By Steve Kaufman | Photos by Steve Squall
“Youth gymnastics phenom becomes TV personality in a major market.”
It’s a variation on the Great American Dream.
Sports + media = celebrity
Except, the dream can too often be a Great American Nightmare. And for Whitney Harding to wake up from that nightmare before it consumed her life is a testament to her inner strength and her determination to succeed.
When you see Harding on WHAS11, you see an easy, conversational, story-telling tone to her reports, a sharp sense of humor and a knowledge of sports as impressive as anyone in her field.
LIFE IN TEXAS
And why not? She grew up in Texas, where sports – and talking about sports – is the first language. An athlete herself, she could swing a bat and throw a football with natural ability. Her professional bona fides are strong, too: a master’s degree from Northwestern University, which turns out journalists like Kentucky turns out NBA lottery picks; then a stint as sports director for a TV station in Midland, Texas, where her beats included “Friday Night Lights” high school football, and she covered the Texas Tech Red Raiders, Rangers, Astros, Spurs, Cowboys and Texans. And, since 2014, she’s been on WHAS11, where she’s a sports reporter/anchor covering ACC and SEC basketball, football and baseball. But Harding’s sports journey began well before that. In The Woodlands, a suburban community north of Houston, she was a promising eight-year-old gymnast trained at by Hall of Fame (and controversial) coach Béla Károlyi, who had previously sent Nadia Comăneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal, Kerri Strug and others on to Olympics gold and international fame. Zmeskal and Strug had been older gym mates of the young Harding. So what’s not to like? It sounds like Donna Reed and the Cleavers meet Happy Days. Except, the days weren’t always so happy.
LIFE OF A GYMNAST
Her athletic promise forced the eight-year-old Harding to give up some of her loves – like dance, and all those other sports she’d played around the neighborhood – and focus intensely on Olympic-level gymnastics training. “Of everything, I loved dance, especially ballet. But I picked gymnastics, I think, because I felt it was what I was expected to pick,” Harding said. “Looking back, I think, ‘Man, at eight years old, I was asked to make some really hard decisions.’ ” She began going to gymnastics practice two or three times a week at 6 a.m., before school, for two hours. Then she’d go back for three more hours in the evening. By the age of 11, in 1996, she was nationally ranked in the vault at the Junior Olympic level. Then came a series of happenstances that throw a whole shade on America’s youth-athletic obsession: injuries, which happen to a lot of young athletes, and puberty, which happens to everyone. “I had tons of injuries,” Harding said. “I’m still injured. When I was eight, I had a partially torn meniscus, and wore a brace for a little while. When I got older, it was my back. A lot of my activities were very back-intensive. I later learned there was a history of back problems in my family.” She was in pain. Tests showed nothing conclusive. She was advised to take some time off, “but I had a Russian coach (Alexander Alexandrov) at the time. They don’t understand taking time off. You tough it out! You suffer in silence. You don’t complain, you just work harder.” It turned out, her family later learned, she had two stress fractures. Plus “a whole mess of stuff wrong with my back.” Harding said the physician who read the tests came out and began talking to her mother. “He thought she was the patient. He said the pictures showed the back of somebody my mother’s age.”
Also, at this time, Harding went through “the worst thing that could ever happen to a gymnast.” Puberty! “I had a growth spurt. I gained weight. I started doing all the things that happen to little girls when we go through puberty.” She said the coach would monitor her water intake, because too much water would make her heavier. And, as with many young girls who hear the words “too fat,” Harding developed an eating disorder. The coach dropped her, and she had to coach herself for an entire year for the Junior Olympic Nationals. “It showed me the power and strength that were within me,” she recalled. Then the minimum age rule for Olympic competitors was changed after the 1996 games in Atlanta, from 15 to 16. Which meant Harding, born in 1985, was now too young for the 2000 Olympics, in Sydney, and – unbelievable as it seems – approaching “too old” for the 2004 Olympics, in Athens. She’d be turning 19 that year. The Olympics hang over the heads of young athletes like Harding. She said the question she was always asked, and the one she hated, was, “Do you think you’ll make the Olympics?” (“All most people really know about gymnastics is the Olympics every four years,” she said.) “If I said ‘Yes,’ I’d feel like I was lying, because I never thought of myself as that good,” she said. “But if I said ‘No,’ they’d say, ‘Oh, so you’re not that good?’ It’s a loaded question, but people feel it’s OK to ask.”
LIFE OF A COLLEGE ATHLETE
Setting aside her Olympics ambitions, Harding went to North Carolina State University on an athletic scholarship. “I felt if I didn’t participate in college, my entire career would be a failure.” But a new assistant coach was hired just before she enrolled. And she got injured again. “He didn’t like me. He saw me as a scholarship position being wasted. He never tried to help me. He put me down and made me feel small.” All her old demons came back. Her eating issue returned. Her weight swung wildly. Plus, there were new social issues to deal with. She was living in a dorm. And she’d never really dated before. “My junior year in high school, I went to the prom by myself.” Right after Christmas break of her freshman year, her mother came to Raleigh. “We went to her hotel room and I cried for almost 24 hours straight,” Harding said. “My mom later told me she was afraid I’d do something to myself.”
