Hamill, Dorothy (1956—)

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Hamill, Dorothy (1956—)

Charismatic figure skater and one of only three American women to win the U.S. National championship, the World championship, and an Olympic gold medal in the same year. Name variations: (nickname) Squint (because of her nearsightedness) and Dot. Born Dorothy Stuart Hamill, July 26, 1956, in Chicago, Illinois; third child of Chalmers (an executive at Pitney Bowes) and Carolyn Hamill; married Dean Paul Martin, on January 8, 1982 (divorced); married Dr. Kenneth Forsythe, in 1987 (separated 1995); children: one daughter, Alexandra (b. 1988).

Won the U.S. National championship (1974, 1975, 1976); won Olympic gold medal, Innsbruck, Austria, XII Winter Games, as well as World championship (1976); was World Professional Figure Skating champion (1984–87); was a product spokesperson, an Ice Capades headliner, a television performer-producer, president of Dorothy Hamill Enterprises, and executive producer of Cinderella … Frozen in Time. Publications: Dorothy Hamill, On and Off the Ice (Alfred Knopf, 1983).

The moment she pushed off and began to glide across Morse's Pond, a span of ice behind her grandparents house in Wellesley, Massachusetts, writes Dorothy Hamill, something inside her "surged." She had no way of knowing that those eight-year-old wobbly legs were setting in motion a skating career that would continue for over three decades. Despite the limited resources of her parents and her relentless stage fright, Hamill's ability to balance and move gracefully upon a set of metal blades took her to nearby arenas, competitions around the country, and ultimately around the world. She circled endlessly, sped forward, turned, twisted, jumped, and lifted herself to the pinnacles of skating. Before she had a chance to pause during her pursuit, she was smiling back at herself from the cover of Time magazine. After earning three U.S. National championships, a World championship, an Olympic gold medal, and, finally, a chance to relax, her childhood was essentially over.

Dorothy Hamill, who grew up in a comfortable two-story house in Riverside, an upper-middle-class section of Greenwich, Connecticut, had an older brother Sandy and shared a room with her older sister Marcia . Blue-eyed, with dark brown hair, Hamill was small but athletically built: she would eventually compete at 5′3", 115 pounds. As a young girl, Hamill liked to swim, collect stuffed animals, listen to music, and play the violin.

When she first skated on that frozen pond, Hamill was wearing an old, borrowed set of skates. Back home in Riverside, she continued the activity at Binney Park on new $6.95 skates with her sister Marcia. Fascinated with others ability to skate backwards, she asked her parents to let her take lessons. She was soon among the best beginners, though she joined the Binney Park class mid-course. It was, however, during her first lessons at the Rye Playland Ice Rink in New York that she learned to skate backwards. The ten-minute trip to Rye was the beginning of a long journey to find instruction and ice time. She moved on to Shirley Ayre 's Ice Studio in the Stamford Shopping Mall and up to $25 skates, purchased by her grandmother. The more she skated, the more she learned; the more she learned, the more she enjoyed her increasingly expensive hobby.

Her first private teacher was Barbara Taplan at Rye. "The technique Barbara taught me in that first year was an excellent underpinning for my years of free skating" writes Hamill. Her next tutor, Otto Gold, who trained the 1948 Olympic champion Barbara Ann Scott , introduced Hamill to school figures. Beginning musicians learn scales, beginning skaters learn school figures—skated circles that require concentration, balance, and tedious, repetitious practice. Going around a complete circle on one stroke, a skater glides backwards, forwards, and changes feet. The U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA) uses figures as an official test to measure a skater's progress. Figures are also a required component in competitions, called compulsories. During competitions, each skater traces three circles, later examined by the judges. Graded on a scale of 2.0 to 5.0, figures count for 30% of a skater's total. A short program, made up of seven set moves, makes up 20% of the score, and the free skating program makes up the remaining 50%. Hamill, a natural free skater, had to work hardest on her figures.

