Spotlight: Nancy Kerrigan
Sarah S. Brannen
After spending years in the spotlight as one of the world’s best-known figure skaters, former Olympian Nancy Kerrigan now focuses on her family and her life here on the North Shore—but she never strays far from the ice.
Despite being magically transformed into "Fancy" Kerrigan in an Old Navy commercial this past summer, Stoneham native and two-time Olympic medalist Nancy Kerrigan leads a remarkably normal life that is far from fancy here on the North Shore. The proud mother is happy to brag about her children’s accomplishments, although not one of them is following in her skating footsteps. Four-year-old Nicole takes ballet and gymnastics classes, seven-year-old Brian is a gymnast, and 16-year-old Matthew loves acting. "They all can skate, but they don’t take lessons and they hardly ever go to the rink," Kerrigan says. The family did practice together in October to prepare for their turn on the ice in the Family Skating Tribute in Atlantic City on November 3 (it will air on NBC in January), which featured celebrity skaters and their children.
Gearing up for that show and another performance in January, Kerrigan has been hitting the rink regularly for the first time in several months. She admits that training isn’t as easy as it used to be. "I like to go to the gym, and now I make it to the rink for 45 minutes about three times a week. I have to get in and get the jump right so I don’t have to do it a million times. My body can’t take the repetition anymore, anyway," she explains. "I did a double axel, which I’m very excited about, but I have to lower my expectation level each year with the amount of time I can put in."
Although she is occasionally stopped for an autograph or a photo, Kerrigan insists she is just another member of the public when she skates during open-ice hours. Her good friend Jonathan English, a former skating champion who has his own skate shop in Peabody and used to supply Kerrigan with new skates and blades, had coached Matthew for a few years at the same rink where his mother perfected the famous Kerrigan spiral. "Matthew got the big axel, but then he quit, which was weird," she says. "Once you get the axel, it usually sucks people in for another 10 years. At the same time, he also got the lead in the Pirates of Penzance at school." Clearly for her eldest son, theatre won out over skating.
Kerrigan began figure skating at age six, mostly due to the fact that her older brothers, Mark and Michael, were already on the ice to play hockey. "I think I just wanted to do something different that would be my own instead of what they were doing. There weren’t many girls in the area that played hockey at that point," she says.
Now there are several all-girl hockey teams in the area, but that’s not the only thing that has changed since Kerrigan was a schoolgirl. The landscape of her hometown of Stoneham has changed quite a bit too.
"It was such a different time. I could walk to school because it was close by, and I would stop at a friend’s house on the way and we’d go to school together. My kids can’t walk to school today," she laments. "Also, there was a bowling alley and a movie theater in town when I was little, but they’re both gone now."
One thing that has remained constant through the years is her family’s close-knit bond. She regularly visits her mother, Brenda, who still lives in the same house where Kerrigan was raised. Although she made the move from Stoneham to Lynnfield, the North Shore has been Kerrigan’s home for 43 years. She stayed not only because of her family but also because of the area’s many draws.
"It’s so nice to live here because we have so many different opportunities just a few hours away. Everything is close by, like skiing and snowmobiling and also the beach," she explains. "It’s beautiful, too, especially the change of seasons. It’s so nice that when you have the same drive all the time the scenery looks different every time. I think it makes doing the everyday mundane things better."
Kerrigan frequents various North Shore restaurants but is reluctant to single out any particular one, claiming, "That’s not fair, because we get certain meals at certain places—I would get in trouble with the owners." Finally she relents and gives a shout-out to Stoneham Pizza, but does so only because of parental pride. "My son Matthew created a pizza there with spinach, bacon, and pineapple. I don’t feel so bad getting them pizza if there’s a big pile of spinach on top. I don’t know if anyone else even orders it besides us," she says.
Kerrigan’s father, Dan, who passed away in 2010, once held three jobs—including driving the Zamboni at the Stoneham rink—in order to support his daughter’s training. The strong work ethic he passed on to Kerrigan is one of the things she says she will definitely pass down to her own children. But it was Dan’s commitment to family and his sense of humor that Kerrigan treasures most in her memories of her father.
"Things of importance to my dad were definitely family and being there for each other, but also being able to laugh. He was the baby of nine kids, and now I only have one aunt left. So he saw lots of people pass away that he cared about and loved a lot, but he could still make his jokes and be funny. He would say the same silly little jokes over and over," she recalls.
Another valuable lesson that Kerrigan says she learned from her dad is about not sweating the small stuff. "You’ve got to keep going and still find things funny and laugh a lot. Don’t take things too seriously, and pay attention to what’s important. And don’t get so worked up about little things, because life is too short. So, enjoy it," she says.
Although it was nearly 20 years ago when Kerrigan was one of the stars of the 1994 Winter Olympics, she still can’t believe the outpouring of support she received from fans from all over, not just her North Shore neighbors.
"I got tons of letters. It was unbelievable how much mail there was and how supportive people were not just locally, but also around the country and around the world, too. It was really amazing how many people wrote these positive letters, telling me how my skating helped them or affected them or changed their way of thinking," she recalls. "It’s amazing to think that I could have an effect on someone like that when all I ever did was train, train, train."
Although she returned from those Olympics with a silver medal to add the to bronze she had earned just two years earlier, Kerrigan hadn’t always dreamed of Olympic glory. "It was not until about 1991, when I was third in the world, that it seemed realistic. I’m in a sport that’s judged, so you just never know," she says.
Her parents helped keep her skating in perspective. "I come from very grounded people who said, ‘Hey, you could always get hurt, so do the best you can today and hope for tomorrow.’ We just made goals one year at a time and stuck with those. If I could make them, it would be great. If not, maybe we would think about not continuing. But I was fortunate and made my goals every year."
After achieving Olympic glory, Kerrigan focused on her other goals—marriage and motherhood. Kerrigan wed her manager, Jerry Solomon, in 1995, and baby Matthew arrived in 1996. "I knew I wanted to be a mom since I was about 10 years old. It was something I always dreamed of and hoped for," she explains.
As with most parents, Kerrigan’s current goals now center on her children. "For now, it’s a lot of figuring out of their schedules. And taking care of them and making sure they’re happy and healthy. They’re really good kids, so I’m pretty lucky."
With no plans to coach, Kerrigan still offers advice to young skaters. "First of all, they have to have fun. I really believe that you perform better when you’re having fun. You can do anything you want to do, whether it’s music, sports, or school, but try to make it interesting. Try to make it a challenge but also keep a smile on your face and have a good time," she says. "Then, things become a little lighter, a little easier, a little quicker. If you have fun, you tend to do better."
There’s nothing fancy about that advice—it’s just practical and straightforward, much like our local Olympian herself.