What is the sound of one dream breaking? For Dan Kerrigan, a plain-spoken, loving father, it was the agonizing screams of his daughter Nancy echoing down the hallway of Detroit's Cobo Hall. Leaving the side of his legally blind wife, Brenda, he pushed through bewildered spectators, scooped Nancy up in his powerful welder's arms and headed for help. For one still-anonymous predator, it was the sound of glass splintering. Dressed in a black hat and leather jacket, he snuck up behind America's foremost female figure skater, swung a metal rod at her elegant, powerful right leg, then ran. Facing locked doors, he smashed through the plexiglass that blocked his desperate retreat and fled into the afternoon. For Nancy Kerrigan, it was the sound of her own voice. Racked with fear and pain, her beauty distorted as she watched a life's work perhaps ruined in a flash of brutality, she heard herself sob. "Why me? Why me?"
No one has an answer yet, and no one might ever. The man with the club is still on the loose, and Saturday night police released two different composite sketches. Unless he comes forward or starts bragging to friends, his identify may remain just another vicious secret. But with one swing, he bad managed to convert a celebration of youth and grace--last week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships--into a reminder that games are no refuge from suffering.
Not that anyone needed any more. just last April tennis star Monica Seles was stabbed during a match in Hamburg, Germany. The same day Kerrigan was attacked, Seles withdrew from the Australian Open--still unable to compete nine months later. Kerrigan, who appears to have suffered only a severe bruise, is not even the first skater to be targeted. In 1992 a California man was sentenced to three years in a psychiatric facility after sending threatening and obscene mail to two-time Olympic champion Katarina Witt. And just two months ago, Tonya Harding, a former national champion who figured to be Kerrigan's principal rival last week, withdrew from a competition in her hometown of Portland, Ore., after a telephone death threat. "You know that such a bad thing can happen," said Brian Boitano, America's 1988 Olympic gold medalist who, at age 30, was making a comeback in Detroit. "You know anyone can do anything if they want to bad enough."
Kerrigan, the 24-year-old beauty from a middle-class Boston suburb, wanted very badly to win her second national crown en route to next month's Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Within hours of the assault, she talked about trying to practice again that night and to compete for the ladies' title the following afternoon. "She doesn't like what happened," said her agent, Jerry Solomon. "She's a fighter." Kerrigan left her hotel room to talk briefly with ABC Sports, which was televising the championships, and reassure her fans, "I just don't want to lose faith in a lot of people. It was just one bad guy, and I'm sure there's others...but not everybody is like that."
But by later that evening, the swelling ballooned around Kerrigan's right knee--her takeoff and landing leg. The next morning an orthopedic team drained 20 cubic centimeters of blood from under her kneecap, ordered an MRI to assure that there was no hidden cartilage damage and ruled a distraught Kerrigan out of the competition based on "pain, lack of motion (in the knee) and lack of strength." Said Kerrigan, who tried repeatedly to convince the doctors she could perform, "I just kept crying." Her mother, Brenda, couldn't contain the tears either when she told a huge press conference, "We can't believe that any human being would deliberately--deliberately--hurt her." At her own press conference, Kerrigan wrung her hands, bravely held back tears and spoke with uncommon eloquence. "I'll do anything I can to get myself mentally and physically ready," she vowed.
Late Saturday night, just eight minutes after Harding won the national championship, officials from the United States Figure Skating Association set the stage for her comeback. Using what USFSA president Claire Ferguson called "famous rule 5.05," they gave Kerrigan the second slot on the U.S. team going to the Lillehammer games. "We can't let a vicious criminal assault decide they can take someone off the Olympic team," said Kerrigan's coach, Evy Scotvold. "If she heals, if she can go; she has to go. Other-wise, we're honoring this attack."
WHAT KIND OF SKATER KERRIGAN will be if and when she gets to the Olympics is a far more complex question. Before the attack, her coach said Kerrigan really needed "a big win." "You have to lay down the challenge to the competition," he told NEWSWEEK. "You want them to feel they have to pull out all the stops to beat you. If they do and add risk to their routines, you've got them playing your game." That didn't happen and now, says Paul Wylie, Kerrigan's longtime training partner and a silver medalist at the 1992 Games, "it will be very difficult for Nancy in Norway when she hasn't had a chance to exercise her competitive muscles in four months."
