Nancy Kerrigan retired from competition 23 years ago, but that will change Monday night when the Olympic figure skater makes her ballroom debut on season 24 of “Dancing with the Stars.”
Kerrigan, who was one of the biggest figure skating stars of the 1990s and won two Olympic and two world championship medals from 1991-94, is paired with professional dance pro Artem Chigvintsev, who is competing on his fifth season of the show. They will face a field of 11 other couples that include five-time Olympic medalist gymnast Simone Biles, actor/wrestler Mr. T and comedian Chris Kattan.
The 47-year-old spoke to TeamUSA.org about returning to training, balancing life as a mother of three, the injuries she is facing and learning a new skill.
You’ve been out training in Los Angeles for a week now. Will you stay there for the rest of the season or go back to Boston?
No, we’re going to go home Tuesday back to Boston and then I’ll train there again the next week. After that, I still don’t know. I think it does get harder and harder, but my youngest is only 8 so she’s missing me a little. My oldest, Matthew, is in New York. The other two are still pretty little (Brian, 11, and Nicole, 8). I could train all day while they’re in school and then do what I need to do with them after. I don’t know if I can do that for many weeks, though. It’s going to get harder and harder if I’m lucky enough to stay in the competition, which I hope to because it’s wicked fun.
When asked to be on the show, why did you say yes?
I’ve been watching since the beginning and have seen the majority of the episodes with my family. I just love it. It looks so challenging and fun, and to learn a new skill and exercise without having to do the same old thing and try something new – I love a challenge like that. And I have friends who have done it in the past and they all have had great experiences and really enjoyed themselves, and I think it will be a lot of fun.
What has it been like to return to this intense level of training for the first time in a while?
It’s weird because it’s not the same (as skating training). This feels similar to when I’ve done shows for theater ice because it’s so small and everything is tight; there’s not a lot of flow. So your body is super tight all the time; my muscles don’t do that, so I’m re-training. I’m re-training and unlearning all the dance stuff I had learned. My mom and my dad always said stay light on your toes, and it’s so not right for ballroom; it’s totally opposite, actually. My partner will say, ‘You’re jumping,’ and I’m a jumper, this is not jumping. He goes, ‘In ballroom, it’s a jump; stop jumping,’ but let’s be honest, my feet are not coming off the ground so it’s not a jump to me. … I’ll get better and then an hour later you’re back to the same problem again. It’s so frustrating.
So is it safe to say your figure skating experience hasn’t helped?
I think it does because I perform in front of people. We performed our dance once in front of ballerinas who were at the studio where my daughter trains at Boston University. They were in there training and asked us to show them our dance, so we did it and Artem said that was the best one yet. So performing under pressure, I think, is sort of good for me. Let’s hope that actually happens Monday night, but that is something I know I’m capable of at least, and performing to music and being able to feel the music. But the moves are so specific that I can’t just feel it the way I would because I’m opening up too much or there’s just motions that are different. It’s bad.
Someone asked if it’s really that different for me because they said I look confused 90 percent of the time. What?! I don’t want to look confused, that’s bad. I tried to analyze that and said it’s not that I’m confused, I’m literally trying to hear what Artem is telling me and if this is better, why was it better and feel what muscles felt different, and try to ingrain it into my body so I can rely on some muscle memory and don’t have to think as hard the whole time. But after two weeks, there’s not a lot of memory to go from. It’s still so new.
Having spent most of your skating career competing in singles, what is it like to train with a partner and rely on someone else?
It’s great, actually. I like not being out there alone. I did compete in pairs, but just for nine months. But it’s still training and I skated with Paul Wylie before, but it wasn’t so intricate; we were mirroring each other for most of it. So it is quite different. But what’s really funny about that is I do have some pair habits, apparently, and control issues. I keep grabbing Artem’s hand and he’s like, ‘Will you just place your hand? I’m supposed to take your hand. Stop squeezing my hand.’ And I do it in skating pair handholds, and they’re different. I don’t even realize I’m doing it, but I’ll grab his hand and he’ll flip it back and I flip it back unknowingly. I’m like, oh, we’re doing that again, sorry. It’s pretty funny. It’s so easy to say stop doing it, but I do it naturally. Old muscle memories in the way, for sure.
You’re the sixth figure skater to compete on the show. Did you talk to any of your predecessors about their experience?
Yeah, I talked to Kristi (Yamaguchi) and Dorothy (Hamill). I said to Kristi, ‘You’ve seen me at shows, Kris, how demanding is it?’ She said it’s very demanding, but you have to do it. She’s like, ‘You’ve been through worse, you have to do it, it’s such a great experience.’ And I talked to Dorothy about it because she had an injury, too, so I wanted to talk to her about how hard it was. I have some pretty serious injuries right now.
I have some herniated discs in my spine that are pushing on my spinal cord and causing nerve damage down my arm, so it’s not good, it’s hard. I had two epidural shots last week in my neck, where it is. Neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, spine surgeons – everyone thinks I need surgery, but clearly I’m putting that off right now. They said they can’t recommend I do the show, but they can’t confirm that I would do more damage by doing it; there’s no way to predict that. Artem knows and we’re just trying to be careful and choreograph around it in certain ways.
You’re the first athlete Artem has been partnered with. Was he excited to have an athlete?
He has said that he’s happy to have an Olympic athlete. He said he was really excited and I’m like, OK, but I was an athlete 25 years ago! But I still have that mentality. I’m more like a performer at this point, but I still have that brain mentality of competing and working hard, so I think he appreciates that.
You’re used to receiving scores and immediately knowing your fate. How do you feel about the voting aspect of the show?
It’s a weird thing. It’s not like sports. The best usually wins, and this has all this voting, so it doesn’t necessarily mean the best dancers win. It’s so foreign to me. And it’s not like I’m 20 years old like Simone, where she has 1 million followers. I just started tweeting and I barely ever do that. And I just started Instagram. I feel like I don’t have the time when I’m home and driving kids around – and what do people want to see? All I’m doing is driving kids and doing laundry and cooking. Who cares? So on my normal life there’s nothing to show. Like, oh, I’m driving again. It might become very funny like, I wonder what Nancy is doing, oh, she’s driving again.