Do you remember the first time you put on ice skates?
Dorothy Hamill: I do.
It was on a pond in Old Greenwich, Connecticut and I went with my sister and my neighbor, just the three of us. Well, actually my neighbor's mother drove us. And my -- often my sister and my neighbor -- my neighbor was a year older than me and a year younger than my sister. So she was right in the middle -- Martha. Martha and Marcia, my sister is Marcia. And they were skating backwards and they just completely left me in the dust. I wanted to learn how to skate backwards and they wouldn't help me and they went off and left me on my own. And, of course, I went crying home to my mother's. Up the hill with my skates on my shoulder, "Mom, they wouldn't teach me how to skate backwards." So I think I must have put on this crying thing for a long time, probably a week or so. And my mom finally said, "Okay, would you like to take some skating lessons.?" And I said, "Yes, I'd love to. I want to learn how to skate backwards." And that's how it started. I had some friends that actually skated before school in the mornings and they said. "Take her to Playland, Rye, New York, there's a skating rink there. Sign her up for group lessons." So that's what my mom did. I started once a week in group lessons. After my eight group lessons, I got a scholarship for a free private lesson, which was 15 minutes long. It was more of a marketing tool. It was to hook you in, too. If you wanted to continue you needed private lessons. And I was hooked. I loved it.
Where did you grow up?
Dorothy Hamill: I grew up in Riverside, Connecticut. It's part of the town of Greenwich.
Dorothy Hamill: It was wonderful. It was very much like Norman Rockwell: small town America. We walked to school or rode our bikes, stopped at the penny candy store on the way home from school, skated on the pond. That's when I first started to skate.
What kind of a kid were you?
Dorothy Hamill: Painfully shy around people I didn't know, and a bit of an imp around people I did know. I was a bratty little sister. I was the youngest of three, and I often felt as though I didn't fit in.
What made you feel like you didn't fit in?
Dorothy Hamill: I think my shyness had a lot to do with it. My brother was very gifted as a student, and my sister was very social. She had all the friends and boyfriends, and I just always felt stupid.
Do you think that affected you growing up, being the youngest of the three?
Dorothy Hamill: I think it affected me in a positive way.
The youngest always gets the most attention whether it's good or bad. If you do good things, you get great attention. Also, you're the youngest and the littlest and the cutest. But when you wanted attention you also did some pretty rotten things.
What about your parents?
Did you like school?
Dorothy Hamill: No. I didn't like school at all, partly because I wasn't very good at it. If I had a teacher that I liked, I did well. Mostly I had teachers that expected me to be brilliant like my brother and I wasn't because it was such a small town. Brother was smart, sister was a little less smart and then I came along and I was the moron. Still am, but at least I found something that I can do.
Before you started ice skating, what did you do with your spare time? Were there any books you remember reading that were important to you?
Dorothy Hamill: I hated to read. My mother could not get me to read. I'm going through the same thing with my daughter now. I love to read now, but I don't remember reading. I loved music. I loved dance. I would sing and dance on the living room floor that was my passion. I never could sleep late. I was not a sleeper. I'd be up at 4:00 o'clock in the morning. And my dad only had Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Guys and Dolls and some Burl Ives thing that he'd done for Eveready Batteries. I wish I could find that record today. So I knew all the words to Guys and Dolls. And Glenn Miller was good for dancing, but he wasn't really good for singing. So, that's kind of what I grew up with.
How old were you when you started skating?
Dorothy Hamill: Eight-and-a-half.
Compared to the kids today it was late in life, yes! Yes. It would probably be too late. Fortunately in those days there weren't as many skaters and I was just driven. I was passionate. I found something that I loved. I could be all alone in a big old skating rink and nobody could get near me and I didn't have to talk to anybody because of my shyness. It was great. I was in my fantasy world.
I read somewhere that in the very beginning you would take your brother's ice skates and stuff socks in them?
Dorothy Hamill: Yes.
I would go visit my grandparents or my aunt and uncle who had a big farm in Connecticut. And at that point I didn't have my own skates. So we'd go some place and everybody always had old skates lying around. And I think my brother had given my cousin a pair of skates and I had stuffed socks in the toes because they were too big. And I would go out and try and skate, either at my grandmother's house or at my uncle's farm. So that was really in the pond skating days. So it was before the private lessons started, or the group lessons started.
