My "Intimate" Moment With Tonya Harding, and the Film, I Tonya

True story: when I first met Tonya Harding at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, I was naked, and so was she...

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Last night I watched the amazing movie, I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding and it brought back so many memories and a couple déjà vu's. I can remember being in the arena down at ice level during the Lillehammer Olympics, watching Tonya rush out, late for her program, and then stop about a minute in to request a re-start due to a broken lace.

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The movie replay was perfect. The movie is funny and sad and is so over-the-top ridiculous that if you didn't know better would feel like complete fiction. It is a definite a must-see and will mostly likely change your perceptions of those infamous events. Over 24 years ago, Tonya Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly hired two bumbling wanna-be mobsters (Shawn Eckhardt and Shane Stant) to whack Nancy Kerrigan on the knee so Tonya could be assured a spot on the Olympic team. Media blitzed the story especially a video snippet of Kerrigan sitting on the floor sobbing and screaming, "Why!? Why?!" 

A couple of months later after the story broke and I was at the Olympic village in Lillehammer.  The story continued to hold the headlines as new information was breaking daily including greater suspicion that Tonya may have had a role in the affair. I had met Nancy on a few occasions and was on friendly terms with her, but it seemed impolite to even inquire about the matter. 

The Olympic village is a safe haven with TV's, lounges, food, and even massage and physical therapy available 24/7. After a tough workout I decided to take advantage of the massage and entered the physical therapy area which featured dozens of massage tables in pairs each set facing one TV on a cart. As was the norm, I stripped down into just a towel and laid face down as the therapist began working on my calves and hamstrings. I watched coverage of skiing with a bit of glazed indifference and tried to relax. At some point, I heard some motion to my right and as I turned my head, I noticed someone had joined me on the second table. I knew it was a girl because of two towels and a blonde pony tail, but had no idea who it was. 

Just then two things happened. First the girl on the table next to me turned her head and our eyes locked - I was staring into the visage of none other than Tonya Harding. Just as that was sinking in another thing happened - on the TV, louder commentary intruded overtop the skiing that caused a hot rush of embarrassment to course through my veins, "Breaking news in the Nancy Kerrigan - Tonya Harding affair - new evidence  has emerged that suggests possible knowledge or even tacit approval by Tonya Harding for the attack on Nancy Kerrigan." I was mortified. For some reason I felt like a voyeur - like I had intruded into someone else's private and embarrassing affair that had made its way into the light of day and I began to subtly turn my head the other direction. 

Tonya had swiveled to see the TV, but the movement of my head caught her attention and she turned back to me raising her hand slighty to put me 'on pause' as her eyes moved over to the left side of the TV where the remote control was - just inches from my right hand. Her eyes returned to mine with excitement and with not even the remotest hint of embarrassment she spoke.

What she said next I'll never forget, "Turn it up!  Turn it up! - I want to hear this!" so... I did. You can't make this stuff up. That was my time with Tonya. 

Torino Journal #9: Epilogue

I mustered up the courage to send Al my Torino newsletter and a few days later he wrote me this letter:  From: Al Izykowski To: John Coyle Sent: Wed, 22 Mar 2006 00:19:34 -0500 Subject: The Circle of Life

John-- 

I am deeply touched and moved by your words and reaction.  I am having a difficult time processing it all and I apologize for the delay in responding.  After I read you e-mail I went up to Alex's bedroom and looked at his bulletin board that holds only the most meaningful awards and memories of his childhood and skating career. 

Pinned near the right border in a ziploc baggy is a drink napkin from Steamer's Pub with your signature on it dated 1994, along with the picture of You with Alex and you Silver Medal.  I then went to our Italy photos and found the picture of You with Alex and his Bronze Medal at the Budweiser House.  I printed it off and returned to the bulletin board and carefully opened the bag, gently slid the new photo in, re-sealed the bag and pinned it back in the exact same hole. 

I stepped back and contemplated the many things that had to have taken place in so many people's lives in order for those two photos to be in that bag together, hanging on a bulletin board in a boy's bedroom where he only dreamed of such success.  As I stood and stared I was overwhelmed by emotion as I again attempted to comprehend the awesome unifying power of the Olympic Games and values.  Thank you for sharing your success with us 12 years ago and thank you for including Alex (and me) in this circle of success 12 years later.   

My mom died when I was just 14, and my dad died on the same day 4 years later when I was 18.  Alex was born 2 years later when I was just 20 and still playing college football.  Many thought it was a bad thing.  I  of course never did.  I have always looked at that boy with the same sparkle in my eye as the one I see in your eye when you look at your little girl.  Alex's mom and I have beaten the odds and stayed together since we were 15 years old without screwing up our kids lives.  He has taken us to places we imagined existed only for others, and has lead us to quality people like yourself whom we can now call a friend.  You bet I feel proud, but then again I have felt proud every step of the way knowing that we were all doing the best we could.  It is very difficult for me to get my head around the idea that something I said somehow had a profound impact on you, but I am very flattered that you felt compelled to write us into your Torino Journal.  Just remember that it all started from you, I was just the lucky messenger who reminded you of your actions and what they meant to a little boy with stars in his eyes. 