She was nine when she passed her preliminary USFSA test. The following year, she passed her first and second tests and entered her first competition at Wollman rink in Central Park in New York City. The USFSA groups ladies (even young girls are called ladies) into Juvenile, Intermediate, Novice, Junior, and Senior divisions. Hamill placed a surprise second in the Juvenile division. "I felt my head float away from my body," she wrote. "I was so happy. I couldn't believe it."

Encouraged by her success, Hamill and her mother Carolyn Hamill drove to rinks in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey in search of "patch time," a section of ice large enough for practice. "It was a rough time and I felt bad that I could never get to my friends' slumber parties," Hamill wrote, "but I never skipped a lesson, ice time was too hard to come by in those days." Hamill often ate, slept, and studied in the car, sometimes reading by flashlight. So dedicated was the young skater that one morning when her mother overslept, Hamill reportedly set out to walk to the rink. When Hamill's parents asked if she was serious about pursuing skating, Dorothy assured them she was willing to put in the hard work. From then on, said her mother, "it was just like having a child who was good in school. You sacrifice."

I won the Olympics… for all those Americans whose love and good wishes carried me through those last few days at Innsbruck. But I won the World championship for myself, and for all those people who had believed in me since I first put on skates down by Morse's pond.

—Dorothy Hamill

In Hamill's day, it was not unusual to spend ten years and $10,000 on a promising skater. In addition to the financial burden, Dorothy's schooling had to be adjusted and her social life limited by early morning practices. Her mother became a full-time chaperon, seamstress, chauffeur, personal cook, and manager. Her father Chalmers, who worked to provide the extra income, did not see much of his daughter or wife. Chalmers helped Dorothy select and edit her skating music and attended competitions.

One summer, Dorothy moved to Lake Placid and lived with Coach Gold and his wife. At the training center there, she watched many great skaters and developed a crush on Gordie McKellen, a future U.S. champion, who became a close friend and source of encouragement. Hamill returned to Lake Placid the following year and began to work with Gustave Lussi, trainer of two-time gold medalist Dick Button. Although most of her time went to skating, Hamill attempted to maintain friendships and live like a normal teenager.

In January of 1969, she won the Eastern Sectional championships in Wilmington, Delaware. Next, despite poor figures, a terrific free-style performance pulled her to third place in the Novice division in her first Regional competition at Lake Placid. The result earned Hamill a trip to Seattle, Washington, where she became National Novice champion at age 12. There, she watched Janet Lynn win one of her five National Seniors championships. Though Hamill admired Lynn, her skating hero was John Misha Petkevich, the National Senior Men's gold medalist. Because of her own innate leg strength and superior jumping ability, Hamill idolized the male skaters, especially the great jumpers.

After Seattle, Hamill switched to Coach Sonya Klopfer (Dunfield), the 1951 Ladies' National Figure Skating champion and former captain of the 1952 U.S. Olympics team. Hamill lived with Dunfield and her husband in the Catskill Mountains. The Dunfields introduced Dorothy to ballet as well as the great bootmaker Stanzione in New York, when they flew her down for custom-fitted skates. They also took her to Toronto where she worked with choreographer Bob Paul, a 1960 gold-medal winner. Despite her success, Hamill suffered from uncontrollable stage fright. "Before any competition I used to sit in the dressing room and just want to die. Just die. It's like well, it's like going to an execution. Every year, I would swear—This is my last competition." Dunfield convinced Hamill to accept the anxiety and channel it into useful energy.

Returning to Lake Placid for a reunion with Coach Lussi, Dorothy made great strides. Lussi, who helped center her spins, increase her speed, and improve the height of her jumps, encouraged more artistic interaction with the music. He also planted the seeds for a different type of move; he had Hamill work on a new combination that started with a flying camel layover, and, after she bent her skating knee, dropped into a sit spin. Dunfield helped refine the move after Hamill's season with Lussi ended.

A freak accident forced Hamill to withdraw during competition at the Junior Ladies level in Buffalo, New York. She was third after the compulsories but while attempting to practice on a dimly lit rink early in the morning she skated into a rope and suffered a concussion. A somewhat controversial ruling by the USFSA allowed her to compete in the Regionals despite not finishing in Buffalo.

