There was Nancy Kerrigan, her face contorted in agony as she clutched her right knee and wailed, "Why me? Why me?" There was Tonya Harding, the cigarette-smoking, pickup-driving bad girl, telling everyone she was going to "kick some butt."

Figure skating's image as a lightweight sport of dainty ice princesses died with the whack heard 'round the world. While embarrassing, the circus at the 1994 Olympics turned out to be the best thing to happen to the sport.Now figure skating is on television almost every weekend, and only pro football draws more viewers. U.S. champion Todd Eldredge owns a Ferrari, and he hasn't even turned "pro" yet. Hundreds of new skating rinks are being built nationwide, and coaches can barely keep up with the demand.

"The coaches all laugh and say, `Let's everybody pay homage to Tonya. She brought a lot of business into the rinks," said David Lowery, a coach at the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Skating Academy and past president of the Professional Skaters Association.

"You look back with mixed emotions," he said. "That's a terrible reputation for our women to have. But at the same time, she brought (figure skating) to the attention of the nation."

Figure skating has always been the most popular Winter Olympic sport, particularly among women and nonsports fans who were drawn to its grace and beauty. But once the Games ended, so did skating's drawing power.

Sure, there were the ice shows that made the rounds every year and an occasional competition on television, but people didn't pay too much attention unless it was an Olympic year.

Tonya and a crew of bumbling misfits changed that with the attack on Kerrigan at the U.S. championships. The saga got stranger by the day, and people couldn't get enough of it.

Could Nancy skate at the Olympics? Would Tonya leave her on-again, off-again husband? Would the two skaters make nice in Lillehammer, or would there be a rumble on the ice?

The women's technical program - the Tonya-Nancy showdown - and the free skate at Lillehammer drew the fourth- and sixth-highest ratings of any TV shows up to that point. Not just for 1994. Forever.

"It was the ultimate soap opera, and consequently, people who were only in a small peripheral manner interested in figure skating were now caught up in it, intrigued by it, and they watched all of it," said Michael Rosenberg, an agent who represented Harding until two months before the attack.

And they didn't stop once the Games ended. Ice shows were immediate sellouts, and TV networks clamored for more skating. Skaters who once would have made a decent living on tour were suddenly millionaires.

Between the networks and cable stations, there are now dozens of hours of skating on television: competitions, pro-ams, made-for-TV ice shows - Scott Hamilton even had a TV variety special earlier this year.

People who had never skated began pouring into rinks after the 1994 Olympics, and they haven't stopped. Many said they were there "because Nancy and Tonya did it," said Donald Bartelson, who owns the Ontario Ice Skating Center in Ontario, Calif.

The U.S. Figure Skating Association had 127,538 members last season, a nearly 42 percent increase from 1990-91. And the biggest jump came in the 1993-94 season - the year of Nancy-Tonya - when the association's membership soared to 125,101 from 109,721 the previous year.

The Ice Skating Institute, an organization for recreational skaters, has seen its numbers quadruple in the past five years. Hundreds of new rinks are being built, and many are in warm-weather cities - hardly the traditional hotbeds of skating.

"Once it took hold, it kept going," said Kathy Casey, one of America's top figure skating coaches. "Some of us thought, `Oh, perhaps this is just a special year. It'll go down.' Negative. It's held right on."

But not everyone is convinced the Kerrigan attack deserves all the credit.

Morry Stillwell, USFSA president, won't deny it gave figure skating some recognition. But it was a temporary boost that has nothing to do with the crowded ice rinks today, he said.

"It produced a blip for about six months. The effect was very short-term," Stillwell said. "I think the rivalry between Nancy and Oksana (Baiul) probably had more of a long-term effect than the silliness out of Portland.

"You talk to people now and they say, `Tonya who?"'

Harding, banned from the USFSA for her role in the attack, had her first public performance since the '94 Olympics before a minor-league hockey game in Reno, Nev., in February. She still trains in Oregon and says she'd like to make a comeback.

Kerrigan gave birth to her first child in December and expects to begin touring again later this year.

Rosenberg agrees there was more to skating's increased popularity than the Nancy-Tonya saga.

He said an "A-minus sport became a Triple A sport" because of the attack, but he thinks the current growth spurt really began years before, with the Calgary Games in 1988.

That's when Brian Boitano won the gold medal in the "Battle of the Brians" with Canada's Brian Orser, and Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas both skated to "Carmen."

And Rosenberg thinks figure skating could get even bigger. The Nagano Games are less than a year away, and Elvis Stojko, Todd Eldredge, Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski have already created a near-frenzy of excitement.

"We're set up very well for a spectacular Olympics," Rosenberg said. "And we're sitting here with this gigantic thundercloud-volcano waiting for us five years from now, and that's Salt Lake City.

"Salt Lake City will be the King Kong of all Winter Olympics."