Dorothy Hamill - 1976 Olympics - Short Program
Dorothy Hamill, Before and After the Olympics
Hamill won the gold medal for figure skating at the 1976 Olympics, but the transition to life after the games was unexpectedly difficult.
By Janet Kim, MPH
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The 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, was Dorothy Hamill's big moment. Not only had she won the gold medal for the United States in ladies' singles figure skating, she also was instantly crowned "America's Sweetheart" because of her skating skills, winning smile, and cute bob. Overnight, every teenager in America wanted Hamill's hairstyle.
The 19-year-old didn't set out to become an icon – her thoughts were more on the career path her skating prowess could bring. "I always knew that I would love to do well enough that I could skate in an ice show, because I always loved the performing part of it," Hamill recalled.
Her Olympic success did land her a headlining gig with the Ice Capades, but with an unexpected and costly emotional toll.
"One naively thinks that by winning the Olympics, it's going to be this switch and then your life is going to be perfect, and that's not reality," Hamill now knows. "I just never really knew what life would be like after."
"Even though I was still ice skating, there were so many other things to have to make decisions" about, she said. She had her choice of ice shows, television specials, commercials, agents, managers – "so many more opportunities than I ever dreamed...It wasn't just practicing and performing."
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The golden girl, who was very shy as a kid, was soon overwhelmed by the ice show workload plus her other new commitments. Life after medaling, she discovered, "was nothing that you could ever imagine or plan."
"That was a very trying time," she revealed. "I was not equipped to handle that."
Transition Topsy-Turvy: Now What?
Elite athletes like Hamill spend so much of their young lives training and competing that they may be surprised by the life they face after their competitive careers.
"I'd always had a goal, and I always had something to work for and work toward – a dream – and when you achieve that dream, it's like, okay, now what do I do?" Hamill said.
Her experience is not unique. "It's sort of like when you get to the top of the mountain, once there – nothing," said Edward F. Etzel, EdD, psychologist and professor in the Department of Sport Sciences at West Virginia University College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences.
It's what you take away from the experience that counts, according to Dr. Etzel, who knows from experience. He was the gold medalist in the Men's English Match Rifle event at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Athletes have to ask themselves, "What do you make of it, and what's the next meaningful thing for you to do?" he said.
Many now seek the services of sport psychologists and mental skills coaches to help them get ready and cope with the challenges and the distractions of their sports.
But they may not realize that these professionals are "also interested in enhancing personal development and well-being for the duration of [an athlete's] life," said Dana Voelker, PhD, certified performance enhancement consultant and assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Sport Studies, and Physical Education at the College of Brockport, State University of New York.
Dr. Voelker noted that it's also essential for athletes to seize opportunities for fun and enjoyment during what's really a temporary phase of life. "Enjoying that journey…is so, so critical because that will keep you in it in the long haul, and it's going to allow you to look back on the experience and feel good about it," she said.
Exhausted and Depressed
For Hamill, the transition from amateur to Ice Capades was a period when, exhausted from the post-Olympic pressure of giving interviews, travelling, and not training as much, she "started noticing that [she] would be in a funk from time to time." It wasn't until later that she was diagnosed with depression.
"I realized that I probably had episodes of depression" when I was younger, Hamill said. They weren't debilitating, and she "wasn't depressed during competitions…It was more the training and the isolation."
"I think it runs in my family, but in those days it wasn't diagnosed," she said.
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"I was lucky to be able to seek help," she added. "So many people aren't able to do that or don't even know how to go about it."
Skating also helped. "I'm really very glad that I had skating to be my love and my escape," Hamill said. "I think that it always gave me something that made me feel good, and it was music, and it was peaceful, and not a lot of the other stresses of life."
Psychological Prep Past and Present
In Hamill's experience, "Athletes today have lots of media training and psychological preparation – they have all of that available to them." In her prime competition days, these specialized professionals weren't readily available.
"There wasn't very much known about sports medicine, at least not accessible to us," she said. Sport psychology wasn't generally accepted in the United States until the 1980s, when the U.S. Olympic Committee started to make mental training services an official part of competition preparation.
Cost was another factor for athletes in Hamill's era. "We were amateurs, so there wasn't a lot of money for other services," she said. "It's more of a business now." Today, "there's big money involved, and coaches and parents and choreographers and costume designers."
Figure skaters now face different challenges. They are expected to master elements that were not performed by their predecessors. Although compulsory figures – which involved skaters carving particular patterns into the ice – were eliminated from competitions in 1990, skating routines are now more technically demanding than in the past.
"It was just a different sport – I mean it really is a sport now," said Hamill. "The incredible technical things these athletes do is just beyond anything I could ever have imagined...We didn't have the same kind of pressure – we were just skating."
Old-School Positive Thinking
Hamill and her coach "did try and seek out people who could help in some of the various techniques of relaxation or how to handle nerves." She worked with a kinesiologist, a practitioner who studies human movement. "He taught me some relaxation techniques, with my eyes closed, going through my routine, my program," she said.
Reading Norman Vincent Peale's book "The Power of Positive Thinking" also helped Hamill clear her head of negative thoughts, making her think, "I can do this…as opposed to, oh my gosh, I don't know what I'm doing, and what if I mess up?"
Thinking positively "took my mind off of the intensity of being in the rink and knowing that I was going to have to perform," Hamill said. "You can really do some damage if you're sitting around all day and not having something as an outlet or something to take your mind off of the compulsory figures."
But Hamill noted the trial-and-error quality of her mental preparation during that time: "We were all just trying to figure it out on our own."
Hamill Shares Her Golden Glow at Skating Fantasy Camp
Hamill's motivation might be different if she were competing at the Olympic level now.
"I think just knowing that I might be able to skate in a show and perform was what kept me going because I really loved skating," she said. "The competition part of it was one of those necessary parts, because in order to be able to get an ice show contract, you had to do well as a competitor. I never loved the competition part of it."
Although Hamill was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in her early forties, and survived breast cancer in her early fifties, she stays active with skating.
Now 57, she finds joy in her figure skating fantasy camp for adults who didn't have the chance to learn. "Skating is the only thing I ever learned to do, the only thing I know anything about, and I feel very lucky that I can still do that and sort of pass it on," she said.
The camp experience is beyond rewarding for Hamill. "For me, it's been life-changing, and for some of our campers, it's been life-changing," she said. The Olympian also has much to smile about in her personal life. "I'm doing well," she said. "I manage [the depression].
Video: Dorothy Hamill - 1976 U.S. Figure Skating Championships - Long Program
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