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Harding at 30,000 Feet: “I’m Going to Help Fly the Plane″

February 16, 1994

--- By BOB BAUM AP Sports Writer

OSLO, Norway (AP) - She walked toward the front of the cabin, turned and faced a captive audience.

″I’m going to help fly the plane,″ Tonya Harding announced.

A scary thought, indeed, for anyone who’s seen her dodge reporters in a pickup truck. And most of us had.

Then Tonya laughed, a slightly wicked laugh.

″Hey, you’re in my hands now,″ she said.

I have just traveled 5,000 miles with this woman.

I still don’t know how she feels about her upcoming reunion with Nancy Kerrigan. But during the nine-hour SAS flight from Seattle to Copenhagen, Denmark, and finally, to Oslo, I couldn’t help but notice:

She pleasantly signs autographs with smiley faces beneath them, likes baked apples slathered with whipped cream and custard, likes to pad around in socks, and is allergic to seafood. She drank coffee and went for the brisket at mealtime.

The little things are easy to know about the world’s most famous figure skater. The big things are best left to the American legal system and ″Inside Edition,″ the syndicated television show that virtually owns Harding these days.

The show’s producers paid her a nice sum - reportedly $500,000 or more - for a series of exclusive interviews. Shortly after takeoff, she left her assigned seat and headed to the smoking section to sit near her ″Inside Edition″ friends. She sat there all the way to Denmark.

But by traveling in the same Euroclass cabin, I was able to steal a few minutes with her.

She wore a blue, flower-print blouse, navy blue tights and white crew socks. Later, she sat with an ice bag resting on both ankles. She was friendly throughout.

Harding made it clear that her trip to the Lillehammer Games - anything but assured a few days ago - is a victory no matter what happens when she skates next week.

″It feels really great,″ the 23-year-old skater said. ″I’m tired, but glad that I’m going. I mean, I’m going to Norway 3/8″

She still has plenty on her mind, though, and her troubles are far from over.

A Portland, Ore., grand jury is still considering whether she should be charged in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. And the U.S. Figure Skating Association could still revoke her membership, knocking her out of next month’s world championships.

Kerrigan is one of the subjects she won’t discuss - at least not with anyone who isn’t paying her handsomely.

But she did want to talk about ″treeing it,″ her ability to blot out distractions when she’s skating - something Harding has had to do a lot lately. She explains that she focuses on something stable, like a tree, and uses the image to steady her.

″I leave it behind when I go on the ice,″ she said. ″I pick it up when I leave.″

Her ability to handle distractions surprises even her longtime coach, Diane Rawlinson, whose husband, Dennis, is one of Harding’s lawyers.

″I think she’s risen to the occasion,″ Diane said. ″She’s very excited about skating, and showing the world who she is.″

The Rawlinsons were once my next-door neighbors, and my cat slept on their Jaguar. They remembered that, and maybe that’s why they were nice to me during the flight.

″It’s been a little stressful, and a little hectic,″ Diane said. She admits she doesn’t listen to the messages on her answering machine any more; they fill up a 90-minute tape every day. And even though Harding seems oblivious to the pressure, there are signs that she and others around her are feeling the stress.

″Tonya’s lost nine pounds,″ said her choreographer, Erika Bakacs. ″I’ve lost 11.″

Harding had slept on the short commuter flight from Portland to Seattle, but was playful for the first half of the flight overseas. Over central Canada, she borrowed a video camera and pointed it at CBS’s Connie Chung, one of a dozen members of the media on the plane.

After awhile, though, she grew tired of the TV lights and the camera flashes.

″I’ve had enough,″ Harding said. ″You guys can all go back to your seats now so I can get some sleep.″

With that, she curled up next to one of her ″Inside Edition″ buddies and got some rest.

She’ll need it.

AP-DS-02-16-94 1530EST

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