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Nancy Kerrigan opens up about 'the whack heard 'round the world'

Photo: David Goldman/AP

Nancy Kerrigan has finally decided to open up 20 years after being attacked by a hit squad hired by rival Tonya Harding's ex-husband.

SOCHI -- Nancy Kerrigan sat alone in the back of Dostoyevsky Hall in the Main Press Center on Friday afternoon as her life played out on the three screens in front of her. The night before, about a mile away at Iceberg Skating Palace, the global sports world had been focused on Adelina Sotnikova and Kim Yu-Na in the Olympic women’s figure skating finals. Twenty years ago, Kerrigan had lived the same life only with a tabloid twist, one half of the Tonya-Nancy drama that ushered in the reality television era.

There were nearly as many NBC Sports public relations people as reporters for a Sochi screening of Nancy and Tonya, a one-hour documentary airing Sunday at 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT on NBC (it will replay on NBCOlympics.com) but those in attendance saw a compelling film, mostly because we have not heard in-depth thoughts from Kerrigan about this strange time in her life in decades. Tonya Harding is also interviewed extensively in the film, including a surreal scene of her singing karaoke. The one-hour piece is fronted by Mary Carillo, well-produced by Margaret Grossi and sharply edited by Rob Weir.

Kerrigan said that Carillo and Grossi had attempted to get a sit-down interview with her for years and she finally agreed last year. The NBC staffers started working on the project last summer and the pair did two long sit-downs with Kerrigan.

“I trusted them enough to portray my family and the history of this because it is very complicated and long,” Kerrigan said. “It’s 20 years later. I’ve moved on. I don't revisit this on a daily basis. It was hard at first to sit down and talk for five hours straight and to think about all this. It’s a little surreal to watch your life and to think, ‘That’s me. It’s almost like a whole other person at this point. I have moved on. Things in my life are different. But it is emotional to watch your own life in front of you.”

Kerrigan, now 44 years old and a married mother of three, was out of the spotlight prior to the Sochi Games when NBC hired her to work as a figure skating analyst for the Olympics. (The network said their was no quid pro quo for her involvement in the film.) What the documentary shows -- and clearly Carillo and Grossi have a fondness for Kerrigan -- is that the Ice Princess versus Trailer Park Trash storyline was bogus. The difference between Harding and Kerrigan was parental stability.  

“You feel bad for her, to not have that stable home,” Kerrigan said of Harding. “I am so lucky. It wasn’t easy. I remember counting quarters and my parents counting money to buy groceries. But I lived in one place with two parents and it was stable. I had grandparents two houses away ... It’s not like I was a princess. I happened to have good posture so I looked the part, I guess. In figure skating that is what we do. We stand up and straight. But I feel for Tonya. When you see someone struggle from the beginning, that’s hard and I feel for her. It doesn’t excuse her judgment. But I hope now, not just for my sake, but her sake too -- she has a family -- let’s move on. You have to allow people the chance to get on with their lives and to be better and learn from mistakes. But I don’t feel like this film resolved anything for me. I mean, I was attacked. I was the victim.”

She continued on, elaborating on the criminal masterminds that organized to injure her at the 1994 U.S. championships in Detroit.

“I was so lucky, not just to be able to be in the [1994] Olympics, but at one point they had thought about killing me,” Kerrigan said. "Another time, it was taping me up with duct tape and cutting my Achilles tendon and smashing them in, vicious brutal attacks. I read this [in the FBI files on the case] and this could have been a whole lot worse. I am so lucky for bad guys not being smart. It’s not funny because they still did attack me. There is nothing really funny about getting attacked but I had to literally to find some kind of humor because it helps healing.”

Carillo said she believed Kerrigan had been turned into something she wasn’t by the media, especially the tabloid press. “Someone slugs her on the knee and six weeks later she comes that close to a gold medal,” Carillo said. “All these years later I thought that got lost in the sauce.

Carillo also mentioned she was surprised that Harding remains so defiant. “She claims she was not complicit in it," Carillo said. "Did I believe her? For me personally after reading everything … it strains credulity for me that she claimed that she didn't know. But she is defiant. She is standing by her story.”

The ESPN Films 30 for 30 documentary (The Price of Gold) on the same subject that aired last month, while not a love letter to Harding, definitely came off more sympathetic to the former skater than the NBC piece. I asked Carillo about the perception that her documentary is a considered Nancy’s story where the ESPN documentary is Tonya’s. “That’s not my perception,” Carillo said. “We interviewed both. We gave Tonya every opportunity to tell her story her way and she does. And we got Nancy too. This is the one [Carillo pointed to Kerrigan] that I felt no one understood. I don’t think it is her film. We tried very hard to balance it.”

Near the end of the 10-minute Q&A with the handful of press, including Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and the Washington Post, Kerrigan was asked, “How much have you cared or not cared about being understood?” She started to well up.

“I always wanted to be understood” Kerrigan said. “I just want to be liked. That’s all. I just want to be…"

She broke down, and the questions ended. But her recovery came swift and she finished answering the question. Her sport has always been about getting up after you fall.