Harding began working her way up the competitive skating ladder in the mid-1980s, placing sixth at the 1986 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, fifth in 1987 and 1988, and third in 1989. She was considered a strong contender at the 1990 U.S. Figure Skating Championships after having won Skate America 1989, but she had a poor free skate as a result of suffering from the flu and asthma, and dropped from second place after the original program to finish seventh overall. While she was a powerful free skater, she typically had lower placements in the compulsory figures.
Harding’s breakthrough year was in 1991, where she landed her first triple axel at the U.S. Championships, winning the title with the event’s first 6.0 ever given to a single female skater for technical merit. At the 1991 World Championships, she again completed the triple axel jump (becoming the first American woman to perform it at an international event) but finished second to Kristi Yamaguchi.
In her career, Harding successfully completed four triple axels in competition. All of them were in 1991, where she completed each one she tried: one at the U.S. Championships, another at the World Championships, and two at the Fall 1991 Skate America competition.
At the Fall 1991 Skate America, Harding recorded three more firsts:
- The first woman to complete a triple axel in the short program;
- The first woman to successfully execute two triple axels in a single competition;
- The first ever to complete a triple axel combination with the double toe loop.