What do you think the teachers saw in you that made them think you had potential as an ice skater?
Dorothy Hamill: I don't really think they saw anything in me, except the fact that I was interested in it. Some of the kids would miss a week here and miss a week there; I think they could see that I really enjoyed it.
I wasn't particularly athletic or gifted. I was a little chubby, but I loved it. I guess because I would -- my mom would take me to the skating rink on the weekends. This is after I had gotten started. She'd drop me off for the first public session at eleven in the morning, and I'd stay there all day, and then she'd pick me up at five o'clock and take me home. So I'd be at the skating rink all day long, just skating around and around.
How long did it take you to learn how to skate backward?
When did you start to think this was something you could be special at? When did you start to dream about being a skater and competing?
Dorothy Hamill: Some of those years are sort of muddled together for me. My mother took me to see an ice show. It was Holiday on Ice in New York City. It was about 1967, before Peggy Fleming won the Olympics. There were really no exhibitions then. There were no competitions on television. The first skating competition I ever remember seeing on television was the 1968 Olympics when Peggy Fleming won. Kids today can watch it on television, but we didn't know there were such things as competitions. I really started dreaming about competing at the national level almost immediately after my first big competition, not just a local pond competition. I was probably 11.
You realized that you were going to have to compete in front of people and judges, despite your shyness.
Dorothy Hamill: I didn't realize that. I was just ice skating. I had no concept of that. In those days you couldn't see the judges. I was this little person on the ice and they were just people that would stand around the boards. That's what skating was all about in those days. I didn't even know where the judges sat. It's so different now.
At some point your family had to make an important decision, didn't they? Were they going to devote all of this time and money and energy to your ice skating, or were you going to stay in school and have a different kind of childhood?
Dorothy Hamill: In those days, we had to stay in school. There was not the possibility of the way kids today can not go to school and be a great ice skater and earn money at the same time as they're training for the Olympics and competing at the Olympics. For me, there was never any decision. It was just what I was going to do. I know my parents, a few times they'd say, "If you're really serious about this, if you're really committed to this -- " Because I knew -- or I didn't know -- but it was for financial reasons. For me there was never any question that I wouldn't do it. And I guess my parents must have seen that. And also they were probably thinking, "Well, what else is she going to do?"
When I started getting very serious about it, I would travel for competitions, and I did have to go to a tutoring school at one point because I missed some school. My coach was in New York City so I stayed in New York City during the week. I was away from home so I'd go to school in New York; that started when I was about 13. Once I got into it, it all happened very quickly. I'm having a hard time even remembering it, because it was so long ago. It really seems as though it was another lifetime.
Dorothy Hamill: My mother got up at 4:00 in the morning. I give her so much more credit today. You know, at the time I was just a kid. Well, that's what, you know, mom is doing. She got up and she'd make breakfast for me and bring it up to me in bed and wake me up and lay my clothes out and help me put them on. And then she'd go warm up the car. You know, in the wintertime it was freezing outside. She'd go down, start the car so I'd get into a warm car. I mean, she treated me like a little princess. And it was what I wanted to do. I didn't really -- a couple of the kids asked me today, you know, "Do you feel as though you missed out on anything in childhood because of your sacrifices?" Absolutely not. I loved it. Skating was the perfect excuse not to have to go to a friend's house, you know, for a sleep over. Not that I didn't have friends or didn't like my friends. I had a couple of very close friends. And I was always being invited to sleep overs and things. I just didn't want to go. So it was the perfect excuse. And you know, I think a lot of that was the shyness. But my mom sacrificed; I didn't sacrifice anything. I just was passionate, you know, it's all that passion.
How did your brother and sister feel about it?
Dorothy Hamill: By the time I got heavily involved in competition, my brother was away. He went to Exeter Academy, and he thought it was great, or he didn't care. My sister actually liked it because she was in the teenage years. She was probably about 13. She loved the fact that mom wasn't there that much. She liked that. You know how moms and daughters start to butt heads at that age. She was happy that I had mom with me and mom wasn't on her case all the time.
It's certainly something you couldn't have done without the support of your family.
