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On Sports
by: Tim DeFrisco, At the 1991 U.S. figure skating championships in Minneapolis, Tonya Harding celebrates her victory over runner-up Kristi Yamaguchi (left) and bronze medalist Nancy Kerrigan (second from right).

BATTLE GROUND, Wash. - Nobody pays attention to the short strawberry blonde as she stands at the counter, ready to order a salad with a bottle of Corona for lunch at Rocky's Pizza.

A neighbor has said hello, but other than that, one of the most infamous characters in figure-skating history has passed through the restaurant unnoticed.

Tonya Harding moves upstairs and sits down for an interview.

We'd gotten to know each other over the years and have had a cordial professional relationship. I'd covered her pro boxing debut in Memphis in 2003. I'd written often about the 'Portland pugilist' and had visited a variety of subjects in her life, but none as deeply as I was about to.

It's been 15 years since Harding - who turns 39 next month - was involved in the biggest controversy in U.S. figure-skating history. Whether she conspired with ex-husband Jeff Gillooly to attack competitor Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 national championships or had only peripheral involvement - as she claimed - her reputation was tarnished eternally.

So the former national champion, a silver medalist at the 1991 world championships and fourth-place finisher at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, hasn't had the easiest of times since the Kerrigan attack.

Harding sustained a lifetime ban from U.S. Federation events and was in effect blackballed from having a pro career. She's been a punch line for comedians and an easy target for public criticism through a number of subsequent run-ins with the law, including domestic violence against a former boyfriend and drunk driving.

Yet Harding has persevered and worked at making herself a better person. It's a work in progress, she is the first to admit. But she's trying.

For the past six years, Harding has rented a tiny cottage along the Lewis River in the hills beyond Battle Ground, providing the solitude and anonymity she desires. She lives alone with her 2-year-old black labrador, enjoying her favorite outdoor pursuits such as hunting (deer and elk, though she also has a bear and cougar tag), fishing, camping, boating and woodcutting.

'I love it up here,' says Harding, who left her native Milwaukie for Battle Ground in 1997. 'It's peaceful.

'I did the Oregon thing. Been there; done that. I'm a Washingtonian now. I like being up here close to the outdoors. Even going for a drive just to see wildlife is so neat.'

Twice married, Harding has had a steady boyfriend for several months. His name?

'Boyfriend,' she says with a laugh. 'We've known each other longer. He doesn't care about my past. Everybody has one. He knows everything there is to know about me. He's read my book. It's kind of cool. His job is in the financial field. He has his life and I have mine, but then we have our lives together as well.'

I ask Harding if she has any regrets about what she has done in her life.

'Nowadays? Are you kidding?' she asks. 'It's been 15 years.'

If she sounds indignant, it passes quickly.

'People always think, 'What if?' ' she continues. 'But you know what? Why dwell on regrets? There's nothing you can do about it.'

Harding says she hasn't talked to Gillooly - who later changed his name legally to Jeff Stone - in years. She declines to revisit any details of the Kerrigan attack, for which she avoided a possible jail sentence by pleading guilty to hindering investigation. She has tried to move on with her life.

'I respect myself, and I respect other people,' she says. 'Doesn't matter who you are, everybody makes mistakes, Deal with it, put it in the past and go on. That's how I live life now. That's what people want to see. They want to see determination, see somebody pick (herself) back up and get motivated. Do something good.'

Harding says she is dedicated to helping underprivileged children and donates a portion of proceeds from any of her public appearances to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

'Children are our future,' she says. 'We need to let them know there's light at the end of the tunnel. If you get down on yourself, it'll wear you down.'

Harding's feelings are shaped by her own upbringing. Her father, Al - who died in April - had health problems and wasn't always able to hold a job. Mother LaVona, Tonya says, was abusive.

'Haven't talked to her in years,' Harding says. 'I do not consider her my mother. A lot of people will look down on me for saying that, but I believe in a higher power. I pray all the time. I've tried to forgive her several times, and it's never happened. It's better for me mentally to just not ever have contact with them.'

