When Dorothy Hamill won Olympic gold in 1976 with her trademark spin, the “Hamill Camel,” she inspired millions. But behind that sparkling smile was a life of heartache. Now, three decades after her gold-medal performance, “America's Sweetheart” finally speaks out about her behind-the-scenes trauma — and the challenges she's faced ever since. Here's an excerpt.
How to breed an Olympic champion ... maybe?
Our family life, before figure skating turned it upside down, seemed normal.
Our town of Riverside, Connecticut, was part of Greenwich and we had the advantage of their wonderful community, with great beaches and beautiful parks. Many of my relatives and friends of my parents kept boats on the Long Island Sound; my dad loved the water and he wanted us to have one, too. We bought the best one we could afford, a third-hand cabin cruiser.
As a family, we decided to name it On the Rocks, a name that could have foretold my future because my parents had to sell it when I started the expensive sport of figure skating.
We would all dock our boats together, and my cousins and I would run from boat to boat. So much of our lives revolved around the water. My family had a membership to the Riverside Yacht Club, where my brother, Sandy, learned to sail and I competed in local swim races.
My sister, Marcia, became a competitive springboard diver and my brother excelled in water polo. We would spend weekends at my maternal grandparents’ summer home in Rockport, Massachusetts, just a couple miles from the ocean. Jonsie and Bill loved being with their grandchildren: They took us to historic landmarks and picnics at the beach, and treated us to lobster dinners (lobster was inexpensive in those days). Marcia, Sandy, and I would pick wild blueberries; my grandmother loved to bake them in muffins and pancakes, indulging our sweet tooth.
We were so lucky, and had such fun running around and teasing one another. Between the Yacht Club, the boating life, and summering in Rockport, I was living a privileged childhood.
We were the all-American happy family. We’d play capture the flag and tag in our grassy front yard. Mom had her bridge parties at the house and there always seemed to be laughter. My brother concocted science experiments and kept us on edge with his results. Marcia practiced her ballet and I loved to copy her. I wanted to be just like her and always tried to tag along after her, so happy whenever she and her friends would let me play with them. Mom was not a good cook — she’d boil vegetables until they were gray — so we looked forward to Swanson TV Dinners. But, with her great sense of humor, she took it in stride and laughed at herself. We had warm family gatherings, both at our house and my Aunt Zipper’s large home in Stamford. I fondly remember singing around their fireplace, dining room table, or wherever, on every holiday.
Then there was the daily ritual when Dad would come home from work and indulge in cocktail hour, his generation’s euphemism for suburban drinking. My father, Chalmers (“Chal”), was born into a family well known for their artistic and intellectual pursuits. He was the middle child of seven, the eldest son, whose father was a Princeton grad who went to Harvard Law School. Before his father started working for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., he and his wife, Edna, raised their brood in White Plains, New York, at a time when there was no television. Families found other interests. Lucky for me, the Hamills found music. Growing up, Dad and his sisters loved to sing, especially as my father became more proficient on the piano and the clarinet. He never had a music lesson in his life, yet he taught himself to read and arrange music. At fifteen, my dad had his own band, but as the firstborn son, he was expected to enter into a traditional masculine career. He went to Princeton to become a civil engineer and also managed to develop his musical gifts. He wrote arrangements for the Princeton Nassoons, an a cappella singing group that exists at Princeton to this day. He so loved his work with the Nassoons that he continued to arrange music for them after his graduation (and the group so loved his work that they still perform his arrangements, fifty years later). Despite his obvious musical talent, he ran the government division at Pitney Bowes for thirty years to support his family.
Mom and Dad had their nightly cocktails together, to catch up on the events of the day. It wasn’t any different from the drinking their parents had done to deal with the unspoken depression in both of their families. My mother, Carolyn (Carol), was raised in Newton, Massachusetts, with her one brother. She’d inherited a sense of adventure from her mother, Esther Jones, who had bravely ventured to the East Coast from her home in California to go to dental school, where she became a hygienist and met my grandfather, Willis Clough, a 1918 Harvard graduate. My mother was sent to an all-girl private high school in her junior year and it changed her life, giving her a sense of empowerment and independence at a crucial young age. Dana Hall in Wellesley, Massachusetts, expected all its girls to choose their own sports. They played on varsity teams in a league against other all-girl schools, thirty years before Title IX, when school sports were generally only for boys. Mom excelled at field hockey and basketball, not traditionally women’s sports. My maternal grandmother played some golf but otherwise never had any opportunity to pursue sports. She must have seen something in her daughter and wished more for her — just as my mom wished more for me.