LIFE AFTER GYMNASTICS
The decision was hard, but it was also clear. After more than a decade, Harding gave up competitive gymnastics and transferred to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she pursued a journalism degree, then a master’s program at Northwestern. “I’d always wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, and when I left NC State, I applied to Rice University,” she recalled. “On the application, you’re supposed to circle all the subjects you’re interested in. When my parents looked at what I had circled, it was all liberal arts – no sciences. “I had remembered a teacher in high school recommending sports journalism to me. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like a bad idea!” Hardly. In 2013, she won an award from the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters – best specialty/beat reporting – for a series in Midland called “Girl Power.” In 2014, she came to Louisville. And she felt immediately at home. “I love school sports, and Louisville is one of the best local sports markets in the country. People here are passionate about their high school and college athletes.” Also, she said, “the variety of opportunities is remarkable. We were standing on the track for Oaks this year, drenched, cold, standing in the mud – and all the other things that are on a racetrack – and one of my colleagues said, ‘Isn’t this awesome? Look where we are, on the track at Churchill Downs for Oaks Day. In how many other markets in the country would we get to do this?’ ”
“I HAD TO COACH MYSELF FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR FOR THE JUNIOR OLYMPIC NATIONALS. IT SHOWED ME THE POWER AND STRENGTH T H AT WERE WITHIN ME. ” –Whitney Harding
FAVORITE TEAM? LOUISVILLE OR KENTUCKY?
“Of course, as a journalist, I can’t declare a favorite,” Harding said. “But if I answered honestly, both fan bases would hate me. I’m from Texas, but my family is from Kansas. I grew up a Jayhawk fan. Rock Chalk!”
FAVORITE COLLEGE SPORT TO COVER?
“Generally, I’d say college basketball. But here, my favorite team to cover has been Louisville baseball. The atmosphere is warm and relaxed. Dan McDonnell is an incredible guy to work with. And the players are just great interviews, fun, lighthearted. It’s almost like they don’t take themselves too seriously, they know they’re playing a game.” She also likes the atmosphere at Jim Patterson Stadium. “You get to know the fans. The same ones show up for every game. I get to talk to them.”
FAVORITE LOUISVILLE EVENT SHE’S COVERED?
The PGA championship at Valhalla in 2014. “Being at Valhalla for a week was the best!” she said. “Golf is so soothing.”
FAVORITE STORY SHE’S DONE?
At the PGA, she interviewed Hilbert Potter. The Army veteran had lost a leg in the Persian Gulf War and is now working in physical therapy at Ft. Knox. “He was hired by the PGA to walk around and spot cell phone usage,” Harding said, “which is forbidden at the event. Military guys are hired because they have keen sight and intuition. So he walked the entire course – the long, hilly Valhalla course – on a prosthetic leg.”
“We were all sad when Donovan Mitchell said he was entering the draft,” Harding said. “He was our clutch locker room interview after Louisville basketball games. I always knew I was going to get something great, truthful and honest. Just a terrific kid and a joy to cover.”
“When I went to Nashville in 2015 to cover the SEC basketball tournament, I wasn’t sure what to expect from that Kentucky team,” she said. “They were undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the country. Would they be all full of themselves?” What she found was “a great bunch of kids.” “They’d been made into this larger-than-life thing, but Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Devon Booker, Tyler Ulis, they were just kids having fun. They didn’t drink their own Kool-Aid.” Towns was an All-American, first draft pick, now an NBA superstar, “but he’s probably the same kid today that he was then.”
THE COOLEST ASSIGNMENT?
“I was working at a cable news station in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of a residency program while I was at Northwestern,” she said. “And the World Cup was there that year (in 2010). My family is originally from Spain, and soccer is our passion. The Spanish team is usually eliminated early in the tournament. But that year, it won!”
MOST BENEFICIAL PART OF HER GYMNASTICS TRAINING?
“I’m conscientious, a perfectionist, a strong work ethic, good time-management skills, well-organized. And I’m competitive.”
“I’m forever conscious of my looks, my weight. And when the station gets emails from people commenting on how I look, it triggers all the old emotions.”
DO PEOPLE REALLY COMMENT ON HER LOOKS?
“I get comments on my lipstick color, my hair length, the things I wear. And I get nitpicked if I say just one thing wrong. You know, ‘A girl has no business covering sports.’ I don’t have a thin skin, I’m used to being criticized in the public eye. But it can get to you. “I answer every single e-mail. I’m always polite, but I also try to remind them that there’s a human being behind the TV personality, and I hope they know that.”
THE OTHER HUMAN BEING BEHIND THE TV PERSONALITY?
“My husband, Kyle Higaki. He’s a social media strategist. We met at a bar in Chicago while I was at Northwestern.” A mutual friend put them together. “We live in the Highlands. It reminds us of Chicago.” “He went to Ohio State. After the Buckeyes beat Northwestern in 2013, on a bad fourth-down call, we didn’t talk for more than three hours. That was the most intense our apartment has ever been.” “He’s truly special because he’s never threatened by my sports obsession or knowledge, or what I do for a living. On the contrary he loves it – and that’s so hard to find.” “I always said I would marry a lacrosse player, and I did.”