All facets of Hamill's skating continued to improve. In January of 1970, she became the Eastern Junior Ladies champ. In February at the Nationals, she won her first school figures and performed her first double axle in public. Finishing second overall, Hamill also thrilled the audience with her new move, which became know as the Hamill Camel. That same year, she passed her "gold" figure test and was officially ready to compete as a senior.

In 1971, after skating to a fifth place finish at her first senior level Nationals competition, Hamill was asked to compete in the pre-Olympic invitational in Sapporo, Japan. At age 14, she became one of the youngest women to represent the U.S. in international competition. In Sapporo, she took third and met Coach Carlo Fassi whose resumé listed several famous students, including two-time World champion and 1968 Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming . In her autobiography, Hamill praises all her coaches, but she credits Fassi for putting it all together.

International competition meant increased media exposure, more pressure, and more travel. Luckily, the USFSA began to absorb some of the financial burden. A 1972 fourth place finish at the Nationals kept Hamill one spot away from making the U.S. Olympic team. Dejected, she watched the games on television as Janet Lynn settled for a bronze medal after a fall during a flying sit spin.

When Julie Lynn Holmes announced her retirement, Hamill moved up to take her spot on the U.S. team and took seventh in her first World's competition. Touring with the team, Hamill went on to win the International Grand Prix championship at St. Gervais, France, and the Nebelhorn Trophy at Obersdorf, West Germany. Upon her return, Fassi discovered Hamill was nearsighted and had her fitted for glasses. The glasses, with wide lenses so she could see her figure patterns on the ice, later set a fashion trend. Fassi also sent Hamill to work in Toronto with Ellen Burka , the 1945–46 Dutch champion. Burka worked on Dorothy's stroking technique, her performing, and her "acting" on ice.

When Hamill joined Fassi at his new rink in Denver, Colorado, she attended school at the Colorado Academy in Englewood. There, she made friends and maintained good grades despite

the long hours of skating practice, weight training, and ballet classes. Carolyn Hamill was a constant companion with little to do except return to the hotel while her daughter practiced. It was a hard, sometimes lonely life. During one stretch, Dorothy did not see her sister or brother for an entire year, but her schedule kept her preoccupied. Fassi, who enforced a nine o'clock curfew, kept up the pressure with grueling training sessions for his nearly three dozen students.

In 1973, at the Nationals in Bloomington, Indiana, Hamill stood on the second place riser as Janet Lynn won her fifth consecutive title. A month later, Dorothy took fourth at the World championships in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. Lynn then retired from amateur competition prior to the 1974 Nationals competition in Providence, Rhode Island. Despite a shaky final program, as heir apparent to the U.S. throne, Hamill seized the opportunity by winning her first National championship.

A month later, at the World championships at Olympia Halle in Munich, when Hamill began her free-skating performance, she faced a stage-fright nightmare. A chorus of boos from the audience greeted her as she took to the ice. Unaware that the crowd was booing the scoring for hometown favorite Gerti Schanderl , Hamill burst into tears and skated off. After learning that the crowd wasn't against her, noted Time magazine, she composed herself and skated "back out on the ice, head and shoulders set in grim determination. Her music started and suddenly came the smile like a flash of sunlight. Surely, evenly, she started to skate, and soon was sweeping through her routine as if gravity did not exist. The crowd was caught up in the moment, and in four minutes Dorothy turned the entire, week-long championship into her show." It was one of her best performances ever. She received enough total points to finish second overall.

Hamill graduated from the Colorado Academy but continued to spend five hours a day, or more, on the ice. While performing double axles, she caught a skate in a rut, fell and felt terrific pain in her leg and ankle. There was no break or torn tendons or strained ligaments, just pain. After consulting specialists, she wore a walking cast for several weeks. Despite this, she managed to reclaim the National Senior's title, her third, in January of 1975, but afterwards the pain returned. Finally, a sports physiotherapist in Denver used ultrasound treatments to restore her ankle.

