No easy skate through life for this gold medalist

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 2, 2011 

Figure skater Dorothy Hamill captured Olympic gold and the hearts of a nation in 1976 with her signature Hamill camel spin, her modest skirted costumes and a haircut that went viral: the wedge. Hamill, 54, is a breast cancer survivor. She recently launched a jewelry line with Helzberg Diamonds that will contribute money to breast cancer awareness.

Here she answers some questions about her life, then and now:

Q: Do you remember what it felt like, standing on the podium in Innsbruck, when they put the gold medal around your neck?

A: I remember in the two minutes that they played the national anthem having a gazillion thoughts roll through my mind.

Q: What kind of thoughts?

A: It was every emotion you can imagine. It was the joy and the disbelief of, “Oh my gosh, it actually happened.” A dream actually coming true. I thought life would be perfect after that, because it just takes winning a gold medal.

Q: That’s not exactly how it turned out.

A: Yeaaah. Winning the Olympics wasn’t some magical fairy dust that makes everything perfect. For all of the time I had spent ice skating and practicing over and over and over, I didn’t learn social skills. So after the Olympics I had to be an adult and mature. I got a job in Ice Capades and got to travel all around the country, 13 shows a week. It was wonderful, but emotionally it was a tough time. I didn’t know how to prepare for living in a fishbowl.

Q: What is your life like today?

A: I live in Maryland. I have a wonderful husband and a 22-year-old daughter, twin stepdaughters, a stepson and grandchildren by marriage. I skate as much as I can.

Q: How much is that?

A: I’m trying to skate every day for an hour or two. I’m trying to get back to it.

Q: What is the status of your cancer today?

A: I am cancer-free today. I’m still being treated and life is good.

Q: When were you diagnosed with cancer?

A: Almost four years ago to the day. It was early October.

Q: I’m sure that is a day you don’t forget.

A: Yeah, well my mother had breast cancer -- she is still alive at 85 -- so I knew it was possible because there is a lot of cancer in the family.

You always think that maybe that day will come. And when it does, your world just stops.

Q: Your hair was part of your identity. Did you lose your hair?

A: No, I was really, really lucky that I didn’t have chemo. But I was seriously at the point where I was thinking about my hair and what would happen. Whether it would come back in curly instead of straight, and how I would just have to figure that out. But I was lucky.

Q: But you did have to have radiation, which causes fatigue. Does it still make you tired?

A: Reaaally tired. I am starting to feel better. I had no energy and I just felt like a slug. They tell you to get out there and go do stuff, but I just didn’t want to. And I participated in some studies and some of the new medications that were out there that had a lot of side effects: joint aches and swelling and changes in appetite. Now I’m on Tamoxifen.

Q: Do you have side effects from the Tamoxifen?

A: Not anywhere near the side effects of the other medications that I was on. So this is very do able. I’ve got five more years of it, though.

Q: Tell us about your joint project with Helzberg Diamonds.

A: I have always had a love and passion for jewelry, ever since I was a little girl.

The opportunity came about to design a line of jewelry that is called Love, Help and Hope. It is beautiful jewelry and it gives back. This year, funds are going to Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation. Most breast cancer, if you catch it early, is not a death sentence anymore.

Q: Tell us about the necklace you are wearing.

A: This is part of the collection. This is the signature piece, and there are a few other pieces and you can see them all at www.helzberg.com and (in stores).

Q: You do a lot of work helping people with physical disabilities. What are some you are most proud of?

A: The Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland is a school and a hospital for spinal cord injuries. I started an adaptive skating program a year ago for those youngsters. Some are in wheelchairs, and we have special skates, where the braces that go on their legs can go in. And I give them a piggyback ride so they can really feel the joy that I experience when I get on the ice.

Q: The rest of your life hasn’t always been filled with joy. You wrote about depression in “A Skating Life” (Hyperion, $25). How is your depression now?

A: I think depression will be a lifelong struggle for me. The depression was harder to deal with than the cancer in many ways, because now there is a lot of awareness about breast cancer.

Depression still has that stigma. I wanted to talk about it because it’s like cancer -- it doesn’t matter who you are or what socioeconomic situation you are in, it can still creep in. It is an illness, like cancer.

Q: Do you have a message for people who are struggling with depression?

A: It’s really, really hard to give advice to the people suffering from it. Sometimes you just need an intervention.

My daughter saw me sinking into this black hole and she called the doctor to say, “You really should call my mom,” because I would cancel appointments.

The doctor called and said, “You need to get in here because your daughter called.” And that’s when you realize, “Oh, I guess it is more serious.”

Q: What is your advice to loved ones of depression sufferers?

A: You need to pay attention and you have to force the people out of the chair or off the couch, because that immobilization isn’t OK. Sometimes you have to physically just drag them and say, “You know what? Come with me.”

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