Skating was passion, therapy for Hamill

Updated: March 18, 2005, 3:30 PM ET
By Lisette Hilton | Special to ESPN.com

"Dorothy's special gift was her power, her straight back, and that fresh style that she could create with her movement over the ice," says 1968 Olympic champion Peggy Fleming on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Dorothy Hamill was from 'do to toe the American ideal of a 1970s icon. As a child, she wanted to be a famous ice skater. She succeeded splendidly when, as a teenager, she captured the hearts of the American public by winning a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics.

Dorothy Hamill
Dorothy Hamill won gold in the 1976 Olympics in Austria.
Following the Games, Hamill became a marketing sensation when her hairdo, a distinctive wedge cut, made a fashion statement. Millions of young girls copied her 'do, which looked like a bowl haircut. She also became the first female athlete to sign a $1 million-a-year contract, with the Ice Capades, which she would later purchase and manage.

But her public self-assurance often belied stage fright, loss of confidence and excessive self-criticism. "Dorothy had a strong handicap in that she was negative," said her coach, Carlo Fassi. "She had to be pushed and always said she couldn't win in competition. She was her own worst enemy. Frankly, I didn't think she could do it, either, for a long while."

Also, the high points of Hamill's life on the ice were offset by personal disappointments, including bankruptcy and failed relationships.

The youngest of Chalmers and Carol Hamill's three children, she was born on July 26, 1956, in Chicago and raised in Riverside, a division of the Connecticut town of Greenwich. She started skating at eight -- on a frozen pond near her home -- with socks stuffed in the toes of her older brother's skates.

Her parents didn't push Hamill to the ice. She pushed herself. She called skating her "passion" and "therapy."

"It's feeling the way a bird would, not having any boundaries, being able to lean and curve, the wind at your face," Hamill said. "It's magical."

Jealous of neighbors who could skate backwards when she couldn't, Hamill asked her mother to sign her up for lessons. Bitten by the skating bug, Hamill dedicated herself to getting better. She learned technique early on from coach Gus Lussi. At 14, she dropped out of high school to devote more time to skating and was privately tutored to gain a high school degree.

"I was really a spoiled brat when I was a kid skating," Hamill recalled. "Meals are cooked for you, you are driven to the rink, they make costumes for you. Your parents sit around and watch admiringly while you skate. You don't have to think about anything but skating. You're just plain spoiled. I used to have terrible tantrums. I was temperamental when I was younger. Actually, what I needed was a swift kick in the pants. What a brat!"

The family moved to Tulsa, Okla., so Hamill could be trained by Fassi, who had coached Peggy Fleming to an Olympic victory in 1968. When Fassi moved to Denver in the early 1970s, the Hamills' went with him. "Before I got to Carlo I was tied up in a knot doing figures," she said. "I looked like a pretzel."

Gaining momentum, Hamill was considered the logical successor to Janet Lynn, who won five consecutive U.S. National figure-skating titles from 1969 to 1973 and captured the bronze medal at the 1972 Olympics. Hamill was runner-up to Lynn for the 1973 U.S. title.

In February 1974 in Providence, the 5-foot-3 Hamill, who weighed between 110 and 115 pounds, won the crown. She successfully defended her title the next two years, with her 1976 victory in Colorado Springs earning her a berth on the U.S. Olympic team.

"Dorothy skates with finesse," said Charles Foster, one of the judges in Colorado Springs. "She performs a difficult program, works at high speed, plus she interprets the music with feeling. She's a beautiful skater."

Despite her success on American ice, the 19-year-old Hamill was not the favorite to win Olympic gold. In the previous two world figure-skating championships, she had finished second - to East Germany's Christine Errath in 1974 and to Dianne de Leeuw, competing for the Netherlands, in 1975.

At the Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Hamill led after the compulsory figures and the short program. Before the free-skating phase on Friday the 13th (of February), Hamill's confidence was shaken when she spotted a sign in the stands: "Which of the West? Dorothy!" Hamill began to cry when she thought the sign was calling her a witch, but recovered when she realized it was a joke from well-wishers who wanted to loosen the tension that Hamill felt.

Wearing a magenta skating costume and a huge smile, she performed a safe and clean program, ending her four minutes on the ice with her famous "Hamill camel," a camel spin into a sit spin. From the nine judges, she scored eight 5.8s and one 5.9 in technical merit and all 5.9s for artistic interpretation. Finishing first on the ballots of all the judges, she easily defeated silver medalist de Leeuw and bronze medalist Errath.

Hamill was the fourth American woman to claim gold in the sport since 1956, following Tenley Albright in 1956, Carol Heiss in 1960 and Fleming. She graced the cover of Time magazine. Her gray-blue eyes, signature hairstyle and winsome ways turned her into America's sweetheart -- an athletic version of the graceful, swan-like Fleming.

Against the wishes of most everyone in her camp, Hamill went to the World Championships a month later. At Göteborg, Sweden, she became the first American to win the crown since Fleming eight years earlier. She came in first in both the compulsory and free-skating programs in her last performance as an amateur.

"In some ways this victory meant more to me than any other," she said. "I won the Olympics for my country. But I won the World Championship for myself."

On her return to Riverside, Hamill received a homecoming celebration that included a motorcade and a ceremony renaming the town's skating rink after her. "It was more of an honor than anything else that has happened to me," Hamill said with typical graciousness.

Capitalizing on her fame, she followed in the path of Fleming by turning pro, signing a multi-year contract with the Ice Capades. She skated with the group for eight years.

Also in 1976, Hamill appeared in television commercials, having signed a contract with Clairol to represent Short & Sassy conditioner, and starred in her own special on ABC.

Among the millions of fans enthralled by Hamill's Olympic performance was Dean Paul Martin, actor, tennis pro and son of the famous entertainer. After meeting, they fell in love and wed in January 1982. However, the marriage didn't last long and they were divorced in June 1984.

Dorothy Hamill flys in the air as she does her routine. Hamill celebrates the 25th anniversary of winning her gold medal.
In 1987, Hamill married again, to Dr. Kenneth Forsythe, with whom she had a daughter, Alexandra. With Forsythe and another investor, she bought the bankrupt Ice Capades in a multi-million dollar deal in June 1993. Hamill completely revamped the show, turning it into a single-story ballet with top skaters. But the revised format didn't produce a hit and the company was sold in February 1995.

Hamill learned the cruel lessons that often come with fame and life. "Money is evil," said Hamill, who filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

In 1995, she separated from Forsythe, whom she said was unfaithful for most of their marriage, and they later divorced. Today, she lives in Baltimore with her daughter and is engaged to Dean Moye, a lighting designer for skating shows.

Hamill's health has been challenging at times. At 40, she experienced chronic pain, aching all over and losing her strength and stamina. It became hard for her to get out of bed in the morning.

Doctors diagnosed her with osteoarthritis, a degeneration of the cartilage surrounding the joints. She thought she'd have to quit skating, but instead Hamill responded well to medications. Returning to the ice, she competed in the 2000 Goodwill Games and performed with a professional show, Tom Collins Champions on Ice.

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