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The Skeleton in Skater Dorothy Hamill's Closet

'J.J.'s Journal'

By Jon Ledecky

Figure skating star Dorothy Hamill has enjoyed all of the publicity and attention that surrounds a three-time national champion. Her picture is on the cover of Time Magazine. ABC has followed her every step on the way for three years. Many feel she has the best shot for an American gold medal in the upcoming Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria.

But the media, in its image-building attempt, has neglected to tell America about what I call the "Hamill Watergate." For on a wintry January night in 1975, Dorothy Hamill decided to speak out about the politics of figure skating and her life. In doing so, Hamill almost destroyed a career that started at age nine and had dominated her every waking moment since then.

'Salute to Hamill'

I was working the night sports desk at The Greenwich Time when I received an assignment to cover a "Salute to Dorothy Hamill" night in nearby Stamford, Connecticut. The event was a showcase for area talent and a benefit for the Olympic fund. A crowd of 1800 jammed the Stamford indoor rink to catch a glimpse at America's skating sweetheart. In the press box, Stamford Advocate reporter Tom Shantz and I traded notes on our scheduled interview with Hamill.

Hamill, never noted for her verbosity, gave brief answers to questions concerning her background, and I thought we were heading for the typical "jock-profile." But Dorothy proceeded to drop a bombshell that would have international repercussions.

In response to a question about her future plans, Hamill said, "Well, after the nationals, there are the World Championships. If I don't win them, there's no point in going on to the Olympics. I mean, the judging is so biased by previous performances. If I don't win, I'll retire."

When asked to elaborate on her statement, Dorothy cited a hypothetical situation. "If you finished second or third one year, no matter how much you improve, they remember that the next year, and it's impossible to move up. The politics of skating are just not fair." She talked more about retirement, of leaving the mechanical lifestyle of ten-hour-a-day practices, branching out in life instead.

Hamill had broken a time-honored tradition in the world of figure-skating--she had put the rap on international judging. There was no doubt about it.

The next morning I woke to read The New York Times, and was somewhat startled to find in bold-headlines--"U.S. Champion Accuses Judges of Bias--Ponders Retirement." Tom called at noon to say that since the night before had produced little sports news of national worth, our story had mushroomed to lead status throughout the country.

Sure enough, there it was in all of the papers I bought that day--"Hamill: 'No Title, No Olympics'" or "Hamill Sounds Off on Judging," and "Hamill To Hang Up Skates?" We were both satisfied with a job well done, and congratulated each other on our writing success.

Meanwhile, Chalmers Hamill was having a fit out in Colorado. He had taken a late flight with Dorothy back to her training site in Denver. When he got off the plane and picked up a New York Times, he almost had a heart attack. He suddenly saw nine years of hard work and personal sacrifice going down the drain because his daughter had spoken out and broken the sacred rule. It didn't matter that what she had said happened to be the truth.

The father and daughter sat down and talked about their respective lives. The senior Hamill explained that Dorothy's outspoken comments had destroyed any chance she had for either the national or world championship titles. The Olympics were now out of the question, unless. . .

Watergate in Action

It must be remembered that this was the era of Watergate and the cover-up. They did just that. Hamill called a press conference the next day. He accused the "reporters in question" of being "liars who would do anything for a story." He termed the article a "complete fabrication of absurdities" and demanded that Shantz and I be fired.

Then Dorothy took to stage center. With tears in her eyes, she repeated the same accusations, and dramatically asked the gathering why "those reporters wanted to ruin my career." The next day, photos of Dorothy's tears made the newspaper rounds. It reminded me of Nixon's Checkers speech.

I was in shock. Say it ain't so, Dorothy. Was this the same Dorothy Hamill I had known and had seen that night? My initial impression of her was thus confirmed--she was being totally manipulated by parents who loved the attention it brought them.

The tirade didn't stop there. The Hamills threatened court-libel action, while other reporters, looking for a different angle, called Shantz and me up. We stood firmly to our stories as they appeared in print, and fortunately our publishers had supreme confidence in our integrity. But who is the average American going to believe--a beautiful girl with tears in her eyes, or two journalists just trying to do their jobs?

The final blow and last word on the subject came two weeks later, when the "cover-up" came to its successful conclusion. Broadcaster Jim McKay of ABC Sports interviewed Dorothy on national television prior to the USA championships. His question concerned our story. Dorothy's answer:

"I hope to go on to the Olympics after the World Championships. The judging and all the officials that I have met during my career have been great. I think the reporters completely misunderstood me." Then, she paused as if to catch herself. Was she going to change that lie and tell the truth? Was there a trace of honesty left in the pride of America in the upcoming Winter Olympics? I looked to see if her fingers were crossed. They weren't. Her final words to McKay: "I really don't want to talk about that anymore."

And nobody has.

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