Dorothy Hamill: Absolutely could never have done it without my family. My father was very musical. That really was his passion, but when he grew up, you know, the oldest male child wasn't a musician. You know, they got a real job and they went to school and they got a good education. But deep down inside his love was music. And if he could have been Benny Goodman or Glen Miller! Because he had his own band, he composed music at Princeton, in school. That was his real love. So musically, my father, you know, educated me. We would sit together and listen to records and pick music for skating programs, skating routines. And so we had a very, very close relationship there. And he got weekend duty of driving me to the skating rink.
Dorothy Hamill: The first competition I ever won was the second competition I ever competed in. It was in Central Park in New York. And I remember the little girls who had perfect dresses and they had been skating for years and they all knew one another. They were all from Long Island and Manhattan and I was from Connecticut and there was nobody else that I knew. And when the scores went up on the board on the wall, they all looked at me and pointed and said, "You won!" And I was shocked because I wasn't as good as they were. So I don't know how I won. And I think -- you know, I never liked competition ever. It was always far too nerve-wracking. But I did well, so I guess that's why I kept doing it. And in order to get to do what I do today, I had to compete and I had to win a gold medal.
How tough was it to overcome your shyness?
Dorothy Hamill: I'm still working on it. I'm much better than I was, but it was very difficult. Painful.
As much as people have written about your ice skating, they write about your personality. One would never suspect that you are shy.
Dorothy Hamill: I'm better in a one-on-one situation, but I still have moments where I absolutely freeze because I'll be completely in awe of people. In the beginning people took it as if I was aloof or a snob or something, but I would just freeze.
I felt I had nothing to say to anybody that anybody wanted to hear. And you know, what is so ironic is that by winning a gold medal, you're thrown into the spotlight. And having that first thing after winning a gold medal, after blood doping, there's a press conference. And all of a sudden there are swarms of reporters. And the first question that I remember somebody asking me was, "How are you going to top that?" And I thought, Jiminy Christmas! You know, a life long goal of mine: to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Well life long, from the time that I was 13 or something. And I actually did it and now they're going to say, "How are you going to top that?" I don't know. What do I say? Besides being painfully shy, I didn't even -- it was -- I was stunned. It was just, 'Whoa! Is this what it's all about?" It was just not at all what I expected.
You were 13 when you decided you wanted to win a gold medal?
Dorothy Hamill: I think I dreamed about competing at the Olympics, maybe hoping to win a gold medal. Not that I ever thought that I would, but I dreamed about it.
Somebody must have thought you would. Somebody must have helped you to believe in yourself.
Dorothy Hamill: I don't think so, no. Maybe my coach in this subtle way.
I had a very tough, tough, tough, tough coach in the early years. His name was Gus Lussi and his way of complimenting you and letting you know that you were doing well was by asking you to demonstrate. He was a phenomenal technician. He could teach spins the way nobody, nobody -- I mean, they don't teach kids how to spin anymore. And, he was a phenomenal jumping coach as well. So he would call me over and ask me to demonstrate. And that's how I knew that he thought I was good.
Dorothy Hamill: I was always committed, yes.
Even when I was on the world team two years before the Olympics, with ice skating you just never know that you're going to make it. And even then I thought, 'Well gee, I hope I make the Olympic team in 1976." There was never any thought that, "Yes I'm going to make the team and yeah I could win a medal." You know, deep down inside I knew that if I worked really hard and if I skated my best, I had a really good shot at making the team and I had a really good shot at winning a medal. And this is when I was already number two in the world. So you know, I was never that confident, but I knew if I did all the right things, I had a shot at it.
Dorothy Hamill: Usually go into the bathroom and throw up.
I really would get violently ill. So I never ate very much before I competed because I couldn't keep it down. I often thought it was really like going to your own execution. You know, from the time I got up in the morning I'd be counting, looking at the clock and saying, "Okay, I've only got 12 hours until I'll be finished," and "Nine hours until I'm finished," and "Five minutes from now I'll be finished." It was just -- I couldn't wait 'til it was over. But once I got onto the ice, and once the music started -- after about :30 seconds -- I was okay. But it's just that first :30 seconds, which is why I would always do, you know, one of those easy jumps that kind of -- you didn't really have to worry about maybe missing it, and then the next couple of jumps were always the tough ones, because you're still full of energy before you get exhausted at the end of the program.
