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Dan Shaughnessy

Kerrigan had ice in her veins

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / June 24, 2009
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Tonight Boston honors some of its best athletes at the eighth “Tradition,’’ held at the New Garden for the benefit the Sports Museum.

You get to see awards bestowed on the likes of Sam Jones, Ken Hodge, Troy Brown, Curt Schilling, Jack Parker, and Jerry York. You get to see big-shot presenters like Bill Russell, Bill Belichick, and Milt Schmidt. You’ll hear from Bill Morgan, the doctor who made Schilling’s ankle game-ready in the magical October of 2004.

These are men who performed at the very top of their profession. They played or coached in some of the greatest games of the last two centuries. They were there when Havlicek stole the ball, when Orr flew through the air, when Vinatieri split the uprights, and when an 86-year-old curse was vaporized during a lunar eclipse.

Sharing the stage with these giants of New England sports lore will be a 39-year-old Lynnfield mother of three who knows more about performing under pressure than any of the fabled fellows.

Say hello to Nancy Kerrigan.

We haven’t seen much of Nancy in the last decade and a half. She’s been doing what ex-figure skating champs do: occasional performances, TV commentary, pitching products, and raising a family (Kerrigan’s children are 12, 4, and 1). She had a small role in “Blades of Glory,’’ but most of her life is fund-raisers, parent-teacher nights, and trips to the pediatrician.

Through it all, she carries the knowledge and memory of a wild and wacky time when she was one of the most famous women in the world; moments when she performed under scrutiny and pressure never felt even by the likes of Mssrs. Russell, Schilling, and Belichick.

Go ahead and laugh. But if you lived it, you know. The knee-clubbing attack on Kerrigan (carried out by the husband and associates of her American rival and teammate, Tonya Harding) and the subsequent competition at the Olympic Games was a worldwide story in 1994. It was the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as presented by Jerry Springer. Paparazzi set up camp at the end of the driveway at the Kerrigan home in Stoneham. Tonya-Nancy seemed to be the subject of every magazine cover in the world.

“I started to like figure skating when it became a contact sport,’’ said former Channel 4 sports producer Alan Miller.

Millions shared the feeling, and by the time Kerrigan took to the ice for her short and long programs at the 1994 Winter Games, she was the focus of more eyeballs than were ever trained on a major league pitcher or an NBA free throw shooter. In ratings lore, the Kerrigan-Harding Olympics were on a par with the final “M*A*S*H’’ episode, “Who Shot J.R.?’’ and any Super Bowl ever played.

Carrying all that weight, Kerrigan performed two near-perfect routines in Lillehammer, appearing to clinch a gold medal, before she was suddenly overtaken by Ukrainian Oksana Baiul in one of the Games’s epic scoring controversies.

How did Kerrigan manage to skate so well under all the pressure?

“You talk about athletes getting in a zone,’’ she starts. “I don’t know that there’s a way to get there. I think it’s when you are faced with something.

“I didn’t want somebody else to take away what I worked so hard for. That’s not right, so it got me really focused. To get in the zone where you don’t see anything else. I think I somehow was forced into that, though it’s unfortunate how it happened.’’

Kerrigan doesn’t like to talk about Harding, but sometimes she skates to that dark place without even being asked. Her oldest child is no doubt computer-savvy, and there is a lot of old stuff that’s impossible to ignore. What does Skater Mom tell her kids when they ask?

“I’m glad to say I don’t know how someone could come to hurting someone else to better themselves,’’ says Kerrigan. “That’s what sport is, competition, and if someone is better than you, then they’re better than you.

“Tonya Harding beat me in the past, so it’s not like she was never better than me. She had a shot at it, but it didn’t look good for her that year. I was really skating well. But to get to the point of hurting someone else, I hope my kids don’t understand that ever.’’

Four years after Norway, Kerrigan and Harding participated in a joint television interview. Harding never apologized.

“She never directly spoke to me,’’ recalls Kerrigan. “It was very awkward and weird.’’

Harding has since gone on to live the life of every country-western song ever written.

“It’s weird, for sure,’’ says Kerrigan. “We were roommates and toured together. It’s ridiculous. What a waste of talent. People say, ‘She had it hard.’ Well sure, she did, but she had people that were helping her, too.

“So it’s all on which path you choose. It’s the choice that people make. I think once you make one choice, sometimes you get wrapped up in things.’’

The proverbial fork in the road. Take one path and you wind up being the female Jose Canseco. Follow the straight line and you wind up at an awards ceremony alongside Curt Schilling, Sam Jones, Troy Brown, Ken Hodge, Jack Parker, and Jerry York.

“I’ve never really enjoyed the spotlight, but I’m getting a little older and your perspective changes a little bit,’’ says Kerrigan. “In New England, we have so many amazing athletes, but a lot of them are male athletes so I think it’s great for girls and younger boys as well that they can appreciate that girls are successful athletes as well.’’

Every bit equal. Sometimes even more.

The Tradition is tonight at the TD Banknorth Garden, 5:30-9:30. For ticket information visit www.tdbanknorthgarden.com.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.