Nancy Kerrigan may best be known for the attack on her knee at the 1994 U.S. Nationals in Detroit, but what many do not know is the brilliant career that preceded and followed that terrible day. Nancy is one of the most graceful and elegant skaters the United States has ever sent to world competitions. During her four-year career at the top international level of amateur skating, Nancy won two World and two Olympic medals in addition to becoming the National Champion. Her career was one of ups and downs, triumph and humiliation, and yet through it all, she always exemplified Elegance On Ice.
Nancy began her steady climb up the Nationals ladder in 1989 when she placed fifth at the U.S. Championships. Each of the four succeeding years would bring her one step closer to gold, moving from fourth in 1990 to third in 1991, second in 1992, and finally first in 1993. It was the bronze medal in 1991 that gave her a ticket to her first World Championship. No one really expected anything from her. She was really only the fourth-best ladies skater in the country since 1990 World Champion Jill Trenary had to withdraw from the competition with an injury. Nancy surprised everyone in Munich when she skated a flawless short program and was fifth entering the free skate. Another brilliant skate in the long program pulled her up to bronze-medal position as she completed a first-ever ladies sweep at the Worlds for the United States.
Nancy's hopes began to rise as the Olympic season was welcomed in 1992. She placed second at the Nationals, easily making the Olympic team. Even though she was ranked third in the world, no one expected her to win a medal. After all, Midori Ito had skated poorly in 1991 and there were many other challengers. Once again, Nancy surprised almost everyone, except herself. She skated a perfect short program and was in second place behind Kristi Yamaguchi heading into the long program. Skating right after Kristi two days later, Nancy began to feel some pressure and didn't turn in her best performance. But she still easily managed to hold on to the bronze. The entire world felt her joy and pride as her father Dan and legally-blind mother Brenda watched from the stands with tears in their eyes.
Continuing her steady progress in Worlds standings, Nancy placed second at the World Championships one month after the Olympics. She had wanted to skate better than she did in Albertville and she succeeded. With the conclusion of the 1992 amateur season and the pending retirement of World and Olympic Champion Kristi Yamaguchi, the focus turned to Nancy to gain the crown. As the 1993 season began, she appeared confident with her new role, coming back from a fourth-place finish in the short program at Skate America to win the silver medal. She won the first-ever pro-am competition in the fall of 1992 and became the U.S. National Champion of 1993 in January.
After being the focus of the competition for the entire previous year, Nancy arrived at the 1993 World Championships in Prague as the overwhelming favorite. She skated like a champion in the short program, easily taking first place. Nancy would be second-from-last to skate in the long program. The four ladies before her all skated nearly flawless and she would now have to skate the best she ever had to win the gold. After missing her first jump and popping her second triple into a single, it became clear that it was not meant to be. Nancy completed only two triple jumps and placed ninth in the long program for fifth place overall. It was the first time she hadn't been on the podium at Worlds. Prague was the low-point of Nancy's entire career and many wondered if she would ever regain her old form.
During the summer of 1993, Nancy devoted herself to regaining her mental and physical strength to compete at the 1994 Olympics. She cut out most public appearances and contracts, lost four pounds, and added an extra hour to her daily training schedule. She was now practicing six days a week instead of five. Whenever she practiced her long program, she would run through the whole thing, usually twice in a row. In the past, she would always leave something out of her routine in practice on purpose, whether it be a jump or a spin. Her reason was, "I was afraid to try a perfect program because I was afraid I would find out that I couldn't do it." She knew she could now. She was skating perfect run-throughs and was in the best physical and mental condition of her life. "In some ways, what happened in Prague might have been the best thing for me. I was very mad at myself. It made me fight harder," Nancy said in 1993. "With all the work I've done, I feel I'm good enough to win. I know it. Last year I thought it, but I really wasn't sure."
Her hard work paid off in November when she won the Olympic arena test event, Piruetten, beating all those who had beaten her in Prague except for Oksana Baiul. She won a pro-am in December and proved she was back. Nancy was the overwhelming favorite at the 1994 U.S. National Championships in Detroit. At one practice, she performed her long program back-to-back three times in a row. "And I hit 17 of 18 triple jumps," she proudly announced. Then, as she left the practice ice at Cobo Arena on January 6, 1994, all was changed. Her Olympic future became uncertain although she was placed on the team. She was forced out of competing at the Nationals for the first time in over a decade and this had been her last chance.
By February, Nancy was back in shape and recovering better than anyone expected. But she hadn't performed in front of an audience in two months, not a good way to enter Olympic competition. So, on February fifth, Nancy invited her friends from the skating world to skate in a show called Nancy Kerrigan and Friends. With the conclusion of the show, Nancy was ready to compete in Lillehammer. Nancy performed in the short program at the 1994 Olympics with the entire world supporting her. She skated beautifully and perfectly. Nancy had always been known as a "short program skater", always performing well, but this was an exceptionally well-delivered performance. She attacked every movement, was deliberate with every gesture, and executed each element with perfection. She was placed first but Nancy knew the biggest test was yet to come. She usually skated well in the short program but seldom performed to the same level in the long program. Now, she was at the Olympics, her final amateur competition, with her last chance to make a mark on skating history and she could win it all.
In the past, when faced with pressures like this, Nancy might have succumbed to the pressure. In Lillehammer, she was a new and different skater. She was undaunted by the pressure and her nerves. After doubling her opening triple jump in the long program, she fought back and finished the rest of the program without a single error. It was the most technically-difficult program of the night, with five triple jumps including a triple-triple combination and a difficult triple lutz late in the program. It appeared that she won the gold and she was even told those same words by her coach. Following Nancy's flawless performance, World Champion Oksana Baiul also turned in a nearly-perfect program. In the end, it came down to one judge who had the two skaters tied. A higher artistic mark gave the gold to Baiul and Nancy had to settle for the silver. It was the closest finish possible and Nancy knew she could not be disappointed with herself. "I was alittle shocked because I felt like I skated great," she later said. "But youk now when you're ten years old and you start competing it's not against a clock. It's someone's opinion." Nancy did not need a gold medal to prove her triumph. "She might not have gotten the gold, but she did too many things much bigger than the gold," said her coach, Evy Scotvold, "and I hope she never loses sight of that because what she faced and overcame is much bigger than a gold medal."