The Skater's edge

At 47, Olympic medalist Dorothy Hamill still possesses startling skill and grace

Health & Fitness

January 18, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

One in an occasional series about the fitness habits of Marylanders.

You've had dreams like this, where your aging body doesn't hold you back from taking a step out over the edge, and instead of falling headlong you glide until you finally come to a gentle stop on the other side of the chasm.

That's what it must be like to be Dorothy Hamill when she skates, almost 30 years after she won a gold medal at the winter Olympics in Innsbruck.

Close up, Hamill still looks great, with expert makeup emphasizing her gray eyes and wide smile. Her face has more character than it did when she was dubbed "America's sweetheart" at age 19. Although she's wearing workout clothes, diamonds glitter at her ears. "I bought them when I was young and childless and had more money than someone my age ought to have had," she says with a laugh.

Her hair, which she's growing out for the first time in her life, almost reaches her shoulders. (At the height of her career, she was as famous for her wedge haircut by New York stylist Suga as she was for her Olympic gold medal and five professional world championships. His assistant, Hiroshi Ono at Kenneth's Salon in New York, cuts her hair these days.)

At 5 feet 3 inches tall and 125 pounds, Hamill is unexpectedly petite, with a tiny waist and powerful legs -- although she'll lose five pounds, she says, before she goes on tour with Champions on Ice this spring. Her body still has a boneless flexibility when she skates. It's hard to believe that in the late '90s she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in her upper spine and neck.

When you see Hamill on the ice, one thought comes to mind: She can't possibly be 47 years old.

Unfortunately, to sip from her fountain of youth takes a commitment of time, energy and money that most of us aren't willing or able to make. But there are some things to be learned from her way of life, most notably what it takes to get better with age.

Hamill spends an hour or two a day, six days a week, on her aerobic and anaerobic exercise -- that is, skating.

For privacy, she rents out all of the Benfield Pines Ice Rink in Millersville. Sometimes she practices alone, sometimes with her choreographer-coach Tim Murphy (who is one of the main reasons she moved to Baltimore), and sometimes with the Baltimore-based repertory ice-dance company The Next Ice Age.

"I still love it," she says. "I love working on new projects. But it gets harder and harder at my age seeing my repertoire shrinking."

'She's very musical'

Her coach scoffs at that, pointing out that after 30 years there's only one jump, a double axel, she no longer performs.

"It's not like riding a bicycle," he explains. "One reason she looks so good skating is that she has never really stopped" for any length of time.

She could probably still do a double axel in practice, Hamill admits, but she has a mental block about trying it in front of an audience.

Yes, you can get better as you get older. Once known as an athletic skater, Hamill has learned to be a graceful performer over the years -- something she's worked hard on.

"She's very musical," says Murphy. "When she was a competitor, she wasn't known for that. Unlike lesser skaters, there's nothing awkward about the way she gets from point A to point B."

Skating is only part of how Hamill stays in shape. She works out three times a week at Kernan Physical Therapy in Timonium, sometimes biking for 30 or 40 minutes and sometimes jogging -- although her knees feel the jogging, she says. She also uses weight machines to strengthen her upper body.

Hamill tried other gyms when she first got to Baltimore in 1997, but discovered Kernan when a bookcase fell on her shoulder during the move into her new home. The combination of physical therapy and training since then has kept her pretty much injury-free. She controls her osteoarthritis with physical therapy and exercise, and she's learned not to carry heavy travel bags or lift objects above her shoulders.

"It's a luxury to have sports medicine," she says. "I wish I'd had that when I was competing."

She's careful to warm up before she goes on the ice, a much simpler warm- up than you might expect from a world-class figure skater. She does some range-of-motion moves and a few stretches and bends. She jogs in place and finishes up with jumping jacks, spending perhaps 15 minutes in all. She isn't as religious about stretching as she could be, but she is planning to take up Pilates one of these days -- maybe when her 15-year-old daughter, Alexandra, goes away to college.

"Right now there aren't enough hours in the day," she says.

Balancing work, home

Like other single moms (another reason she moved here was to get away from a messy divorce), Hamill has had to balance her workout time with family life. The Millersville ice rink is a long drive from Alexandra's school, Roland Park Country, where Hamill has to be mid-afternoon to pick her up.

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