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Becoming Dorothy Hamill
Brenda Himelfarb Features December 8, 2017
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In the beginning, we were drawn to her eyes. Those bashful eyes, much like the pure, innocent look that we saw in the eyes of Diana, Princess of Wales, when she was first introduced to the world by Prince Charles. And like Diana became England’s revered princess, this fresh-faced young woman would become our pride and joy. Our princess. America’s first sweetheart.

Even her haircut spoke. It said “young, carefree.” Dubbed “The Dorothy,” it inspired a generation of young women who not only wanted to look like her, but who wanted to skate like her as well. Yet, underneath that unassuming appearance was a determined, young woman who would soon show the entire world her strength and determination. Soon Dorothy Hamill would become a World Cup and Olympic champion—and, to this day, has remained a champ in more ways than one.

It all began one winter day when the shy, eight year-old Hamill grabbed whatever skates she could find in the basement of her Connecticut home so she could “go down to the pond” to ice skate with her sister, Marcia and a neighbor. “I just remember skating,” recalls Hamill, of her first time on ice. “Well, I wasn’t really skating, but I thought I was and I loved the feeling of the wind in my face. I was one of those kids who didn’t swing on a swing rather I’d twirl and untwirl. I loved that feeling.

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I remember, on that particular day, I wanted to skate backwards. I watched my sister skating backwards, but neither she nor my neighbor would help me. So, I went home crying to my mother, ‘I want to take skating lessons. I want to skate backwards,’ I insisted. So, after much badgering and begging my mother signed me up for lessons, and that was it! I was hooked. I just loved the challenge of it. I always thought that I wanted to be a tap dancer, a singer. I would practice on the floor of the living room and, I suppose, skating was a combination of dancing and music. Well, maybe not tap dancing.”

And so began this champion’s skating life. On weekends, Hamill’s parents, Chalmers and Carol, would drop Hamill off at Playland, an indoor skating rink in Rye, New York, where she would spend hours skating in public sessions. “It was just glorious,” recalls Hamill, with a gleam in her eye. “I was eight. My brother, Sandy, was one of those brainiacs and my sister was beautiful and very outgoing. And I was shy and really didn’t want to talk to anybody. So I fell in love with skating. It was where I could express myself and I ended up in my little cocoon.”

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Soon everyone began to notice how well Hamill skated and suggested to Carol that she enter her talented daughter in a skating competition that was being held at the Wollman Rink in Central Park. “It was just a small meet, so my mom enrolled me. And believe me, it was a learning experience for all of us,” shares Hamill. “All the little girls in my pre-juvenile division had been skating a long time. And I’d only been skating about six months. Not even. To begin, I fell in the warm-up rink, which was outside. And this was springtime, and I got all wet. I didn’t know to bring another pair of tights. I had one dress. I had one pair of tights and so right after the warm up it was time for me to skate. When I would spin around, the water was flying everywhere and I had water dripping down my legs. And I wasn’t just a little damp, I was soaking wet!

“I was pretty embarrassed about it, but I still came in second, which surprised everybody, including the other little girls. They were all perfectly dressed and had the same teacher. They all knew what they were doing—and I didn’t. I couldn’t spin and jump the way they did. But the judges said they liked my interpretation of my two-minute program. What I think they liked was the musicality and the choreography. That was a good learning experience.” That summer, Hamill took swimming lessons and the following fall, once again, began group skating lessons. However, she also had a private lesson once a week. Her mother soon learned that if one wanted to compete in skating competitions, one had to be part of U.S. Figuring Skating, the national governing body for the sport of figure skating on ice in the United States, which had regionals, sectionals and national group competitions.

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So Hamill began learning compulsory figures in order to compete. “Everything was based on those figures,” says Hamill. “Once I placed in the regionals and the sectionals—you had to place in the top three—then I got to the nationals. I won ‘novice’ nationals. I have no idea how. You know, it was just one of those things. Everybody was so much better than I. At least, that was my perception.”

At the time, Hamill was being coached by Sonya and Peter Dunfield, who had taught Vera Wang, a pair-skater-turned- clothing designer. “It was a great life. I got to travel a bit. My first plane trip was to Seattle, Washington,” Hamill remembers. “The competitions just snowballed, and I never really thought of the Olympics. I watched them on TV and I was able to see some of the Olympic champions in Lake Placid, where I summer skated, so I saw what the elite skaters were doing and that was very inspiring.”

Each Saturday night, Lake Placid presented ice shows in which they’d feature a guest skater. “Everyone was an amateur, in those days,” says Hamill. “The national champions and the world champions didn’t get paid, so they would come and skate in that wonderful show. I would see stars like Peggy Fleming, (1968 Olympic champion), Janet Lynn (1972 Olympic Bronze medalist) and some men like John Misha Petkevich (1971 U.S. National Champion) and some of the Russians. So, I was able to watch the performances of really top-notch skaters and I think I learned and saw what I thought was very glamourous. And I loved the performance part of it—always.

“It was a great experience for me to be able to see those champions perform and, as well, to watch them practice. It’s hard for youngsters to do that nowadays. There are so many competitions and they don’t really get to watch the top skaters practice and perform. They’re all sort of in it together. So, Lake Placid was my summer camp.” Hamill was immediately dedicated to her sport, sometimes heading to the ice rink at 4:30 a.m. to practice. She was an alternate for the 1972 Olympics, but contracted the swine flu beforehand and was unable to attend. She was in bed with a fever for 14 days and lost 14 pounds. “It was right before nationals, and I was pretty weak. I came in fourth that year.”

