, in what was dubbed the “Battle of the Carmens.”

The women’s competition earned that name because both Thomas, then 20, and Witt, 22, selected to perform their long programs to music from Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” Thomas went into the battle as the favorite, having already secured the lead after the short programs. However, that all changed after she began her final routine, in which Thomas struggled with several elements. Meanwhile Witt, with her take on "Carmen," edged past Thomas’ routine, winning the gold.

As for Thomas, her long program set her overall score back enough to leave her settling for the bronze. But make no mistake, that was still a big win. Thomas’ bronze made her the first Black athlete to medal at any Winter Olympics.

Sarah Hughes does the (nearly) impossible

2002 Winter Olympic Games :
Sarah Hughes put on a gold-medal winning routine at the 2002 Games. Tim de Waele / Getty Images

Things weren’t looking promising for 16-year-old Sarah Hughes at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. Kwan was the favorite going into the competition, as she had been at Nagano, and expectations weren’t as high for Hughes, who hadn’t won a single world or U.S. senior title. And expectations were even lower for her after she placed fourth in the short program.

In order to take the gold at that point, Hughes would not only have to ace her long program and come out on top of the three higher-ranked skaters, she also needed Kwan to place third or worse in her own free skate in order to leave a margin big enough for Hughes to pull off what seemed like a miracle.

And that’s exactly what happened!

While the leaders struggled, Hughes put on a clean and jump-packed performance that earned her the gold medal.