Harding talks tough sometimes, but the hard edge seems to have softened over the years.

'I can be a hard-ass,' she says. 'I can. People will take things I say the wrong way, because of how I act while I'm saying it. I have a truck driver's mouth.'

She laughs, then says, 'I try to project I'm stronger than I really am, but I'm human, just like everybody else. A lot of things you have to let go in one ear and out the other. A lot of things hurt.'

She's not oblivious to the cracks people have made about her over the years. Depression, she says, has been a constant battle.

'Everybody knows that,' she says. 'But I couldn't care less, really, what people think. There's nothing you can do about it. The past is the past. Why not wake up every morning and have a task? Get up off your butt and do something.'

Harding stays active, but rarely through skating, she admits. Her last time on the ice was more than two months ago.

'But it's my first love,' she says. 'Always will be. I could put my skates on right now and go do doubles (Salchows) easily, no hesitation. By the fifth day, I'd be doing triples.'

Harding makes a living through a couple of pursuits. There are the public appearances, such as one last month at a mixed martial arts show - Cage of Honor 34 - at Lake of the Ozarks. She poses for photos and signs autographs. She'll return to Missouri in November for an amateur boxing event in Branson.

And, along with such pseudo-celebs as Danny Bonaduce and Roger Lodge, she works on TruTV's 'Smoking Gun Presents: World's Dumbest,' providing commentary on video of arrests and assorted missteps.

'It's just funny,' Harding says. 'I thought I had seen a lot in my life; I hadn't. I've never seen so many stupid people in all my life. Now the roles have changed; instead of people making fun of me, I can make fun of them.'

She has made some money off her recent autobiography, 'The Tonya Tapes,' which reaped publicity from her appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in April.

'I was so nervous,' Harding says. 'Here's the most well-known, successful businesswoman in the world. I don't get intimidated very often, but I was nervous. I was, 'What if she doesn't like me?' I know I shouldn't think that way, but gosh, I watch her show.

'She was so cool. She has such compassion. She actually looks you in the eyes when she talks to you. You know she cares.'

That seems important to Harding, who says she is treated well in public by almost everybody.

'When people want my picture and autograph, it's totally cool, because who would I be without them?' she says. 'I appreciate the support so much.'

Though she says she has become 'sort of a wuss in my old age,' she recently set a world land-speed record driving a 1931 Ford Model A at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, hitting more than 97 miles per hour.

'It's dangerous,' she says. 'When you're driving on salt, you go where the car goes. You go as fast as you possibly can. When you're done, you're shaking.

'But I've calmed down. When I was younger, I'd jump off the roof, climb a tree. Now I have to be careful. I have to go to work. If my bills don't get paid, I won't have a place to live.'

She'd like to marry again, 'to be part of something together with someone,' she says. She'll probably never be a mother, 'but I'm auntie Tonya to all my friends' kids.'

Tonya says she loves the holidays, especially Christmas, though she has no real family left.

'I spend it with friends,' she says. 'I make my rounds on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And I'll be with my other half's family, so I don't feel alone.'

Harding still likes to play some. She enjoys her beer - though on this day, she doesn't even finish the Corona through an interview that stretched more than an hour - and continues to try to break her smoking habit. She has her weight under control, a problem created, she says, by medication to help with her asthma.

Her ride these days is an older Pontiac Grand Prix that cost her $350. There's not a lot of extra money to go around. It's OK. She says she is happy, if imperfect.

'I just try to be the best person I can be,' she says. 'I'm probably not done making mistakes. A lot of people aren't.

'But I'm not concerned about it anymore. I have a lot to be thankful for. I wake up every day, I have lots of friends and my dog, a roof over my head and a car that can get me around.'

Maybe Tonya Harding will never live down the incident that painted her as a villain. I have to believe, though, that she'll keep on trying.

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