Dorothy Hamill -September/October 2009
Olympian finds serenity 30 miles at sea
by: Allison Goldsmith
photography by: Jim Powers
Thirty three years after winning the gold medal for figure skating at Innsbruck, Dorothy Hamill has settled on Nantucket in the summer and is planning her first Fantasy Figure Skating Camp here in September.
Hamill, whose infectious smile and gracious personality have become a fixture at the island skating rink, is one of seven U.S. women to win the Olympic figure-skating gold medal. She is a three-time U.S. champion and won the world title in 1976. She has been inducted into both the U.S. and World Figure Skating halls of fame.
For the past two summers she has called Nantucket home, taking advantage of the Nantucket Ice rink on Backus Lane and immersing herself in island culture on and off the ice, working with the Nantucket Skating Club and enjoying morning walks downtown with her fiancé, John McCall.
Hamill, 53, who skates five days a week for an hour a day, contributed her time to the A.J. Mleczko Charity-on-Ice last summer and the Nantucket Skating Club spring show in March.
“It is such a fond memory when I started and it was all about the dress. It is so great to see these youngsters with their love for skating and putting on a costume and performing and demonstrating. We have done some classes and little workshop things together. It is just fun. It is not about being an Olympic champion,” she said.
Like many of the young skaters at Nantucket Ice, Hamill was drawn to the sport from an early age.
“There are such great benefits, health and confidence and musicality and grace and athleticism, it is all there and you don’t have to have a partner to be able to do it. You can show up and be able to express yourself through music and movement. It is something that I love, so when I see kids here that like that, I relate to it. It is fun to share that in common.”
Hamill was 8 years old when she put on her first pair of skates. She skated on ponds near her house in Riverside, Connecticut and on Morses Pond near her grandparents’ home in Wellesley, Massachusetts before taking up lessons.
“I remember falling in love with skating the minute I felt that sense of freedom and movement and wind at my face,” Hamill said. “I was just passionate about it. I wanted to learn how to skate backwards and I wanted to learn how to spin and how to jump.
“I think I was just determined. I was just sort of competing against myself. If I spun and I rotated 10 times, I wanted to now rotate 12 times,” she continued.
The development seemed to take forever for the young skater, but with top-level coaching and practices before and after school, she made quick progress. By the time she was 18, Hamill was one of the top skaters in the country.
“In those days, you really had to not make mistakes. Rather than risking some move that wasn’t consistent, you just wouldn’t do it,” Hamill said. “It was really a balance between jumps and spins. Footwork was starting to come in to be important and musicality was very important.”
The double axel, double toe loop was the most challenging jump in Hamill’s routine, which also featured her signature “Hamill Camel,” a camel spin that transitions into a sit spin.
While she never considered herself to be athletic, Hamill’s powerful skating and passion for the sport came through in her performances.
“I think athleticism is what I was known for in those days, which surprises me now because it is anything but what I feel,” she said. “The grace and lyricism was not something I was known for. Peggy Fleming was that way and Janet Lynn, who was the figure skater I absolutely idolized.”
At the U.S. Nationals in Colorado Springs in 1976, Hamill beat out newcomer Linda Fratianne for the top spot and a trip to the Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, beginning a whirlwind experience that would change her life.
After more than 10 years of countless hours spent on the ice, the life-long dream of winning Olympic gold finally came true as Hamill beat out Dianne de Leeuw of the Netherlands and Christine Errath of East Germany for the top spot on the podium.
“It’s just every emotion and thought you can imagine. I was relieved, I was ecstatic, I was thinking about all the people that had helped me get to that place. In those days, not that it isn’t now, but to be an American winning during the Cold War with the other athletes who were subsidized by their government – that was a big deal. It still is a big deal, but I think in those days we had much more of a sense of pride in country and it wasn’t just us. It wasn’t just an individual competing for themselves,” Hamill said.
The news hit the American papers on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, and Hamill was cemented as America’s sweetheart. For a shy girl captivated by the isolation of the sport, the attention was a bit uncomfortable and embarrassing.
“That is a tough title to live up to,” Hamill said.
Even her wedge-style hairdo, cut by the New York City-based Japanese hairstylist Suga, became an instant fad.
