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Skating was passion, therapy for Hamill

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Relaxed Hamill gives gold medal performance
By Lisette Hilton
Special to

Signature Event

Feb. 13, 1976 - Before Dorothy Hamill took to the ice for her freestyle routine at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, she started crying after seeing a sign in the stands that said, "Which of the West? Dorothy!"

At first, she thought detractors made the sign and took it as a message that she was a witch. In this Cold War era, what the sign-makers were cleverly asking is which Western skater - Hamill or Diane de Leeuw of the Netherlands - was going to defeat East Germany's Christina Errath for the gold medal. Then they answered by saying Dorothy.

Once Hamill realized the sign was held by her friends, who wanted to shake her out of her usual pre-competition jitters, the three-time U.S. champion felt better. A relaxed Hamill gave a competent performance, skating to music from Errol Flynn movies. She won the gold medal by a unanimous decision of the nine judges.

The crowd showered her with so many flowers that three girls helped her gather them on the ice. Lord Killian, president of the International Olympic Committee, put the gold medal around her neck.

At the awards ceremony, the 19-year-old Hamill cried again. "I couldn't help it," she said. "It wasn't because I had finally won the medal. It was seeing the American flag go up and hearing the band play 'The Star Spangled Banner.'"

Odds 'n' Ends

  • When she was 12, one morning Hamill couldn't wake her mother for practice at 4:30 a.m. After awaking, Carol found her daughter walking alone in the cold to the rink, 10 miles away, with her skates slung over her shoulder.

  • Hamill's father, Chalmers, was a mechanical engineer with Pitney Bowes in Connecticut. He reportedly spent as much as $20,000 a year on his daughter's skating lessons, travel, costumes and living expenses in order to make her into a champion.

  • Carol got so nervous that she couldn't watch her daughter compete. She went to the Olympics but couldn't stand to watch, spending the night at the Innsbruck Holiday Inn while Dorothy won the gold medal.

  • Hamill has an older brother, Sandy, and an older sister, Marcia.

  • Hamill idolizes ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

  • She said she became "more aware" of her hair after seeing Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. She got her hair cut in a similar fashion and cried for two days because she thought she looked like a boy.

  • Hamill's signature haircut was the work of stylist Yusuke Suga.

  • Hamill set off another fashion trend in the 1970s -- glasses with oversized frames. Nicknamed "Squint" because of her bad eyesight, her huge glasses were first bought in the summer of 1971. Coach Carlo Fassi discovered her eyesight problem and told the optician to make the biggest frames possible so Hamill could see out of the corners while doing figures.

  • Though she won't identify the alleged assailant, Hamill said that a competing skater and the skater's coach tried to run her down with a car during the 1976 Olympics.

  • Against the advice of team manager Dr. Frank Nelson, on the day off between the Olympic short and long programs, the Hamills' took a trip to Salzburg for a "Sound of Music" tour. Family and Nelson agree that it may have been just the thing to calm Hamill for her gold-medal performance the following night.

  • When Fassi left to go to Europe with another pupil several weeks before the Olympics, the Hamills' went to Peter Burrows to coach Dorothy for her final preparations.

  • Unhappy with Fassi, the Hamills' asked the U.S. Figure Skating Association if they could officially change coaches to Burrows for Innsbruck. The USFSA refused the request, leaving Fassi the coach of record.

  • Hamill had a falling out with Fassi over money. He sued her for failure to pay her bills and she counter-sued. They settled out of court.

  • But the two, it seemed, had mended their ways when Hamill made an emotional appearance at a tribute paid to Fassi after his death from a heart attack at 67.

  • Hamill said she never minds signing autographs because she remembers her disappointment as a little girl when she was unable to get Fleming's autograph.

  • Hamill had a passion for jewelry and always tried to find a special piece to remind her of each place she visited.

  • In December 1982, $366,000 in jewelry was stolen from her San Francisco hotel room. She lost the case against Lloyd's of London for reimbursement in 1985.

  • Hamill is a spokesperson for Merck & Co., Inc., a drug manufacturer.

  • She is a member of the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame and U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

  • Her professional wins include the 1997 Legends FSC championship and the 1983 through 1987 World Professional championships.

  • In May 1993, a survey by the Sports Marketing Group in Dallas said that Hamill and Mary Lou Retton were the nation's "most popular athletes" ahead of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana and Nolan Ryan.

  • Hamill's charity work includes the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, International Special Olympics, Big Brothers and Sisters, American Cancer Society, and teaching blind children to skate with March of Dimes.

  • She is the last figure skater to win Olympic gold without performing a triple jump.

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