Dorothy Hamill Charmed a Nation
It was the year of America's Bicentennial. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest made a killing at the Oscars and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" racked up the hardware at the Emmys. It was 1976, and one of the biggest news stories to sweep the United States came in the form of a 19-year-old Connecticut native named Dorothy Hamill. This girl-next-door became America's sweetheart when she won the Olympic gold medal in Innsbruck, Austria that year. In the process she catapulted her wedge hairstyle into a must-have do, had a skating move named after her (the Hamill Camel) and charmed a nation.
IFS talked to Hamill from her home in Maryland, where she reminisced about her career from when she started skating at 8½ to her on-ice activities today. When the Olympic Games open in Torino in 2006, it will be the 30th anniversary of Hamill's feat. "The years have just flown by — it is hard to believe," said Hamill, who still wears her hair short and has stunning blue eyes, a wide smile and an easy laugh.
The 1976 Olympic champion has spent the past three decades entertaining audiences, including appreciative audiences on the Champions on Ice tour.
Hamill immediately fell in love with the sense of freedom skating gave her. "I just remember the first time stepping on the pond, being out there by yourself and the wind at your face. It was just this great feeling," she said. "My sister was there and my neighbor and they were skating backwards and nobody would help me."
A crying Dorothy arrived home later that day. "I wanted to learn to skate backwards and I begged my mother and she signed me up for some group lessons," Hamill said. "I always loved to spin and twirl and dance around the living floor and it was kind of like that. From the time I started taking lessons to learn how to skate backwards, to learning how to spin, it was almost an obsession."
Hamill's first competition was the Wollman Open in Central Park in New York City. She won the silver. "I thought I was the laughingstock of the competition. … I fell in the warm-up and my tights were soaking wet and … I didn't know anything, like bring a back-up pair of tights. I had this ridiculous dress that was down to my knees, like the Sonja Henie days. I looked like old school." The next year a 10-year-old Hamill came back and won the gold medal.
Hamill credits her success in the sport to staying power. "I just had a love and passion [for the sport]. When I skated and competed early on there were kids who were so much better than I was. They had all started skating earlier [than I did] and a lot of them got burned out. For me, it wasn't that I was all that talented, it was that I was just determined and I persevered because I liked it so much," she said. "I was very shy, so it was the one place I could be by myself and put on any kind of music I wanted to and express myself without having to talk to people. So, I never really thought I had what it took. I just think I hung in there longer than anybody else, and there is always luck and timing, all those factor in."
After winning the Olympic gold medal, Hamill became famous overnight. "It was amazing and it is still amazing," she said about her reception in America. "People were just as nice and warm and wonderful as you can imagine. Before [winning] I could walk down the street in New York City — because I had gone to school there and nobody knew me. Then afterwards, my sister and I would be walking down the street and people would stop and congratulate me. It was just so strange that people would know me and that I didn't know them. It was interesting. It is not like it is today where people know the competitors long before. There just wasn't the publicity in those days until after the Olympics."
"On the podium, when the medal was put around my neck and they were playing the national anthem, I remember having just every emotion you can imagine and every thought," recalled the 1976 Olympic champion.
Michelle Kwan, a five-time World champion and nine-time U.S. champion, describes Hamill as a legend. "She is an ice princess," Kwan said. "I don't think there is anyone like her who has been in the sport longer and who has been in the public eye longer. It is hard to say what her place in the sport is because she is still going."
Kwan toured with Hamill for several years with Champions on Ice (COI). Hamill has done several stints with the tour. "She always got a huge reaction from the fans," Kwan said. "A bunch of us would come out just to watch her skate, just to see the reception she would get."
Another elite skater who holds Hamill in high esteem is Sasha Cohen, the two-time and reigning World silver medalist who has toured with Hamill with COI. "Dorothy is an amazing skater and really, she is an icon," Cohen said. "She is very elegant, very poised, her skating is flowing and she is extremely graceful."
