Audrey Williams, the Canadian judge at the 1994 Winter Olympics, didn't see Tonya Harding's broken lace with her own eyes, but she was at the table when Tonya tearfully glided over to tell the ref it had given out. "I just couldn't believe that she would do it," Williams says over the phone. At the time, many saw Harding's meltdown as karma: She was competing at the Olympics despite having maybe, possibly helped her ex-husband (Jeff Gillooly) and bodyguard (Shawn Eckhardt) plan an attack on Nancy Kerrigan. This is what she gets.
But to see the moment depicted in Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya, the black-comedy biopic that paints Harding as a sympathetic character rather than a "white trash" villain, the scene is nothing short of tragic. Harding was an exceptional athlete who made it to the Olympics despite being a poor high-school dropout with an allegedly abusive mom and husband. This was the end of the road for her. She placed eighth (Kerrigan placed second), and was thereafter banned from the U.S. Figure Skating Association for life. (She plead guilty to hindering the prosecution but maintains to this day that she did not know about the attack on Kerrigan prior to it happening.)
Williams, who turns 85 today, hasn't seen the movie yet (she says she'll likely go around Christmas), but she's aware that it's once again sparked public interest in the "incident." Here, she shares her memories of the 1994 Winter Olympics, which marked her first time as an Olympic judge, and gives her thoughts on Harding.
Once there was a question of whether Tonya was involved in the attack on Nancy, do you think she should have be allowed to compete in the Olympics?
I figured that she shouldn't have been allowed to, and I remember all of us saying that the U.S. Figure Skating Association should have stopped it in the bud, and then they left it up to the Olympic Committee to try to stop it, and they did nothing. And this is going forward a bit, but when we got to the Olympics, there were a lot of athletes that certainly didn't get the attention they should have got because of the Kerrigan and Tonya Harding mishap, and that was really sad, because there was a Norwegian speed skater that was breaking records every day and he hardly got any attention, and that kind of made everybody a little annoyed.
How closely did you follow Tonya's career prior to '94?
I saw Tonya at a Skate America in San Francisco, and she really skated well. I'm not sure where she [placed], but certainly she medaled. Then I was a referee at a Skate America in Dallas, and she missed her triple axel, and she came up [and] said her blade was loose. I didn't feel any weakness on the blade. And so I gave it to an international skating union man that was there and I said, "You try it." And he said, "Let's let her have another chance." So she was onto this trick, and then when she did it at the Olympics, I just couldn't believe it.
What do you mean by "onto this trick"?
Either a shoelace or a weak skate or a weak blade, the blade was loose. I only saw her do it twice, but I know she did it other times - either her dress or her skate blade or her lace [had a problem]. And it was the lace at the Olympics.
That scene with the lace appears in the movie, and it's so dramatic that I had to go back and watch the video to remember if it was really that dramatic in real life.
Yup, it was. I just couldn't believe that she would do it. And I didn't believe that her lace was broken. I can't honestly say, I never saw it. I was the number-eight judge, so I was down from the referee. I saw her lifting her leg up. Didn't make any difference in the way that she [skated]; she didn't really skate that well. She didn't get her triple axel in, so it didn't change where I had her. I don't remember where I placed her, but it was around eighth, I think.
Were you prepared for the media storm at the Olympics?
No! The first practice was unbelievable. They brought a 747 over full of reporters, journalists, and that was in the day where they had the films that were in a tube, so it sounded like a war, with these tubes being thrown on the ground and everybody going click, click, click. It was very frustrating. For the skaters, for the judges, for the people that are running it. They certainly didn't want to have to put up with all the security.
Were you concerned that it would distract from your ability to judge fairly?
No, because as a judge, you're prepared for everything, and I don't think it made any difference in my judgement.
"I, Tonya" offers a sympathetic view of Tonya, which has been the direction the conversation has been going over the past few years - there was also ESPN's The Price of Gold. Do you personally feel sympathy for Tonya?
Well, I had admiration for her, because she learned to skate in a mall. There were good coaches in that mall, but that's pretty hard, not having a training facility when all the other skaters had real training facilities. So I always felt, "Oh, gosh, she's done really, really well." I can't say I have sympathy for her, because she let this happen, and she hurt a lot of people.
Our girl [Canadian skater Josée Chouinard], she was the skater after Tonya. [Skaters] make up their schedule, what they're going to do, in minutes. Well, Tonya had to take her skates off [and Chouinard was sent out to skate before Tonya]. So it changed her whole pattern, and it changed the pattern not only for her, but for a few skaters following her.
There's one part in the movie where Tonya approaches a judge and asks why she's not getting better marks, and he told her she doesn't have the sort of wholesome image or family they want representing the country.
Oooh, that's terrible. That's not right. I can't see a judge saying that, sorry. I've been asked by lots of skaters [why they didn't score better], and parents, and you stand there and tell them - but it's not for something like that, it's for what happened on the ice. Your jump wasn't high enough, you didn't have enough jumps, your running edge wasn't good, whatever. You try to be as honest as you can with them. Say she's skating to "Rhapsody in Blue" and she has a purple dress on - why not have a blue dress? Make a complete package. I don't think Tonya ever really did that.
Let's say Nancy was never attacked and Tonya skated the best she could possibly skate: Do you think there was any hope of Tonya getting a gold medal at the Olympics?
No. There were too many better skaters. But she was in the top-10. I think we started with pretty close to 40 [skaters], so that's amazing.
Do you think Tonya deserved to get banned from figure skating?
Yes. When her partner or her friend hired somebody to hit Nancy, definitely yes. You don't win friends and influence people by [doing] that. And I just think that's what we have to do, so other people don't go out and do it.
Couldn't she have just gone to prison?
Yeah, but she was finished anyway. She was at the top of her career. By the time the Olympics came around, Tonya didn't have the spark she had when she was younger.
Do you think she was given a fair shot by the skating community?
I do. Because she made it to the Olympics. A lot of skaters never get anywhere near there. So she couldn't have been that held back. She got there.
Tonya maintains to this day that she knew nothing about the attack in advance. Do you believe that?
I just don't know. I can't honestly say one way or the other. I hope she didn't. But I can't say she didn't. We'll never know.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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