Memory Games

While an Olympic competition sometimes takes just minutes, the afterglow can last a lifetime.
July 27, 2008
Interviews by Christina Breda Antoniades | 2008 Photos by Keith Barraclough | Audio by Whitney Shefte | Q&A, Monday

Dorothy Hamill, 52

Baltimore
Gold medalist, figure skating, 1976 (Innsbruck, Austria).

AS A KID, I WAS NOT A GOOD STUDENT, AND I WAS VERY SHY. My brother was really smart, and my sister was really popular and beautiful. I knew that I wanted to be successful in something.

When I was 12, I won my first national [figure skating] title. By the time I was 15, the Olympics became a year-by-year goal. But the competitions used to get me -- the whole year is resting on four minutes. When I watch competitors now, no matter what sport, the feeling comes back -- the hyperventilating, shaking, lips quivering.

I remember saying every year, "It just isn't worth it." I'd wake up on the day of a competition and count down the minutes. I'd think, "This will all be over in 12 hours." But I usually skated well. And then, when it's over, there's a feeling of, Wow, that was pretty cool. I guess that's why I kept doing it. And I thought if I did well, I could get a job at an ice show. That's what I really wanted to do.

I had no idea of the magnitude of the Olympic Games. It opened so many doors for me. When I came home, there were people at the airport and a room full of mail, and the phone was ringing off the hook. And then I saw all the newspaper articles about "America's sweetheart" and the haircut and those horrible big glasses that I wore. I just didn't get it -- I was still the same homely, blind ice skater with tomboy short hair that I was my whole life.

I was thrilled to be able to skate with Ice Capades. I was in heaven. But there was a lot of stress that went with it: traveling, press conferences, not enough time to train, being at hotels where you couldn't eat right.

But skating is the one thing that's been constant in my life.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2007, and, even after my breast cancer surgeries, I was always out there, not skating well but doing it because it's always been something I've loved.

And I think learning to work hard and learning to win and lose really early on in life gives you backbone and resilience. It absolutely made me stronger. I look at cancer as just another challenge that comes along. It's not the end of the world. You can either fight it, or you can throw in the towel.

Fast Forward

Hamill has temporarily stopped skating to concentrate on her recovery. She hopes to return to the rink soon.

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PHOTOS: Current Photography by Keith Barraclough, 1976 Photograph from Tony Duffy/Getty Images; AUDIO: Whitney Shefte WEB EDITOR: Amanda McGrath - washingtonpost.com

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