After Dana Hall, Mom went to the University of New Hampshire, where she had a rude awakening to the reality of women’s sports: There weren’t any. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do with a college education, so she felt little sense of direction. Fortunately, there was one constant love in her life and she was able to pursue it in the summers. My mom loved horses and began teaching horseback riding and horse grooming at the Millbrook Camp in Maine. It was there that she met my father, in the summer of 1947, because Dad needed a job after coming back from the war. Neither of them could have guessed they each came from a family fraught with undiagnosed and untreated depression. To the outside world, their families were successful and happy. To each of them, it was something they wanted to believe.
My mom instantly admired my dad. She thought he was a fine, smart man. She fell in love with him that first summer. She loved his even disposition, how well he got along with everybody, how he was never critical nor demeaning. She loved his musicality, a trait she did not possess. She fell in love with his family, too. Coming from a small family, she felt enveloped in the happiness of his numerous family members. She discovered happiness she had never known, sitting in their home, enjoying their singing.
They were opposites attracting. Dad fell in love with her sense of humor. She could make him laugh and she was different from the other girls. She had a unique take on life and spoke her mind. She was strong, physically and mentally, and let no one boss her around. He loved how athletic she was and how she always insisted on outdoor physical activity. She regularly took him hiking into the mountains, a treat for a man whose vocations kept him indoors. They knew they were meant to be together and married in 1949. Mom was only twenty-three and Dad was a bright-eyed, eager twenty-seven. They dreamed of having a family, but they wanted to be responsible. They wanted to wait until Dad graduated and got a job.
A man musically gifted. A woman athletically inclined. Breeding ground for an Olympic figure skater? It never crossed their minds. Just as it never crossed their minds how their untreated depression would affect the family they wanted to create.
Life was never easy for them. After Dad’s graduation they ended up in hot, dusty Gary, Indiana, so he could be in a training program for Inland Steel. He learned everything there was to know about open-hearth furnaces and came home every day covered in soot. Mom hated it. She couldn’t stand the thought of her newborn son (Sandy, my brother) breathing in the sooty air, so she rallied, with the maternal instinct of a lioness protecting her cub, to get the young family out of Gary. Dad received an offer from Quaker Oats in Chicago, and my sister, Marcia, was born there. I came two years later, on July 26, 1956. Intense loneliness set in as Mom and Dad realized they’d be raising their children without extended family to know and love their children. They wanted to go back East. We left when I was a toddler.
We settled into the Riverside, Connecticut, home my parents would have for the next twenty-two years, complete with cocktail hour. Each evening, after my parents’ self-medication, their behavior would change. Some of the time they would be happier and we could get through the evening unscathed. But sometimes it would get ugly. Their screaming at each other would awaken my brother, my sister, and me. Then they’d scream at us. Since we knew no different, we thought this was normal.
My brother, sister, and I would always ask the same question when we came home from school: “What kind of mood is Mom in?” And it usually wasn’t good news. She had major personality changes that would make her fly off the handle. I hated to come home from school because I always felt she was mad at me and I didn’t know why. To me, it seemed other girls went home and their mothers were always nice to them.
Luckily, I discovered ice skating when I was eight and a half years old. There were two wonderful ponds within walking distance of my house. After all the physical activity the summer provided, I craved movement in the cold of winter. I had no skates, so Mom stuffed socks into my brother’s old ones. The motion of moving on the ice and the fresh air on my face felt like heaven. I’d walk there with Marcia and our neighbor friends, then escape from them on the ice. I loved the freedom I felt being out there by myself. Right away, I wanted to learn how to skate backward, so I begged my mom for lessons. My parents believed in exposing each of their children to an abundance of varied activities, in the hope they would find something they loved. They each had found a passion — Dad with his music and Mom with her horses — so it was natural for them to encourage experimentation. What none of us could possibly have known was that this new activity would take our seemingly idyllic family life and completely turn it around in just a few short years.