Dorothy Hamill: I have always had self-doubt, still do. Fear of failure, not really. Didn't matter. I mean we all say this, but it's true. You know, you just want to go out and skate well. I just never wanted to embarrass myself. It didn't matter if I won or not. You hope that your best is better than everybody else's best. But, I was always out there competing against myself, because there were so many more skaters that were much more talented than I.
I think the reason I won the Olympics was sheer perseverance. Not because I was certainly more talented than anybody else. I worked as hard as I could. I was always the first one on the ice and the last one off. I'm just one of those people that has to be overtrained and overworked before I can do my best. That's unlike a lot of my friends and colleagues today. But so, you know, it was just sheer perseverance. I was not the most talented, still am not the most talented. Whatever I've done has just come through hard work really, and the love of it and the passion for it.
There are a lot of talented people out there. Weren't those other young women working just as hard, wanting it just as badly? At least on that day, you succeeded where they failed. You got the gold medal.
So what was it inside of you that accounted for that gold medal?
Dorothy Hamill: If I knew that I could probably make a lot of money off of it. I think timing had a lot to do with it. I think I was sort of ready for it that year. The other years, quite honestly, I didn't work as hard as I did the year I won. I worked hard, but not as hard. Maybe they didn't work as hard the year of the Olympics or something. I really have no idea.
What was it like off the ice with the women you are competing with?
Dorothy Hamill: It was cordial. There was a language barrier with the East German woman. We were girls.
How about among the American girls that you were competing with for places on the team?
Is it tough to deal with the political side of competitive skating? How do you deal with that?
Dorothy Hamill: My coach was a great politician, so he did most of the work. He was good. If the judges said, "Dorothy can't do school figures," he would have the judges come out, and he'd show that I could do them and say, "Now, tell me that this isn't good."
I just got so darn nervous when it was competition time, I completely flipped out. I mean, you're trying to trace these perfect circles, which are gone now today. They don't do those anymore. You get nervous and you hyperventilate and you see your life flashing in front of you and you start shaking. You know, you can't trace those circles. Also I was blind. Nobody knew I couldn't see. So the year before the Olympics I got glasses, so that helped a lot. There were all of these factors I think that contributed to part of my not feeling confident and being shy.
Did you ever feel victimized by the politics, or feel that scores were unjust?
Dorothy Hamill: Never. I will say, a couple of times I got marks that were better than what I should I have gotten, and a couple of times I probably got marks that were lower than I should have gotten. Sometimes it's criminal, the things that I've seen done, but in general it works out fairly. I wouldn't say that there's ever been an Olympic champion that didn't deserve to win an Olympic Gold Medal.
How do you feel in a competition, Olympics or otherwise, when you've already skated and you're sitting there waiting for those numbers to come up?
As it must to all athletes at some point, it had to come to an end. You weren't going to compete anymore. How hard is it to give up the limelight of competition and eventually even the touring?
Dorothy Hamill: Well, I still tour. It's different today than it was then. In those days we were strictly amateurs. If I had wanted to stay in for the '80 Olympics, my parents couldn't have afforded it. They were dry. There was nothing left, my dad was so far in debt. So when I had the opportunity to turn pro I did. I stayed on and competed at the World Championships because I never had won a World Championship. I'd always been number two: "We try harder." But there really wasn't any question for me that I would turn pro. I'd done as much as I could. So I turned professional and skated with Ice Capades. Today the kids make money and they're not considered professionals. They're still considered Olympic eligibles, so there's never an issue whether they're going to turn pro or not. When they get to that level, money is never an issue. They make so much money now.
Dorothy Hamill: Yes. My father was in the arena, my mother was in the hotel. She wasn't a smoker, but she chain smoked that day! My dad was very proud.
My mom -- I remember walking into the hotel room and she said, "So, how did you do?" I said, "I won." And she looked at me startled and said, "You did?" She was shocked. She never congratulated me. I think she just never thought I would do it. But my dad, of course, was very proud. And I'm sure my mother was proud. I just didn't know. I guess about four years before the Olympics the goal was to try and make it to the Olympics and hopefully maybe win a medal. And then all of a sudden when that actually happens, it's disconcerting. I mean, now what? What happens now? We didn't plan for that. You know, we just planned for everything up until that moment. And then, "Oh now what?" So it was an interesting time.