I guess you never know what role you may play in someone's life or just how important the things you choose to do or say or choose not to do or say may turn out to be.  I contemplated quite a bit over whether or not to have those words with you at the Huntsmen fearing I might be dismissed as a typical over zealous parent.  Well, needless to say I am glad I took what felt like a risk at the time and approached you.   

I didn't intend to write this much at this sitting so I guess I will stop here.  I apologize if I am rambling on incoherently...I am really struggling with all the emotions of the past few months.  Then, reading your words was so unexpected you really caught me off gaurd and got me to thinking about all kinds of things...good things of course, but it kind of drains you emotionally.  

 "All the best" (that is how you signed the napkin) to you and your girls until we meet again.  Thanks for your indulgence. Sincerely,Al Izykowski                                               

 1994                                                         2006

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Day 1 1/2 of the Short Track Worldcup, Salt Lake City, Utah

I managed to get a decent amount of rest last night despite being out on the town with all 3 of my teammates from the 1994 Olympic games - the first time in probably 10 years that we had a chance to spend more than a few minutes together.  The evening was filled with good natured insults, stories from the road and a series of toasts.  Underneath all the verbal horseplay though, was a mostly silent acknowledgment that the bonds of this sport had forged between us. Like all great friendships it was exactly as though no time had passed, and even though the group dynamic had not happened in more than 10 years, it might have been yesterday.

Joining us were Liz & Paul Marquese, Rusty Smith, and Ian Baranski. As the lone female, I suspect Liz learned a lot more about life on the road than she probably every really wanted to know.

 Back at the rink this morning and we announced our way through all of the repechage rounds - basically "second chance" opportunities for skaters eliminated yesterday to gt in some additional races and grasp at the two spots that would lead them back into the official meet this evening.

 An interesting rumour is swirling around at the meet - that they are attempting to bring in Apolo's "Dancing with the Stars" partner Julianna in to sing the national anthem tomorrow night. No idea of the validity - but it would be good for the sport.

 I'll post again tonight after the races are over - we are skating the 500 and 1500m finals tonight.

 -John

Eric Flaim

Eric Flaim

My first memories of Eric were at the first national speedskating championships I ever attended – in 1981 – in Butte Montana. I was terrible but managed to get one 4th place in one final.

True to form, Eric wasn’t shy at all and on a touristy trip to visit the local copper mine – an expansive bowl shaped hole in the ground terraced by the digs and service roads for the heavy equipment - Eric’s snap comment was, “Now I know why they they call this Butt Montana – it’s a gigantic toilet."

This was strong humor for me - a 12 year old raised by conservative parents and I laughed long and hard until my dad reappeared. “Look – it’s a butt!” Eric pointed to a cloud, getting a rise out of all of us.

Eric is a fierce competitor and of all of those I competed with through the years, probably he is the one I was most surprised by – and I mean surprised – when I discovered (and I mean discovered) that we were friends.

Two years older than me, as teens growing up we only competed on rare intervals. Even as I failed to make the team in 1988, Eric skated a world record in the Calgary Olympics in the 1500m in what was one of the most technically perfect race ever skated. Even today you can watch the race and just be in awe of what he put together in that minute and fifty seconds. Ultimately he won a silver medal, having the gold stolen from him in one of the later pairs of skaters.

Cocky? Sure. Brash? Yes. Confident? Yep. Loud? Yes. Bold? Yes.

At first these aspects of Eric’s personality really make you want to dislike him. And for a while I held him at a distance – intrigued by his charm, pissed off by his on ice antics. In the 1994 Olympic trials, Eric and I had several run-ins leading to shouting matches with the referees. It was pretty much accepted that Eric was a favorite amongst the judges and referees – and in hindsight, who can blame them if it were true – Eric’s clearly a gutsy clutch player.

In the 1994 Olympic games, during the great race of the games – the 5000m short track relay where the USA won their 13th and final medal (the most ever in a winter Olympics), it was Eric (with an amazing push from Andy) that put in four straightaway strokes at the end of the race to steal back silver from the Australians and match his own medal from Calgary. Another silver medal – but this time one that I share with him along with Andy Gabel and Randy Bartz…

Ok, so Eric does suck as a roommate. Seriously he’s the worst roommate you can imagine on a trip overseas. In Norway in 1995 Eric was my roommate. Prior to that I had established a great rhythm with Andy or Randy as roommates. Respect for the nap, keeping quiet when the other person was sleeping, keeping the shades closed, keeping the bathroom reasonably clean, no rap music… These had become expectations for me, and Eric proceeded to break every unwritten rule. When Eric is up – everyone’s up. If Eric wakes early with jet lag – on goes the rap music, up goes the shades and when I grumpily stumble into the shower after he was done, he’s managed to use all the towels and still leave a puddle on the floor.

But Eric – he’ll do anything for you. I’m constantly reminded of my own selfishness in the face of his selflessness. If you are traveling through Boston and you have a layover, give him a call and he’ll volunteer to come get you and take you to dinner – and then insist on paying for it. The first to buy drinks, a big tipper, always willing to drive or go out of his way for people Eric seemingly has a horde of close friends – and no wonder – he is just so engaging and one of the most generous people I’ve met.

Thank you Eric – for so many things – your friendship, your lessons in service to others, and not the least for, on February 25th, 1994, slicing an amazing four straightaway strokes deep into your 8th relay exchange of the final event of those Olympic games and guaranteeing all of us the silver medal we share.

 

-John