At the 1975 World championships, a fall during a flying sit spin cost her first place. Hamill finished second to Diane de Leeuw , an American who skated for the Netherlands. The loss built up the pressure heading into the '76 Olympics. As a two-time second place finisher, Hamill's ability to perform under stress began to be questioned. She was inconsistent. On the one hand, said Dick Buttons, there were no seams in her skating; "every move is right, every line is clean." On the other hand, he said, "she can blow it." The pressure forced her to focus on her Olympic preparations. She made a final trip to Toronto to work on her free-style routine with choreographers Ellen Burka and Brian Foley. When coach Fassi left to supervise John Curry, Hamill turned to Peter Burrows. The New York area coach agreed to assist in any way he could. She later wrote, "Peter pulled my head together, helped me to focus, inspired me and motivated me."

A few years earlier, while on tour with the USFSA, Hamill had had her hair cut by a stylist in London who had reportedly done Julie Andrews ' hair for Hamill's favorite film, The Sound of Music. What worked for Julie, failed Hamill. She hated the way she looked while performing an exhibition before Queen Elizabeth II in London. Still flinching from her disastrous haircut, she sought assistance. Fellow skater, Melissa Militano , recommended a Japanese stylist named Suga because he understood that a skater's hair had to fall back in place easily as they whirled around the rink. After repeated requests to find time in his schedule, Suga agreed to see Hamill. Soon after, they both became famous for the "Hamill Wedge."

On February 4, 1976, the entire Hamill family was together in Innsbruck to watch the Opening ceremonies of the XII Winter Games. At the time, Dorothy told a reporter, "I owe so much to so many wonderful people that I'm determined to overcome anything for the Olympics." She had to overcome a great deal. The media attention was relentless and ice time for practice was limited. Because Carlo Fassi was her coach of record, neither Foley nor Burrows were allowed to accompany her to Innsbruck. One evening a car forced her to jump out of the way as she walked with Fassi. A deliberate attempt, she thought, to psyche her out.

Despite the distractions, Hamill placed second in the school figures. A fall during a routine sit spin in her final warm up alarmed the crowd but probably helped ease some of the tension and reminded Hamill to maintain focus. A nearly perfect short program placed her ahead of the pack. Afterwards, a trip with her family out to Salzburg to see the locations for The Sound ofMusic proved to be the perfect distraction for the upcoming free-style competition.

Hamill returned from the outing to find her hotel room filled with correspondence. "I sat in my room by myself, reading 300 telegrams and letters from people I did not know. It was nice to have so many people rooting for me but I realized I had to live up to their high expectations.… I felt in a sense I was no longer Dorothy Hamill—I was the United States. The medal was not mine to lose—I was representing the hopes and dreams of thousands of people I had never met."

Carolyn Hamill, who had devoted more than a decade of her life to her daughter's career, stayed back in the hotel room, too nervous even to watch the televised finals on February the 13th. She missed one of Innsbruck's most memorable television shots: a close up of Hamill, short of breath, smiling, hugging her coach, and squinting to read her scores. The television audience became aware of Dorothy Hamill's nearsightedness, and, as the 5.8s for technical ability and 5.9s for artistic merit were posted, they also learned she had won the gold medal.

After Innsbruck, several advisors urged Hamill to retire, to cash in, to go out a winner. Dorothy wasn't sure. She wanted a World championship, even though anything less than a first place finish at the World's might undermine her stature and earnings potential. "I thought if I didn't compete, I would always regret it. It had been a goal," wrote Hamill. "I was so close at that point that I would have been crazy not to. So many people were involved besides me; my parents, my coach, my sponsors. I couldn't let them down."

When she arrived at Göteborg, Sweden, she was pleased to find her good friend John Curry, the men's Olympic gold medalist. Both took top honors at the 1976 World championships. (Only two other U.S. women have won a National championship, an Olympic gold medal, and a World championship in the same year—Peggy Fleming and Kristi Yamaguchi . Norway's Sonja Henie won the Grand Slam twice.)