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However, in 1974, Hamill made a breakthrough at the World Championships in Munich, Germany, when she won the silver medal. In 1975, she won silver again at the World Championships in Colorado Springs.

The following year, the 19-year-old Hamill stole the hearts of millions of Americans by winning the gold medal at the 1976 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria.

Sports Illustrated writer, Steve Wulf best described Hamill’s win in his article 1994 article, titled “Cinderella Story”. “In four nearly flawless minutes at the Olympic Ice Hall in Innsbruck, on February 12, 1976, she walleyed, toe-looped, salchowed, axeled and lutzed her way into our hearts, finishing her performance with the signature Hamill-Camel (a camel spin into a sit spin). The nearsighted girl in the pink dress further endeared herself to millions by squinting to see her scores (eight 5.8s and a 5.9 in technical merit, all 5.9s in artistic interpretation). The gold medal was hers, and as she stood shyly, demurely on the platform, she seemed to have stepped out of a storybook. And what a storybook name: “Dorothy.”

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At the time Hamill competed, compulsory figures, or school figures, as they were sometimes known, were included in skating competitions. Carving specific patterns or figures into the ice, all deriving from the basic figure eight, was the original focus of the sport. These figures accounted for 30 percent of a total score, with 20 percent for the short program and 50 percent for the free skating.

However, when the Olympic Games and other skating competitions began to be televised, figures were not considered to be exciting or appealing to television audiences. To begin, World Championship judges would sometimes take up to eight hours to complete their analysis of the figures. As well, skaters who excelled in the compulsory figures, but were not exceptional at free skating, sometimes accumulated such a large lead from performing school figures that they won the overall competitions. This, of course, left the viewers stunned, because only the free skating had been televised, so they knew nothing about the compulsory figures. Over the years, the proportion of compulsory figures as part of the completion was reduced and by 1997, U.S. Figure Skating voted to end domestic competition of figures altogether.

And, although compulsory figures are no longer a major competitive event, there are still those who want to keep the sport alive. In fact, in September, Hamill was a judge at the World Figure and Fancy Skating Championship, which was held at Dobson Arena in Vail. The competition requires multiple levels of proficiency and there are many who still enjoy the challenge of the control and mental stamina required to master the various figures.
Getting ready to compete in skating competitions in the ’70s was far different than how ice skaters train these days. “My coach, Carlo Fassi’s (an Italian figure skater) strength was in compulsory figures and that’s where I really needed help,” remarks Hamill. “I also worked with someone who had done choreography for Peggy Fleming. And the year of the Olympics I trained with a fun, enthusiastic man in Toronto, which was a good break for me. You know, when you work in the same rink day in and day out, seven hours a day, it’s hard.

“These days, the skaters have to do so many competitions, that I don’t know how they find time to actually work on choreography. They have media training camps and costume designers and separate choreographers. It’s all so different. They have off-ice training and access to sports medicine. There was no sports medicine when I competed. At least not in figure skating. I really don’t know how they have time to do it all.” Winning the Olympics certainly didn’t end Hamill’s career. On the contrary, she joined the show, Ice Capades and toured from 1977 to 1984. “Working with the Ice Capades was a huge adjustment,” Hamill admits. “We performed at least 9 to 13 shows a week and toured 10 months out of the year. It was a grind! Trying to perform at a certain level for all of those shows was mentally and physically very difficult. We did three shows on Saturdays: each show was two- and-half hours long. And it was the same routine for the entire season.

“I always wonder about Broadway stars. And the energy it takes. But, at least they don’t have to travel. We had only Mondays off and that was spent getting to the next city. And our practice was limited, perhaps an hour a day. On top of that, there were the interviews. We were a big family, so that was the good part.”
In 1983, Hamill won a Daytime Emmy Award for her performance in Romeo and Juliet on Ice. She’s been inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame as well as the Figure Skating Hall of Fame and ran the torch into the Olympic Stadium at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. As well, there is a Dorothy Hamill Skating Rink in Greenwich, CT, her hometown.

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Over the years, Hamill’s love of ice skating continues to keep her involved in many aspects of the sport. While living in Baltimore, she created an adaptive ice skating program called I- Skate for the Kennedy Krieger Institute. The program was created to allow children with physical disabilities to learn how to ice skate, not only improving their health and independence, but also providing important social interaction with their peers. Skaters use specially designed adaptive ice skates, walkers, ice sleds and helmets.

“I loved doing that program,” says Hamill. “And the parents loved it as well, because they could see their child moving out there. The special equipment allowed the kids to move on their own and have freedom and independence. I’d like to create a similar program in Vail.”
Hamill is also on a mission to keep alive the dream of Debbie Gordon, a dear friend, who recently passed away. Gordon’s focus was to create, Ice Dance International (IDI), a classical and contemporary ice ballet company to feature the world’s top ice skating talent. She had accrued some of the most brilliant stars of the ice skating world to work with her,
including figure skater and well-known television analyst, Dick Button, legendary dancer and choreographer, Edward Villella and choreographer, Douglas Webster, who worked such shows as “Disney on Ice” and “Holiday on Ice”.

“I hope to keep Debbie’s dream alive,” says Hamill, reflectively. “She gave IDI her heart and soul. She wanted to bring back the beautiful artistry and power of ice dancing.” Hamill and her husband, John MacColl moved to Eagle County to be closer to their children, Katie and Robin who live in Colorado. Daughter Alexandra lives in California and son, Tim resides in Pennsylvania

Hamill still has that bashful look in her eyes. Still has “The Dorothy,” her signature haircut. And still skates like no other. “I found something I loved to do and it took me places I never imagined.

“All I know is skating,” she tells me.
“I beg to differ with you,” I say

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