Harding nervous in debut

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 19, 1999

The Associated Press

With empty seats outnumbering spectators, Harding fell twice during the the technical portion of the Pro Figure Skating Championships.

Tuesday, October 19, 1999

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With empty seats outnumbering spectators, Harding fell twice during the the technical portion of the Pro Figure Skating Championships. She was fourth among five women competitors entering Tuesday’s artistic program.

”I was very nervous and my legs were shaking. But at the same time, the audience was wonderful. I went out and did the best that I could after being off the ice for so long. I just had a great time,” Harding said.

One sign flashed ”Good luck, Tonya,” and the audience warmly greeted Harding, the final skater of the three-hour competition.

”When she came out, she had tears in her eyes,” said her adviser, Michael Rosenberg. ”Then some little girl yelled, ‘We love you, Tonya.’ She perked right up. I think she handled herself well.”

Wearing a turquoise-and-purple outfit, Harding performed to a saxophone-guitar medley, falling on her first and final jumps.

Afterward, Harding was seated in the middle of eight skaters at a news conference. She received several hugs, and many skaters took turns to welcome back Harding to competition.

”She was a friend of mine back then, and I’m so glad she’s back skating with us,” said Surya Bonaly, the only woman competitor who didn’t fall Monday night and was first after the opening night.

Rory Burghart was second, followed by Tonia Kwiatkowski, Harding and Liz Manley.

Some fans came from as far away as Japan for the event at the 5,780-seat Huntington Civic Arena, and there were more than 50 media credential requests from as far away as Germany.

Yet no fans who were asked were willing to admit that they came specifically for Harding, who was implicated in the 1994 knee-whack on rival Nancy Kerrigan and subsequently banned from amateur skating.

”It’s the scandal revisited,” said Carol Delancey of Huntington. ”I don’t think skating needs all that. Her reputation detracts from the overall picture.”

Her friend, Kim Copley, disagreed.

”I’m not sure if she adds anything, but I want to see her just to say I saw Tonya Harding,” Copley said. ”I don’t think she detracts from anything.”

Not that fans wanted someone to plan a revenge attack on Harding, who was competing for the first time since the 1994 Lillehammer Games.

”I just hope everyone here is very gracious to her,” said Roy Hall of Huntington. ”I’d like to see her do well, and I’d like to see everybody here accept her. We’re happy that she’s here.”

Only 75 percent of tickets were sold for the two shows. Promoters had doubted a sellout because the event was held outside of the traditional winter skating season. It’s the bigger picture they’re concerned about – the show will be televised by ESPN on Oct. 25, Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.