Dorothy Hamill: I've had lots of disappointments. I think one of the biggest misconceptions was that once you achieve that lifelong goal at the age of 19, you think that everything is going to be easy. The road really had just begun. If I had known then what I know now, I probably wouldn't be sitting here talking to you. After going to the Olympics and going to Worlds, I took a vacation for the first time in my life. I was just enjoying winning the gold medal. People were wining and dining me -- agents and managers and endorsements and all that stuff. I was just having a great time. I showed up for my first day of ice skating at Ice Capades and I had put on a few pounds. I showed up at rehearsal and one of the line skaters went over to one of his friends and says, "Honey, if I got to skate around her, you better call me a cab." That was my introduction to the world of professional skating. It was entirely different than what it is today, of course.
I ended up in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer after six months in the ice show. I was skating 13 shows a week. I was getting up at six o'clock to do AM Podunk, wherever we were, and the reporters saying, "We're not going to cover the ice show unless we can have Dorothy to interview." And here I am: shy! What am I going to say? I have nothing to say. I'm just a dumb ice skater. If you want to ask me about ice skating, I can tell you about skating, but don't ask me about anything else because I don't know anything else. You know, for all the hours I trained, all the double Axels I did, I didn't go to school, I didn't read, I didn't learn about anything else. And it was very difficult. I was completely unhappy.
Here is something that I loved doing, but I must say, I was probably burned out from skating.
I didn't really have a chance to enjoy my Olympic victory. I did for about a month before I had to go back and skate in a show. And it was a completely different way of ice skating. There was no training anymore. I was lucky if I got 45 minutes a day to practice. And I was away from my friends. Every week you're in a different city, living in hotels. And the other thing, I was used to getting up at five o'clock in the morning and skating every day, and now I'm up till midnight skating ice shows. And for my whole life I had gotten up at five and now all of a sudden I'm trying to learn how to sleep later on the days I don't have to do those early morning talk shows.
How do you deal with criticism?
Dorothy Hamill: Oh, I take it all far too personally. I've got a much thicker skin than I used to have, but I'm one of those people that just wants to be perfect and do everything good all the time and make everybody happy. It's just not realistic.
It's a difficult proposition, living in a world where you're constantly being judged, isn't it?
Dorothy Hamill: It is. You're used to being judged, but I suppose you think you're always being judged even when you're not.
Looking back, is there anything you'd do differently if you could do it over again?
Dorothy Hamill: That's tough to say, because I've learned so much from the things that I would do differently. I'm not sure I'd have the same perspective if I could go back and change the things that I shouldn't have done. You learn from those mistakes.
What have you learned that would be important to kids today? If they came to you and said, "Dorothy, what would I have to do to do what you've done?"
Is it made more difficult by the fact that you have achieved some celebrity? You are an Olympic Champion, someone people seek out.
Dorothy Hamill: Yes. When we were young athletes we were amateurs. Recently they've been able to earn money as professionals. You're sort of ripe for the picking by the sharks, the agents and the managers. You're just fodder for them. That's a big part of it.
As you look ahead, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing our society? What are the important things we in America are going to have to deal with in the years to come? What's important to you?
Dorothy Hamill: Wow! I think of things that are important to me. I have an 11-year-old daughter and I live in Baltimore now, in the city. Children are very important. I love children. I think it's really important that we teach our children morals, kindness, just how to get along. There's so much crime. There's so much ill treatment of children. It's really scary. That's something I think is very important because, of course, they are the future. For me, that's a big one.
Does your daughter ice skate?
Dorothy Hamill: She skates a little bit. I have not been a very good mother in that respect. I've always discouraged it. Only because I was driven; she's not going to have that passion. I want her to find something that she loves, but she hasn't found it yet. Maybe she never will, but I think it's good to have something that you love in times of trouble. It's carried me through a lot of tough times, skating has. It's my release, it's my therapy.
What does the American Dream mean to you?
Dorothy Hamill: The American Dream to me is truly being able to do whatever you want to do. We're very lucky in this country to have everything we could possibly need, the freedom to do what you want, say what you want, don't hurt anybody. Freedom.
Freedom to skate, if that's your passion?
Dorothy Hamill: Freedom to skate, exactly. Freedom to be one of those brilliant students, be one of those gifted scientists, to dig for dinosaurs, or make movies, sing, dance. There's so much to learn, so much we don't even know.
You're terrific. Thank you. We really enjoyed that.
Thank you. I did too.