- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

Before beginning her freestyle routine at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Dorothy Hamill spotted a sign in the stands reading, “Which of the West? Dorothy!” Thinking a detractor was calling her a witch, as in “The Wizard of Oz,” Hamill burst into tears.

Actually, the banner was borne by friends who wanted to alleviate the 19-year-old American skater’s pre-competition jitters. Its message meant that Hamill, not Diane de Leeuw of the Netherlands, would defeat East Germany’s favored Christine Errath for the gold medal. The sign proved prophetic as Hamill skated almost flawlessly to win the gold by unanimous decision of the nine judges 30 years ago today.

What made Hamill so special on the ice? Peggy Fleming, another American gold medalist (in 1968, following similar triumphs by Tenley Albright in 1956 and Carol Heiss in 1960), told ESPN, “Dorothy’s special gift was her power, her straight back and that fresh style that she could create with her movement over the ice.”

Yet Hamill’s initial reaction to the Innsbruck sign characterized the negative side of her attitude and perhaps was an omen of bad times ahead. Though she instantly became one of America’s earliest female sporting superstars and millionaires — thanks to both her skating skills and a wedge hairdo that was copied by millions of women — problems pursued her:

• During those 1976 Games, Hamill said a rival skater and coach tried to run her down with a car. She refused to identify either.

• Later, her coach, Carlo Fassi, sued her for failure to pay her bills, and she countersued. The matter was settled out of court.

• In 1982, $366,000 worth of jewelry was stolen from her San Francisco hotel room. Three years later, she lost a case seeking reimbursement from Lloyd’s of London.

• Her marriages to Dean Paul Martin, the son of famed singer Dean Martin, and Kenneth Forsythe failed to last, though the latter union produced a daughter, Alexandra. Currently, she is engaged to Dean Moye, a lighting designer for skating shows.

• Three years after buying the financially troubled Ice Capades, for which she had skated eight years, Hamill was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1995.

• In 1996, at age 40, she began experiencing severe and chronic pain from osteoarthritis, a degeneration of cartilage surrounding the joints. Responding well to medication, she recovered enough to compete in the 2000 Goodwill Games and last year’s Skating With the Stars fund-raising gala in Harlem.

Of course, Hamill has enjoyed upbeat times as well. Because of her good looks and distinctive ‘do — modeled after that of Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” — she became a marketing and advertising sensation following the Olympics.

Less than a month after the Games, in her last performance as an amateur, she won the women’s singles title at the world championships in Goteborg, Sweden — a victory she cherished more than the Olympic medal. “I won the Olympics for my country,” she explained. “But I won the worlds for myself.”

Yet Hamill’s apparent self-confidence often was an act.

“Dorothy had a strong handicap in that she was negative,” Fassi said. “She had to be pushed and always said she couldn’t win. She was her own worst enemy. Frankly, I didn’t think she could do it either for a long while.”

Hamill’s attitude seems strange considering that she loved her sport. She once described skating as “feeling the way a bird would, not having any boundaries … the wind at your face. It’s magical.”

After getting her mother to sign her up for lessons as a child, Hamill practiced, practiced and practiced some more. At 14, she dropped out of high school to concentrate on skating and was privately tutored. Skating became her life and that of her parents. The family moved from Connecticut to Tulsa and later to Denver so she could work with the internationally known Fassi, who had coached Fleming to her gold medal.

“I was really a spoiled brat when I was a kid skating,” Hamill recalled. “I used to have terrible tantrums. … Actually, what I needed was a swift kick in the pants.”

But when the 1976 Games arrived, Hamill was ready. She led after the compulsory figures and the short program. Then she wrapped up the gold with a superb freestyle effort, ending a four-minute routine with her patented “Hamill Camel,” a camel spin into a sit spin. The nine judges awarded her eight 5.8 scores and one 5.9 as she easily beat silver medalist de Leeuw and bronze medalist Errath.

Looking back at that memorable evening of Feb. 13, 1976, Hamill said, “I probably remember most of all the flowers raining down at the end of my performance. It was quite a shock and a warm feeling. … And being happy for my coach and team, who did as much work and [yet] I got all the glory.”

Deservedly, too.

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