Scott Hamilton, a figure skater who won the 1984 Olympic gold medal and has fought through serious medical problems most of his life, inspired a Tidewell Hospice crowd with his words of faith and optimism Friday.
“When you fall, get up again, and go after it,” Hamilton told a crowd of more than 900 at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota. “When your chest hits the finish line of life, just know you gave it everything.”
Hamilton, 60, was adopted into a loving family as an infant, and stopped growing at age 2 because of a mystery illness that baffled doctors.
“You know the kitchen counter that young children run under until they grow too tall and hit their heads? That never happened to me,” Hamilton said.
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After several years, he resumed growing but never got taller than 5 feet, 4 inches.
“I knew I was different. I wasn’t like the other kids,” he said.
He began ice skating as a child and gradually learned to skate as well as the “well kids,” and then surpassed them, which gave himself a new outlook on life.
“If you feel good about yourself, it changes the air in the room. All I wanted to do was skate,” he said.
He learned to deal with cruel teasing from other children who called him ”twinkle toes” because he was learning to ice skate and who teased him because he was adopted.
His beloved mother, Dorothy Hamilton, said he should respond to the teasing by saying his parents “chose him,” while other parents “got stuck with what they got.”
Hamilton also played hockey for three years, but finally concluded that he was too small, and “still am.”
Dorothy Hamilton, the center of his universe, was diagnosed with cancer while Scott Hamilton was in his teens, and offered an object lesson in dealing with the disease with courage and humor.
Depleted family finances almost forced Hamilton to stop figure skating, but a wealthy couple took him under their wing by sponsoring him, allowing him to continue his development as an emerging star.
On the verge of stardom, his mother lost her battle to cancer.
“I went for a long walk and decided that even though I loved her with all my heart, I hadn’t honored her the way that I should have,” Hamilton said, adding that he decided to dedicate his quest for excellence to her.
He placed fifth in the 1980 Olympics, was world champion 1981-1983, and the Olympic gold medalist in 1984 at Sarajevo. He was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990. He also became a nationally televised figure skating commentator.
But along with all the good things that came his way, the bad came as well. Challenging as they were, Hamilton survived testicular cancer and three bouts of brain cancer.
He remembered a wave of fear washed over him with his first cancer diagnosis, but that soon turned to courage as he resolved to beat the disease.
Men too often ignore their health, he said, and encouraged them to get checked out by a doctor if something doesn’t feel right.
Later, when he had his first brain cancer diagnosis, he took his wife, Tracie, upstairs to break the news to her.
“Without missing a beat, she held my hands and prayed powerfully,” Hamilton said.
“I am unapologetically a man of faith. We have an opportunity to live joyfully, triumphantly,” he said. “We are made to be fragile and vulnerable but we are also resilient.”
Hamilton encouraged the audience to support Tidewell Hospice in recognition that death comes to everyone.
“So that we can live our days joyfully and comfortably to the end,” he said.
“Years ago, I decided after the brain tumor to see if I could still skate at age 51,” Hamilton said.
Not only did he work himself into shape, but he executed one of his famous back flips in front of a crowd of 8,000, “who stood up and pushed me to the finish line.”
Afterward, he retired from figure skating.
“Don’t ever set limits on what you can do,” he said.
Many lined up after Hamilton’s address to buy a copy of his book, “Finish First.”
Among them was Dr. Elizabeth Callahan.
“That was an amazing story coming from a patient. He put everything in such human, basic terms. He had such an overwhelming love for his mother,” Callahan said.
“When we fall down, we get back up. The only disability in life is not having a good attitude,” she said.
For more information about Tidewell Hospice, visit tidewell.org.