IFS: What was your biggest challenge as an athlete preparing for the Olympic Games?
Hamill: School figures were always my nemesis. … If you start skating when you are 8½, I don't think I even started figures until I was 9, to get through your gold test by 13, that was pretty quick, so I really didn't have the hours that it [took to] perfect them. With Carlo Fassi, I practiced them and practiced them, but that was always my downfall. It wasn't ever that my free skating couldn't cut it; it was that my figures couldn't cut it. Carlo gave me the confidence and my figures improved. Also there was the fact that he finally figured out that I needed glasses so I could see my figures. That was half the battle because I was blind.
Dorothy Hamill is still going strong with a grace and beauty that continues to draw in fans.
IFS: What are your most clear memories from the Olympic Games?
Hamill: The thing that stands out the most is that it was the one international competition, as opposed to the Worlds, that I really enjoyed. I was nervous, yes, of course, the way everyone is, but I really enjoyed the experience of the Olympics. It was so cool to be in the village and living with other athletes who were going through the same thing. There was a great sense of camaraderie and all of that. It was unlike any other competition in that respect and I really loved that.
I remember the night before my final performance and the stack of telegrams from people and not knowing most of them. And [I had] this whole sort of enlightenment that, 'Oh my God, these are just well-wishers who have been watching on TV for the last couple of weeks who are now sending me best wishes and good luck.' There was much more of a sense that it was not just me out there, that I was representing my country and I had a responsibility.
IFS: At what point did you realize you had won the gold medal?
Hamill: I knew after the two competitors that were really my toughest competition, Christine Errath [the eventual bronze medalist] and Dianne de Leeuw [the eventual silver medalist], had competed. It wasn't until after I had already skated and I had to watch them skate. Those days were the days before computers; at least none of us had computers. My dad was a very good mathematician and he was there adding up the scores. After their marks had come in, that is when I knew.
IFS: What went through your head when you knew you had won?
Hamill: On the podium, when the medal was put around my neck and they were playing the national anthem, I remember having just every emotion you can imagine and every thought. … [Thinking] that all that hard work, that not just I but that everybody had put into it, had paid off.
I realized that all that training was behind me and of course [I had feelings] about the uncertainty of what the future would hold. There was relief, uncertainty, all kind of emotions.
IFS: What did you learn about yourself through that whole experience?
Hamill: It took me a while to learn that I had so much to learn about skating. Even though I won the Olympics, it wasn't until a few years later when I started working with John Curry that I realized I could do sort of the athlete part of the Olympics, but as far as the artistic part, I was nowhere near [where I could be].
IFS: What was it like for you when overnight everyone had your haircut?
Hamill: That was always strange to me too. I had pretty much had short hair my whole life. I hated my short hair. I would read about it and I would get letters from hairdressers saying, 'Would you please change your hairstyle because we're so sick of doing that hairstyle?' It was just odd to me.
IFS: How did it feel having a move named after you, the Hamill Camel?
Hamill: That was kind of strange only because my coach Gus Lussi had created it. And it was just something he described, and from what I understand I didn't do it the way he wanted it, but I guess close enough. He wasn't a skater and he didn't wear skates, so he couldn't demonstrate. It was kind of fun. It was sort of a joke in the skating rink where I used to practice. The skaters would say, 'Hey Hamill, how's your camel?'
IFS: What were some of the bigger opportunities that came your way after winning the gold medal?
Hamill: There were so many, I cannot even remember all of them — having the opportunity to work with great choreographers from the dance world, like John Curry, that was an education in itself post-Olympics. I will never forget my stint with Ice Capades. It was a job and it taught me how to perform and how to be consistent. Because as an amateur — and we were amateurs in those days in the true sense of the word — you had your ups and downs and you only had four or five competitions year. But when you are skating 11 shows a week in an ice show, you cannot have those highs and lows, so you really have to learn to perform at a certain level. That was hard. It took me a while to figure that one out too.