Dorothy Hamill’s new book, A Skating Life, starts off with a zinger. In the first two pages, she describes coming back to her hotel room after winning her 1976 Olympic gold medal. Her mother is there, alone, surrounded by cigarette smoke. When Hamill reports the results, her mother simply responds with an unimpassioned, “That’s nice.” Hamill didn’t know, while she was performing, or while she was on the podium afterwards, that her mother, the one person most helpful in getting her to that vaunted place, was not in the arena. Nineteen year-old Hamill was understandably confused by her mother’s absence and she would spend many years trying to figure it out. This is also confusing to her fans, so we’ll turn the pages to learn more.
One of the things I was taught in writing school is that where you start a story is absolutely critical. It’s good, for example, to start in the middle of the action. It’s good to start with a contradiction, or a surprise. It’s good to have your reader immediately and anxiously asking the questions, “Why?” and, “How?” Hamill and her co-author, Deborah Amelon, effectively utilize these tactics. After getting our attention, they go back and describe how it all began. And Hamill’s beginning wasn’t really so different from any of ours. For example, despite her impressive ascent, she completely botched an early competition, she failed her First figure test, and, she indulged in her own teenage meltdowns when her program didn’t go well in practice.
On the one hand, we want to believe that everything was shiny and happy for America’s sweetheart. After all, on TV, she seemed so shy, so innocent, so untouched by the ugliness of skating politics or the weight of family drama. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to discover that there was a darker underbelly to that winning moment, the years that led up to it, and, even more so, the years that followed. Dorothy Hamill has long been a public icon, yet, similar to Princess Diana, she has always seemed so down to earth, and likeable; I think this memoir makes Hamill even more endearing.
We find out about Hamill’s tension-filled relationship with her mother, who sacrificed much and seemed almost impossible to please. The “skating mother” figure is an industry cliché, but it’s also a reality. Skating is a world comprised mostly of mothers and daughters. In rinks around the country, we see the tangle of love, hope, desire, and drive leading to suffocation, or success (or both simultaneously) every day. Hamill is also frank about the impact skating can have on the entire family, the way it can morph dynamics and create financial and emotional strain. Hamill describes that her own situation was further complicated by depression that went undiagnosed and largely untreated on both her mother’s and her father’s sides.
The Olympic moment is revisited about half way through the book and the remaining pages deal with the aftermath. And I use the word aftermath very much on purpose. Not that there weren’t a few highlights, like: her vindicating 1st place at Worlds immediately following the Olympics, falling in love with Dean Paul Martin, and, later, the birth of her daughter. But she also encountered a heartbreaking amount of bad luck, peppered with a dose of admitted bad decisions, such as: the divorce from Martin and his subsequent fatal airplane crash, a second marriage to an apparent deadbeat, robbery, injury, bankruptcy, and getting taken advantage-of in what seems like infinite ways.
It is brave for Hamill to reveal this kind of personal information to the extent that she does. But it doesn’t feel as if she is merely “airing her dirty laundry” (one of my own mother’s favorite phrases), because she seems to be writing this for a larger purpose. Throughout the book, she examines herself and her family through the lens of depression. She is an advocate of diagnosis, therapy, and medication, if needed.
Of course, for skating insiders, this is an especially interesting read because of all the familiar names of coaches, skaters, and rinks that interconnect our small web. And I think skaters and non-skaters alike can appreciate the universal messages Hamill imparts. She demonstrates that it’s not easy at the top, and that when you hit rock-bottom you just have to climb back up.
I recommend that you read A Skating Life, if for no other reason, for a single scene that takes place near the end, after Hamill has hit a particularly rough patch. Hamill, the Olympic champion, gets back on the ice after several months off by attending a public session. It’s an emotional moment for author and reader. Despite its twists and turns, skating has always been, for Hamill, and for many of us, something very personal and redemptive. Skating, in one form or another, is something we can always come back to. I know that for me, anyway, it’s been a starting point, and…a landing.
To watch Dorothy Hamill’s Gold Medal performance in the 1976 Olympics, click here.
Thanks for reading.