“I had a haircut from him a month before the Olympics and I went back for a little trim and the rest is something I would have never dreamed would happen to this girl who had really awful hair,” Hamill said.
Unlike modern Olympic athletes, who are often highly-trained, paid professional athletes, Hamill and her American counterparts were funding their own training and rarely making any money in return.
“We weren’t pros, we were amateurs. There was no certainty of endorsements. There wasn’t any of that. It just sort of started around that time. It was just being proud and thrilled and in some ways, now what? When you achieve a life-long dream – because it really was a dream. It wasn’t anything I ever expected – now what do you do?” she asked. “All those eight hours a day, you have to fill up with something.”
Hamill went on to become a professional figure skater, headlining the Ice Capades from 1977 to 1984.
“It was chaos for a few years. I was used to getting up early and training all these hours and sort of having a purpose or at least a goal,” Hamill said.
And in that chaos, she battled personal challenges, including failed marriages to Dean Paul Martin, son of legendary entertainer Dean Martin of Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack,” who died in a plane crash; and Dr. Kenneth Forsythe, father of her only daughter, Alexandra, now 20. In 2007 she released her autobiography, “A Skater’s Life,” illustrating the intimate details of her journey, including her success on the ice as well as her battle with depression.
“That was something I felt I wanted to do because it is something that affected me as a youngster, but I didn’t really know it. For people that suffer from it, it is really debilitating and it’s hard to see when people say, ‘suck it up and things will get better,’ it’s virtually impossible to understand that,” she said. “I wanted people to know even when you have that – mine was not diagnosed because in those days nobody really did – despite all that, I could still win the Olympics. It is something that did get worse as I got older. I felt it was really important to let people know they are not the only ones. Often one thinks they are the only one.”
In January of last year Hamill announced that she was being treated for breast cancer at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. The battle forced her off the ice for much of last year, but she was lucky to catch the non-aggressive form of cancer early and finished radiation treatment a year ago.
“I haven’t performed and I haven’t skated a lot in the last year. The medication just made me lethargic and not feeling well, achy joints, but they switched me and I am on one that doesn’t affect me quite as much,” she said.
But through all the difficulties, Hamill has been blessed recently with a pleasant surprise. Two years ago she met McCall through a mutual friend and found her way to Nantucket.
“I had sort of written off the fact that I would ever be married again. I just thought, it is just not in the cards. John was at that point too, so we had a lot in common. We started dating and it sort of developed into a romance and we got engaged last March,” Hamill said. “He is a great man. He has wonderful energy and we have such fun together.”
Early last year, Hamill and McCall were looking for a place to combine their lives, which are anchored in Baltimore. They were thinking about Maine, but at the suggestion of McCall’s brother, who lives on the island, they visited Nantucket.
“We came and visited and John fell in love with the house that we are in. We love being in town so we just get up and take the dogs for a walk, go get coffee and if you have houseguests, you don’t have to worry about who is taking the car. We have the best neighbors in the world here,” Hamill said of her home on Orange Street.
Hamill spent all of last summer on-island and plans to stay this year through October. The benefit of having the Nantucket Ice rink around the corner is an added bonus.
“That was just a plus. When John bought his house here, it just happened that there was a skating rink. It didn’t even really occur to me or to us,” Hamill said. “The quality of the ice is fantastic. There is not much in Baltimore as far as practice ice and here we live just a mile (away), not even.”
Hamill is currently trying to get her body back into skating shape.
This September she will host a Fantasy Figure Skating Camp for adults at Nantucket Ice. The behind-the-scenes look at a day in the life of a professional skater will include on- and off-ice lessons, choreography, stories, videos and candid discussions about the highs and lows of the professional skating world.
She is also working toward an upcoming performance in November. “Kaleidoscope,” a music and figure-skating spectacular to celebrate cancer survivors and promote awareness, will be a Fox network special aired on Thanksgiving Day. The event, which is being put on by the American Society of Clinical Oncology and Cancer.net, will be hosted by Olivia Newton-John and David Foster.
“I have a lot of work to do to get back in shape,” Hamill said.
So on a quiet summer morning, she skates alone in an empty rink.
Allison Goldsmith is the sports editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.