Legend on Ice

'America's Sweetheart' is now a single mom living in Baltimore. But 24 years after Olympic gold, Dorothy Hamill is still skating with unmatched passion and perfectionism.

April 06, 2000|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

In the early mornings, after dropping her 11-year-old daughter off at school, Dorothy Hamill drives down to Millersville, to a low-slung gray building just off Interstate 97. There, in an old ice rink, she puts on classical music, or James Taylor, or sometimes K.D. Lang, laces up her white boots and steps out onto the milky surface.

Away from here, she's a single mom making a home in Baltimore, a twice-divorced woman who has found a new love, a star who has endured scrutiny, bankruptcy and, lately, arthritis.

But at 43, much about Dorothy Hamill hasn't changed. She's still gorgeous, still kind. And still skating.

With just a few strokes, she's speeding across the ice, her short brown hair blowing back, a smile on her face. Then she goes into a spin, standing straight up, rotating faster and faster, gradually moving her arms all the way above her head, until she is a blur.

Her execution of this move, a scratch spin, is considered the best in the world. Still.

Twenty-four years after she won an Olympic gold medal, Hamill skates six days a week and in dozens of shows a year. Amazing those inside the sport, she spins and jumps and glides at nearly the same level she did in 1976. Last year, she remastered her double lutz jump; this year, she's trying to regain the other move she had lost: the difficult double axel.

"I would love to do it one more time," Hamill says, "even if I don't perform it, to do it once or twice in practice, before I hang my skates up completely."

That is likely a ways off. Hamill still ranks among top figure skaters, years after many younger competitors have dropped out. Her jumps, while not triples, are known for their big, perfect arcs. She carries herself on the ice with elegance, finishing off every move, appreciating every nuance of blade and edge. She skates quietly, almost softly across the rink.

These are qualities often missing in today's younger skaters, whose training and programs focus on hitting multiple triple jumps.

"She's a legend that deserves to be," says Brian Boitano, 36, an Olympic gold medalist and long-time professional champion. "Nobody spins as well as her to this day. I still see her do a scratch spin every night and go, `Whoa, how does she do that?'

"She's a queen."

Return to competition

Several weeks ago, at the Goodwill Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., Hamill competed for the first time since 1976. All the traits that made her a champion were still with her: meticulous preparation, rigorous training, beautiful choreography -- and her old nemesis, her nerves. She paced backstage.

"She gets so nervous that she just about gets sick," says JoJo Starbuck, a three-time national pairs champion. "But she has this incredible, steel-like tenacity. The spotlight hits her, and she's sparkling like a million bucks."

In her long program, skating to "Love Makes the World Go Round," Hamill landed several double jumps, and at one point, she circled the center of the ice with a series of graceful moves, holding her arms out to the audience as if she were passing around her happiness.

By the time she ended with the scratch spin, the crowd was on its feet, shouting and cheering.

Hamill didn't expect to surpass skaters with arsenals of triple jumps who were only toddlers when she won the gold medal. But even as she earned near-perfect marks for presentation, she criticized herself.

"It's not about ability. It's about mental toughness, which I don't have, partly from being a mom, partly from being almost 44," she said. "I would have liked to have skated better, just for me. You just want to skate your best."

But the competition on live television was a triumph for her. Hamill won a friendly duel, beating out Katarina Witt, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is about 10 years younger than she.

Tonight at the Arena

Tonight, Hamill skates with the world's top figure skaters in Champions on Ice, a 34-city national tour that opens at the Baltimore Arena. Most of the skaters are in their 20s, with a few in their 30s. But the show's organizers didn't hesitate to sign up Hamill, who is under contract for three years.

"Any city you go into, she has one of the loudest receptions of anybody," said Michael Collins, tour manager and son of Tom Collins, the tour's founder. "She's not doing the big jumps, but her style of skating is classic. You look out in the audience, and they are mesmerized."

Added Nicole Bobek, 22, the 1995 U.S. champion, who is on the tour: "The way she holds herself, it's exquisite. She can just make one line and get a standing ovation."

Physicians can't say why someone like Hamill has been able to maintain her skills at such a high level for so long.

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