Hamill returned home to a parade in Riverside and an invitation to visit the White House for a state dinner in Queen Elizabeth's honor. Her new mega-agent Jerry Weintraub allowed the Ideal Toy Company to produce Barbie-like, Dorothy Hamill dolls, and wangled a three-year iceshow deal for a reported $1 million. Hamill chose the Ice Capades, she said, because they "had a family way about them." That same year, Desi Arnaz, Jr., invited the world champion to dinner and introduced her to Dean Paul Martin, a professional tennis player, pilot for the Air National Guard Flyer, and son of actor Dean Martin. Hamill and Martin courted on and off for five years, in between hectic schedules, and married at a celebrity wedding in 1981.

With the Ice Capades, Hamill found a grueling 13-show week, 18-to-23-weeks-per-year schedule, and a return to the loneliness of life on the road. There were endless interviews, hassles with demented fans, and Hamill suffered from a difficult relationship with the press. Money became a problem. A $100,000 lawsuit, initiated by Fassi, was settled out of court. Loans she had made to friends were never repaid. Hamill felt exploited. "I was such a baby then," she told a reporter. "And I probably still am. It's all happened so quickly. It just all happened so quickly. The contract with Ice Capades and Clairol and the TV specials. It's just all happened so fast."

Hamill moved from Riverside, Connecticut, to Hollywood and appeared in TV specials with Gene Kelly, Bruce Jenner, Hal Linden, and Sally Kellerman , which were not perceived as well produced, or wise career moves. Eventually, Hamill developed a bleeding ulcer, and her marriage to Martin ended after two years. They remained good friends until his death in a plane crash in 1987.

After 1982, Hamill's career and personal life rebounded. In 1983, she performed in Romeo and Juliet on CBS to good ratings. In 1984, she skated with the John Curry Skating Company, a small artistic troupe. Hamill won four straight World Professional Figure Skating championships from 1984 to 1987. In 1986, she met Ken Forsythe, a sport's physician and former member of the Canadian ski team. They married and moved to Indian Wells, California. A daughter, Alexandra, was born in 1988. That same year, Hamill and Forsythe co-produced the well-received Nutcracker on Ice.

By the end of the 1980s, the Ice Capades, once the standard of excellence for a skating show, was in decline, damaged by competitors such as Walt Disney's "World of Ice." The brunt of sitcom jokes, in 1991 the Ice Capades filed for bankruptcy. Hamill and her husband, in partnership with Alaskan businessman Ben Tisdale took over the Ice Capades on June 24, 1993. "This is my second dream come true," Hamill said. "My first dream came true when I was 19, which is a little early to start asking, What next? So I had to find another dream and this is it."

The first show staged by the revamped Ice Capades was called Cinderella … Frozen inTime. Hamill improved the caliber of skaters after first convincing Catherine Foulks to leave her prestigious law firm to play the fairy godmother. Hamill brought in choreographers Tim Murphy and Nathan Birch from The Next Ice Age in Baltimore, had Desmond Heeley, who had dressed Richard Burton for Camelot, design the set and costumes, and Michael Conway compose the score. New equipment, 30 skaters, 15 crew members, and several tractor trailers were assembled for concurrent East and West tours.

Skaters loved working for Hamill. Audiences and critics enjoyed the new show. An ABC special and a home-video release took the event into people's homes. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. At the end of March 1996, after a series of financial set backs, Dorothy Hamill once again made prime-time news by declaring bankruptcy. "I am confident that with the assistance of my current, competent and qualified business advisers and counsel that I will be able to satisfactorily resolve my financial difficulties, thereby allowing me to focus on my skating," she communicated in a statement released to the press. Twenty years after the Olympics, Dorothy Hamill was still competing and winning, against skaters who had not yet been born when she won her gold medal.


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Hamill, Dorothy. Dorothy Hamill: On and Off the Ice. NY: Alfred E. Knopf, 1983.

Philips, Betty Lou. The Picture Story of Dorothy Hamill. NY: Julian Messner, 1978.

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Jesse T. Raiford , President of Raiford Communications, Inc., New York, New York

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