You expect the skating sprite and nothing less. She is, after all, the Olympics gold medal winner, the short'n' sassy star who skims through the shampoo commercials, her smooth cap of auburn hair the perky, shining symbol of American cleanliness.

That, at least, is what they presume her to be at the press conference: the optimistic, cheerful little success story. Would you want your children to follow in your footsteps? They ask this twice.

Dorothy Hamil is 21, and not even married.

What are the good and bad sides of being a celebrity? She grows more expansive about the bad side.

"I know people have taken advantage of me." The voice is sweet and high. "All of a sudden, I'm making money, when I never had any before. Any everybody wants to take it away.

"I learned that some friends - all they were interested in was my money. I learned that the hard way. But I learned it."

She gaxes impassively at the cameras and says, "Now everyone wants five minutes of my time and it really is hard. I don't have a lot of spare time. Some times I don't sleep all night because I worry about things. When I was in training I didn't have to do anything but skate. My mother cooked all my meals for me.

"But I had to grow up overnight."

The strangers smile and nod, eager for more copy. But the skater doesn't look grown up. The skater with the large tinted glasses, the little diamond chips for earrings and the purposeful but graceless stride, replies to all the questions politely and gently; but she still has the mannerisms of a young girl.

As she talks on, her perfectly manicured fingers rub the wooden arms of her chair, the skin all brown and pink from three days in St. Thomas. She is not nervous now, she tells the assembled, but the rubbing fingers betray her.

On one of them is a large gold band with the letter 'D' formed out of a sprinkle of diamond chips.

She is, after all, the diamond chip of the Ice Capades, who will be here through Feb. 12, and for whom she works 35 weeks a year, twice on Sundays, three times a day on Saturdays.

She is, after all, a star.

Last November while she was doing a special for ABC she discovered she had a bleeding ulcer.

"I was very upset that TV special didn't get done; but we're going to try to do it again." She is alone now, in a small room at the Capital Centre, the pliant, gentle object of yet another interview, alert but slightly tense.

"We lost a lot of money on that TV thing. I certainly didn't get any . . ." she chuckles nervously.

She is asked if she thinks a lot about money.

"Well it certainly makes things easier - money. People keep trying to take it away from you."

The voice isn't plaintive, but the face is mildly incredulous.

"I had this friend who was a lawyer, for instance. He said he wanted to do me a favor, and wanted to talk with me about some things. And so I did.

"Well he sent me the bill - for $20,000! And so I paid some of it.

"You know people just figure I can afford it, and they don't need to pay for things. Like last year I lent some money to a person I thought was a friend.

"And I never got paid back, and I know I never will."

And then there was her old coach, Carlo Fassi, who sued her for $100,000. "He claimed that was for lessons I never paid for - and a few other things. Well, we settled out of court, only I'm not allowed to talk about it. And - "a shrug - "and I was very upset, because it hurt me."

Suddenly, she no longer looks like the sassy little skater with the short skirts flying, the all-American smile flashing. She looks childlike and vulnerable, a constant condition with her, any one she does not trouble to hide.

"You know when I was 17, I got engaged - right before the world championship - to some hockey player. I remember my father kicked him right off the rink, because I was about to complete. I can remember my parents' saying, 'Oh, wait until you're 21 to get married. You're too young.'"

A weak smile, "I was such a BABY then, And I probably still am. It's all happened so quickly. It just all happened so quickly. The contracts with Ice Capades and Clairol and the TV specials. It's just all happened so fast."

It started out, however, very slow. At 8 1/2, the product of a middle-class family, a father who was an engineer from Riverside, Conn., Dorothy Hamill started skating, where her coach was about twice a week. At 14, she moved to Denver, Colo., with her mother who got to see her husband only during summers. Dorothy Hamill would stay there five years, skating every day, training, making a name for herself in the competitions.

But there was always something uneasy in Dorothy Hamill; always something that frightened her about what she was doing. The newspapers call is "stage fright" and "performance jitters," but it seems to be more than that; it seems to be almost a ritual of fear for Dorothy Hamill, something she must wade through to complete her performance. It has always been that way.

"Every year," she says, smiling dolefully "every year before any competition I used to sit in the dressing room and just want to die. Just DIE. it's like - well, it's like going to an execution. Every year, I would swear - "This is my LAST competition.""

And then she put on her gold medal at the '76 Winter Olympics in Austria. And again, she said to herself - never again, this is my last competition. And again, it was not.

"I want on to the world championship," she says simply, "and won it. Because I thought if I didn't, I would always regret it. It had been a goal.I was so close at that point that I would have been crazy not to. So many people were involved besides me: my parents, my coach, my sponsors. I couldn't let them down."

But skaters, as she points, are at their peak at 19. So she parlayed all of it into a reported $1-million deal for three years with the Ice Capades. She converted all of it into a future of endless roaming, endless interviews and endless hassle.

"We get some guys that hang around, that are very very strange. And very scary. They wait around until you leave, and then they GRAB you. And they say, "Can I have a kiss?"

She shudders almost imperceptibly. "And I don't like people to touch me if I don't know them. Back in Boston, I was practicing one afternoon, and there was this guy hanging around - and they're not allowed in you know, but he was hanging around, with no credentials, just wanted to talk to me alone. And that is really scary because you don't know what they WANT . . ."

But they all want Dorothy Hamill now: the autograph seekers, and the fan-mail writers, and the freelance photographer who followed her constantly around Binghampton, N.Y. - so constantly that she found herself being guarded by five people. And American Optical now wants Hamill to do its commercials because she wears those funny glasses, and the reporters want to know about that famous Hamill cut which she gets from Mr. Suga at Bergdorf's.

And Dean Martin Jr., who plays pro-tennis wants Dorothy.

"Oh Dean - he's just great. He's . . . Well I don't know what I expected, but he wasn't what I thought he'd be. He's very shy, very sensitive and very sweet. He was just a lot different than I expected. I mean he's not your Hollywood playboy. As a matter of fact, he's completely the opposite."

They see each other when they can; but it's mostly he who comes to see her: not vice versa. There is no time. There just isn't any time. The Ice Capades has seen to that, and Dorothy Hamill just doesn't know how many more years she can take of this life.

"I'm not getting any younger," she told the press conference with a wry smile. "I don't miss not going to college. I got all the education I need these last few years," she says later. But she has a way to go, yet. She is very young - younger even than her years. And very naive - above all she is that.

Ask her why she joined the Ice Capades, instead of the Ice Follies, and this is what you'll hear:

"Until two years ago, the Ice Follies always had the champions like Peggy Fleming. So what was the one I had my heart set on to with.

"But the Ice Capades - I was very impressed with their management. They always sent me flowers through the years during my competitions. They always had an interest in me as a novice skater.

"The Ice Capades always sent me a littel identification pass to get to see their shows. I just got more impressed because of their attitude towards me as a person - not as just an Olympic champion. The Follies just wants you as an Olympic champion."

She is asked is she truly believes the Ice Capades didn't know what is was doing through the years when they sent her flowers and passes.

Firmly she sets her jaw. "The Ice Capades has a nice family way about them," she insists. And then, wistfully: "You don't have to be anyone special."