Determined to return to form, Kerrigan recommitted herself to long, arduous practices. She was soon back in form, winning two major competitions before the end of the year (the Piruetten in Norway and the AT&T Pro Am in the United States). Stepping onto the ice at the U.S. Championships, Kerrigan was overwhelmingly favored to defend her title. Her closest competition was Harding, who skated a very physically challenging routine but lacked Kerrigan's artistic elegance and routinely finished behind her more polished opponent.
What played out at the 1994 U.S. Championships, held in Detroit, Michigan, was one of the most bizarre sporting dramas of all time. Two days prior to the competition, Kerrigan was leaving the practice arena, Cobo Hall, around 2:30 p.m. She walked behind a blue curtain that separated the rink from a hallway leading to the locker rooms. When she stopped to talk briefly to a reporter, a man ran by, crouched down, hit Kerrigan on the knee with a lead pipe, and kept running. Kerrigan fell to the floor in pain and was quickly taken to the hospital. Although she had no broken bones, the damage to her knee cap and quadriceps tendon was severe enough to cause her to withdraw from the U.S. Championships.
In the ensuing investigation, police linked the crime to Harding's former husband, Jeff Gillooly, who had hired two buddies to carry out the attack, supposedly to remove Harding's main competition. (All three served time in jail.) As it turned out, Harding won the championship and was named to the Olympic team. Because Kerrigan did not skate in the nationals, she did not qualify for the Olympics, but the U.S. Figure Skating Association, acknowledging that Kerrigan was the country's best shot at bringing home a gold medal, named her to the team anyway. Kerrigan had six weeks between the championships and the Olympics to rehabilitate her injured knee.
The events surrounding Kerrigan's attack played out in the media headlines for months. Harding denied any direct involvement, and the police could not link her to the crime. As a result she was allowed to remain on the Olympic team, much to the dismay of Kerrigan and her supporters. However, distracted by the overwhelming media attention in the aftermath of the attack, she performed well below her best and was never a challenge to Kerrigan's medal hopes. Later Harding admitted that she learned of the attack shortly after it occurred. She was subsequently banned from the 1994 World Championships and charged with hindering an investigation, for which she received three years of probation.