On thin ice: Skater talks about depression

Dorothy Hamill, 1976 Olympic Figure Skating champion and world champion, sits down for an interview before Tuesday’s Town Hall Lecture Series, at the North Platte Community Playhouse.

Dorothy Hamill had wonderful coaches and mentors. She felt the most at ease when she was ice skating, which gave her an Olympic gold medal at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Austria and a world championship the same year in Sweden. Her mother traveled with her daughter to help her assist her dream.

It wasn’t until after the gold medal that the depression set in — along with the interviews, the corporate partnerships and the televised skating shows. She spoke about both the joys and the setbacks at Tuesday’s Town Hall Lecture Series at the North Platte Community Playhouse.

“One of the things I loved most about skating was I could be in my own little bubble and not have to talk,” Hamill told the audience.

She first became interested in ice skating when her older sister, along with other neighborhood girls, wouldn’t teach her how to ice skate backward on a small pond. She later “badgered” her mother until she signed her up for group lessons. Hamill earned her way to what she called the only scholarship she ever received — one free, 15-minute private skating lesson.

Hamill went to her first competition in New York City, falling on her too-long wool dress, made by her mother, during practice. Afterward, she stood back as the girls rushed to see their results — she’d won second place.

The judges noted her interpretive dance, which she joked she’d been making up at home for years. Choosing her performance music, which she did with her father, was one of her favorite parts of competing.

Hamill’s beloved coach Gustave Lussi — whom she called Gus in her speech — knew she would never be a “graceful swan” like her ice skating idols. But he made her jump higher and spin faster, she said.

With the help of other coaches and training, at age 19 she made it to the 1976 Olympics in Austria. Hamill described an enchanted time in the Olympic Village, where she got to take part in everything with all the other athletes. Right before her long program, her parents took her out of the village and the family took the “Sound of Music tour,” seeing all the sites of the famed movie, to help get Hamill’s mind off things.

But she returned to her dorm to fan mail in the form of telegrams, telling her to bring home the gold. She felt pressure, realizing it wasn’t all about her.

“Everyone had dedicated everything to me,” she said. Now, the pressure was on to make it show.

“I always thought going to competition was like going to your own execution,” she said to chuckles from the audience. “I loved everything but the competition.”

While she spoke, footage of Hamill’s winning routine and the medal ceremony played overhead. In the video, audience members can be seen throwing bouquets on the ice, as Hamill looked down at her gold medal during the medal ceremony. She went on to win the world championships in Sweden, which she said she did for herself, “so I knew the Olympics wasn’t a fluke,” she said.

She returned home to parades in her honor. She became a spokesperson for multiple companines, endorsing products such as cars, coffee, and shampoo because of her famed haircut. In another commercial, girls were seen playing with a Dorothy Hamill doll.

With all of the “wining and dining,” Hamill said, she found herself in a funk. “I started to waddle from restaurant to restaurant.”

She skated with the Ice Capades and in numerous televised skating events: “Christmas on Ice,” “The Nutcracker on Ice,” “Cinderella on Ice” — “you get it,” Hamill said.

She became burned out and in the process lost her love for skating.

“I had so many things to be thankful for and grateful for, and not really problems.”

Still, Hamill found herself depressed. After going through a divorce and having financial problems, Hamill decided to reach out for help. She said she needed to speak to a professional, and she has found help from both professionals and medication. In an interview before her speech, she urged anyone who knows someone struggling with depression, or who is struggling with depression, to reach out for help. You never know what someone is going through, she said.

In the speech, Hamill said that later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. People sent her flowers, made her meals and showed unwavering support. It’s not the same when you struggle with depression, she said.

She later skated on a tour with John Curry, a professional skater who embraced the art, not commercialism.

“John taught me to love skating again,” she said.

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