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America's bittersweet heart

Sunday, April 16, 2000

By Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dorothy Hamill, 44, endures rough spots like a champion

Dorothy Hamill became "America's sweetheart" when she won the Olympic figure skating championship on Valentine's Day, 1976.

 
   
Preview
Champions on Ice

Featuring: Dorothy Hamill, Michell Kwan, Oksana Baiul, Brian Boitano, Victor Petrenko, Elvis Stojko and Philippe Candeloro.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Mellon Arena, Uptown.

Tickets: $30 to $5; 412-323-1919


There's plenty of bounce in Boitano

Like Dorothy Hamill, 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano is defying time as he reaches an age when most skaters are long retired -- he'll be 38 in October.

He's lost a little hair but none of the attributes that continue to make him one of the best male skaters in history. He also is part of Thursday's Champions on Ice show at Mellon Arena.

"I still do everything I did before, all my jumps, except quads [quadruple jumps]," Boitano said. "To do them would be stupidity. I had my turn with them in 1988. My body doesn't need that kind of punishment. We'll leave them to the amateurs."

Boitano acknowledges, though, that those triples are "harder to maintain" at 37 than at 27. "It takes a lot more practice, a lot more commitment," he said, "and in that area, Dorothy is an inspiration. I think we are two of the hardest workers on the tour.

"Off the ice I do yoga, but not too much exercise. I've found with yoga, it's a good stretch, using your whole body. I sort of feel that compared to what I was, I am more flexible."

Boitano used to dream of having a restaurant in his native San Francisco, but now he realizes he probably never will have the time. "Maybe a bar," he said.

He does, however, have his own company, White Canvas Productions, to produce television skating specials, in which he stars. Most recently, he did the third "Holiday Skating Spectacular," which aired on NBC in January.

-- Pohla Smith

 
 

There were many reasons: She was only the fourth American to win the gold; she had won during one of the most competitive periods in the history of female figure skating -- and at a time when a new breed of women called feminists were looking for female sports stars with whom both they and their daughters could identify; and if you weren't afraid of sounding too sexist, you also had to acknowledge she was one cute, perky woman.

She was gritty, too. Advisers told her to skip the world championships after the Olympics, get some rest and turn pro. But she wanted that one gold medal that had eluded her and got it -- by defeating two former world champs, Christine Errath of East Germany and Dianne de Leeuw, an American competing for Holland.

Newspapers, magazines and television networks rushed to profile Hamill, who looked even younger than her 19 years. Grown women and girls ranging in age from grade-schooler to teen demanded their hairdressers give them the same haircut as Dorothy -- a geometrical and symmetrical short cut, called the wedge, which spun around her head like a thick brown halo when she did her spins.

Unlike many Olympic stars, Hamill never faded from the limelight, though she shied away from interviews. She skated for many years as the star of the Ice Capades and did numerous special shows, competitions, exhibitions and television specials. Later, along with business partners, she bought the Ice Capades, becoming its owner and artistic director.

Now, a few months short of her 44th birthday, she's skating with John Hancock Champions on Ice, which pops into the Mellon Arena Thursday. And her smile is as bright and perky as ever.

Life has not been all rainbows for her, however. Hamill is twice married and twice divorced. Her first husband, Dean Martin Jr., died in a plane crash after the end of their marriage. A bad partnership and financial problems led to the end of the Ice Capades.

Three years ago, she moved from Southern California to Baltimore, where she lives with her 11-year-old daughter, Alexandra, and trains at a nearby rink.

Hamill sat -- OK, drove in her car -- for a 45-minute telephone interview to advance the arrival of Champions on Ice. Here are some of the things she had to say:

QUESTION: How did you manage to keep smiling, keep going, despite the personal tragedies?

ANSWER: Everybody has difficulties that are thrown into their life. Everybody has their share of tough times.

What happened with Ice Capades was not that devastating. I had a financial partner who needed a buyout. [The buyers] were terrible people, and I made a decision I couldn't sell my soul to the devil. Yes, it was difficult ... [but] I didn't sell my soul to the devil and I could sleep at night. ... They were not interested in quality and in treating people nicely and in being honest. For all the faults I have, my mother taught us to be honest. ...

Dino -- to this day, what a tragedy. But I think the Dino divorce was ... devastating. I didn't realize there was anything wrong with the marriage. I was happily married. He was struggling with it.

Q: Another skater, Peggy Fleming, recently said money has corrupted amateur skating. She noted that Nancy Kerrigan wore a $35,000 Vera Wang-designed costume in the 1994 Olympics. Fleming's mother made her lime-green skating dress. How do you feel about that?

A: I don't know if money has corrupted it, but it's changed things -- simple things like [costuming]. All of the skaters have agents and managers and accountants and choreographers. They can afford to have the best of everything. They don't go to school anymore so they can train more or be less distracted. When we skated, we had to go to school. There were no careers in figure skating. It is different today. Kids have much more pressure on them to skate well. We did it because we loved it. I'm not saying they don't, but Tara Lipinski's father had a very good job, he wasn't blue collar ... yet I remember Tara's mom in the dressing room, trying not to let Tara hear, but saying, "Oh, I don't know if I can get through one more year."

Q: How is middle age affecting you as a performer?

A: Forty wasn't bad, but now that I'm approaching 44, it has slowed me down. I have slowed down a lot. I used to have endless energy. I skate every day, usually for about two hours, and then I go to the gym. It sounds like such a luxury that I do this, [but] I have to keep telling myself it is a necessity. Yes, people would kill for the ability to do this, but it is my job. Sometimes, though, I feel guilty because I'm doing it."

Q: When we baby boomers were young, there were no middle-aged role models in sports or entertainment -- or even in sports writing. Women our age looked older than we do, and they were expected to sort of fade away. What has cleared the path for acceptance of middle-age women as something more than housewives and mothers?

A: I think it's because the majority of the population is over 40 years old, and we have to have somebody to relate to. Still, sometimes I just feel so 'What am I doing here?' -- especially in the dressing room.

Q: Would you change anything in your life if you had it to do over?

A: I don't think so. Isn't that how you learn? God forbid we go through life making all the wrong decisions, but you can't appreciate the good unless bad things also have happened. So I really wouldn't change a thing. I'd love to be able to do what I do and not travel, but that's not reality.

Q: How would you feel and what would you do if your daughter decided she wanted to be a skater like you?

A: She does skate a little bit. I've never really encouraged it. If anything, I've gone the other way and not allowed as much as she wants. But recently she's been pestering me to skate more often. She's 11 now, and there are lots worse things she could be doing, so I've been taking her on weekends. ...

In some ways she's said [she wants to be like me]. She's said, "I want to be a professional skater. I want to be in shows." I say, "You know what? You have to work hard." But I'm not going to push her. At her age, though, I was skating four hours a day. She wants to skate for like 10 minutes.

Q: Tell us something we don't know about figure skating.

A: I guess there are a lot of misconceptions. It is a very small world. People think it's giant, but it's not. We all know each other. It's not a cutthroat, back-stabbing world full of eating disorders and child abuse. What happens in skating just happens around any water cooler in the country.

Q: Do you still wear your hair in a wedge?

A: It's not really a wedge anymore. First of all, my hair is gray. And second, it doesn't do what it used to do. It's layered now. It's sort of a middle-aged hairdo.

Q: What's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you?

A: I was skating at the opening of a mall in Memphis, Tenn. There I was, in the middle of the mall, and it was jammed with people, and at the end of the performance I did my ta dah! and the spaghetti straps fell down, and so did the dress. The bra was built into the dress.



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