Mom found group lessons for me at an indoor rink in Rye, New York, in a park called Playland and signed me up. It was a thrill seeing such a massive and smooth ice surface for the first time. I couldn’t wait to get on it. I had new skates, little plastic things from a discount store. I loved the lessons immediately. What I didn’t like was that the lessons were only once a week, but I would spend all Thursday afternoon after the class at the public session. There was an organist playing at one end of the rink and I thought it was inspiring to skate to live music. My mom started letting me go every day and I would hang out at these public sessions. I got to know the skate guards so Mom felt comfortable dropping me off and leaving me. It was a big deal when she started letting me skate on the weekends, because that meant whole days on the ice. Each session was a couple hours long, and then the Zamboni would resurface the ice, making it clean and shiny, and I would excitedly jump on it again for another two hours. One admission would get me in for the whole day and it cost only seventy-five cents. I’d watch other skaters and was able to teach myself mohawks, three-turns, crossovers, and some spins. Barbara Taplin taught the group lessons, but she also taught privately. By the fall, after I’d turned nine, I was ready for her private lessons. At seven dollars for each half-hour lesson, I was allowed two a week. Barbara said I had to choose between swimming and skating because the two sports used muscles differently. My enthusiasm for skating made my choice clear.
Barbara was exceptional at teaching solid basics and I was fortunate she came into my life at the very beginning of my skating career. She taught the skills necessary to pass the tests regulated by the ISIA, the Ice Skating Institute of America, for recreational skaters. I was able to quickly pass their Alpha, Beta, and Gamma tests. When Playland didn’t have figure-skating ice time — we always had to compete with the hockey players for ice time — we’d go to Riverdale, where the rink had no walls. It had a roof for the commuter train to run over. Every five minutes it shook like there was a minor earthquake, but it was like paradise to me because I could skate more hours and never noticed I was freezing in the open-air rink. Back in those days, we didn’t wear leggings or warm-up suits — they did not exist. We only had thin Danskin tights on our legs, material not much thicker than a pair of pantyhose. There was no protection against the wind and the cold. Mom must not have liked me shivering in the cold and began taking me to an enclosed rink in Norwalk, twelve miles from our house.
There was a coach at Norwalk who intrigued me. His name was Otto Gold. He was a very proper gentleman with a German accent and a jolly smile. He taught the best skaters in the rink and he did it with a quiet strength I hadn’t seen before. He seemed to me to teach a level above what I was getting from Barbara. In order to skate at this rink, I was required to join the Southern Connecticut Figure Skating Club. My parents didn’t understand what that meant so Mr. Gold explained it to them. The Skating Club was a member of the United States Figure Skating Association, the national governing body of the sport. He said the USFSA was the big leagues, not recreational; they ran all the major competitions. He advised them that I was good enough to begin working on the compulsory school figure tests of the USFSA. My parents didn’t know which way to turn. They thought they had me in a satisfactory program with Barbara: It was perfect for a beginner. I made the decision for them when I looked at Mr. Gold and asked my mother, “Can I take lessons from that man?” I was nine years old.
Although I knew nothing about Mr. Gold, my instincts about his experience and abilities were correct. He had migrated from Germany to teach in Toronto and had coached Barbara Ann Scott, the first non-European to win a world championship. In 1942, she had been the first woman to land a double lutz in competition. He had also taught the legendary Canadian Don Jackson, who was the first skater to land a triple lutz in world competition when he won the world championship in 1962, receiving seven perfect marks. If nothing else, I sure as heck was going to learn a great lutz jump from him.
Mom eventually said yes to my request to take lessons from him because an incident at the Riverdale rink convinced her that I needed a change. I had overheard another coach telling Barbara Taplin that his student was better than I was and would beat me in competition. The tone he used was disturbing and I remember being very upset. It would be my first encounter with certain types of people in the figure-skating world who demonstrated their jealousy. My mother wanted to protect me from this jealous coach and switched me to the Norwalk rink and to Otto Gold. Barbara was very understanding.
What no one could have known at the time was that Mom was switching me to a completely different lifestyle. I can never thank Otto Gold enough for what he did for me. He introduced me to one of the most magical places in the world, Lake Placid, New York. This special place, in a very special time in history, would become my second home, both geographically and in my heart.
Excerpted from “A Skating Life” by Dorothy Hamill. Copyright 2007 Dorothy Hamill. Reprinted by permission of Hyperion. All rights reserved.