Kerrigan is already coming off the most difficult year in her career, and a fragile psyche has long been regarded as her critical weakness. At the 1993 world championships in Prague, Kerrigan had been expected to succeed her former Olympic teammate Kristi Yamaguchi as the sport's reigning queen. She led the event after the first day's short program. But then she appeared to skate in a daze through her second-day routine, successfully completing only two of her six triple jumps. She finished in fifth place and left the ice in tears. It was the worst showing by the top American women skater in 30 years. Scotvold says his skater simply hadn't prepared hard enough. "She thought she was going to a coronation, not a competition," he said.
It was a rare stumble for Kerrigan. She took her first skating lessons at 6 and her sport quickly became a family event. Her father worked two or three jobs to keep her in skates. "Danny's financial situation didn't warrant whatever we did," says Nancy's mother. He got up each morning at 4:30 a.m., drove his daughter to the arena where he'd open up the rink and make the first ice. "I thought we had to be nuts, that we'd never stay in the sport," he says. "But every time she set a goal, she'd reach it. How could you tell her to stop?"
As a young skater, Nancy impressed coaches and judges with her athletic skills. She was a strong jumper who could routinely perform difficult jumps and leaps even as a novice. "It was all inspiration with no technical stuff", recalls Scotvold. "She just sort of ran around from jump to jump without much polish." By 1991, not only was the polish there, but Kerrigan had grown into a stunning beauty. On the ice she delivered elegant performances and joined the small circle of elite American skaters. Her progress was not lost on skating judges--a notoriously subjective lot. In 1992 she won a bronze medal at the Winter Games and a silver at the world championships.
She cuts a powerful presence on the ice--and on television. And so does her mother. Brenda lost her eyesight to a virus when Nancy was a baby. At the Olympics, she was regularly shown with her face pressed to a TV monitor watching the shadows of her daughter's performance. "I never see her hand, I never see her face," says Brenda. "I would do anything to see her. There are times when I say, 'Come here. I just want to look at you.' We get nose to nose and I try to see what everyone else sees in her." America was beginning to get nose to nose with Nancy, too, as companies such as Campbell's soups, Reebok and Seiko rushed to associate their products with her image. "I even got more offers the day after Prague," she says in amazement.
She returned home from Prague anxious to resume practice. "She didn't think about quitting for a minute," says her father. "She was mad as a bastard and more determined than ever." Kerrigan says she knew that her Prague performance "was no way to go out." She shed some weight, a troubled romance and some of her public appearances that were cutting into training time. "I don't think I knew what hard work was before," she says. Her on-ice workout the past year included daily double run-throughs of her strenuous competitive program that often stretched beyond three hours.
SHE ALSO BEGAN WORKING WITH A sports psychologist to boost her confidence. "I had to work every day at getting over being negative," she says. "If I miss my first triple jump, I have to say, 'All right, there's a lot more to my program than one jump'." She developed office-relaxation techniques to use during competitions--stretching, walkthroughs of her routines and listening to tapes of radio-station gag calls--as well as on-ice tricks to buoy her spirits. "Like it helps to smile," says Kerrigan, whose smile would score a perfect six in any competition. "I know it sounds corny, but smiling makes you feel lighter. I think my routine in Prague wouldn't have looked so bad if people hadn't seen the horrified expression on my face."
Her comeback was a success. In October she won the major Piruetten competition on the rink where the Olympic competition will be held in Norway, beating three of the four skaters who defeated her in Prague. "I'm a fighter and it's easier for me to fight my way back than to start out on top," she said. But skating is a sport where starting out on top is critical: judges tend to give better scores to skaters who are supposed to score better. Kerrigan expected only to add to her luster in Detroit. "I've been skating so well," she said after pulling out of the competition. "I just wanted to show everybody that I didn't lose it last year. It was just a bad four minutes."
The Kerrigan agony obscured a skating championship that on ice was filled with high drama--Brian Boitano's upset loss to 21-year-old Scott Davis--and poignant moments--former dance champion Renee Roca's return to competition just two hours after fracturing a bone in her arm during a collision in warm-ups. But no one displayed more poise than Kerrigan. She admits she's scared and doesn't know "how long I'll be looking over my shoulder." Still, she considers herself lucky that the attack wasn't crippling. With figure skating emerging as one of America's most popular TV sports, Kerrigan knows she cannot retreat--short of retirement--from the public eye. And she says that the right question for her--and the rest of us--isn't "Why me?" but "Why anybody?" With any luck, she'll get to prove in Norway just how special she is.