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Olympian Dorothy Hamill talks figures, fancy skating

In 1976, the “Dorothy Hamill Skating Special” celebrated then-current Olympic and World champion Dorothy Hamill with a biographical song crooned by Gene Kelly.

“Soon her family heard that she much preferred to become proficient on skates, and she saw the trick of arithmetic doing figure eights,” Kelly sang.

These lyrics would somewhat predict Hamill’s future as a member of World Figure Sport’s Board of Directors, the governing body responsible for upholding and preserving figures for a new generation of skaters. But Hamill, who trained in Lake Placid part time earlier in her skating career, had loved figures well before becoming involved in the WFS.

“Figures and fancy skating are the essence and origin of figure skating,” she said. “I hope to help the WFS expand and grow.”

School figures, the practice of tracing edges and turns in various precise patterns, were removed from figure skating competitions in the 1990s but were still practiced unofficially by many coaches and skaters who knew they were the foundation of the sport. Although some skaters found figures tedious, Hamill enjoyed the discipline.

“In my opinion, figure skating teaches many life skills including concentration, creativity, and discipline,” she said. “I found practicing figures was a Zen-like experience.”

Hamill began her skating journey in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1966 at the age of 8. That summer, she worked with her first coaches, Otto Gold and Gustave Lussi in Lake Placid and appreciated the opportunity to train in such a venue.

“The atmosphere was so inspiring,” she said. “I was able to see world-class skaters like Toller Cranston, Misha Petkevich. … Even Peggy Fleming came to skate in the shows. I realize how lucky I was to see such champions and how they practiced.”

She started training more frequently in Lake Placid around 1967 as a 10-year-old until 1972, making the village her part-time home and training location. She worked with Lussi on free skating. He helped her develop the famous “Hamill Camel” variation on the camel spin. Howard Nicholson helped with figures, and she eventually worked with Carlo Fassi. She remembers her time in Lake Placid fondly.

“I have so many memories from Lake Placid, too many to share,” Hamill said. “I would walk to the arena through the precious town. The first summer, my coach was Otto Gold. I remember swimming in Mirror Lake with my skating friends. I remember skating in the Saturday Night Ice Shows. I even skated the dance sessions.”

As one of the meccas of figure skating in the United States, Lake Placid has been an integral part of figures history. Lake Placid hosted the first summer figure skating program starting in August 1932. In an archived Chateaugay Record article from April 1946, figures practice is discussed as the predominant feature in the early days of Lake Placid summer figure skating, brought to Lake Placid “from England by the Olympic Arena management.” While free skating had only three sessions per day, there were seven figures sessions. Clearly that changed as the decades went on and freestyle gained precedence while figures mostly faded away or stayed in the background of the sport.

But passionate advocates for the discipline, such as 1994 Olympian Karen Courtland Kelly, a founder of World Figure Sport, and other skating luminaries were determined to save figures from extinction and introduce them to a new audience. In 2015, the inaugural World Figure & Fancy Skating Championships & Festival took place in Lake Placid, also launching the World Figure Sport governing organization. Luminaries such as two-time Olympic champion and five-time world champion Dick Button, 1972 Olympic bronze medalist Janet Lynn, three-time US pairs skating champion JoJo Starbuck, 1972 Olympic champion and two-time world champion Trixi Schuba, along with several others, were present to judge the competition, teach seminars at the Festival, and in the case of Button and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” legend Doug Wilson, commentate the event for the live-streaming audience. Figures enthusiasts traced their figures on black painted ice, making the tracings easier to see and evaluate.

Hamill became interested in the event five years ago, after hearing about how “incredible” the first Lake Placid event was from Starbuck, Lynn and Schuba.

“I was amazed and delighted to see that a new world skating organization, the World Figure Sport Society, was bringing the great art of figures and fancy skating back (and) at the same time creating a modern world championships on black ice … a truly herculean feat and nearly a lost art!”

She first became involved as a special guest honorary referee for the event from 2017 to 2019, judging the final segment of those events as well. Hamill was also a judge at the World Junior Figure & Fancy Skating Championships in 2018-2019.

She notes that she appreciates figures because she feels they are “the ultimate form of ice skating, beautiful to look at and requiring absolute control of the skater and the skates.”

In addition to serving on the World Figure Sport Society Board of Directors and officiating at the events, Hamill has always kept busy in the skating world, passing on her knowledge.

“I enjoy working with all types of skaters, including adult skaters, because they are so enthusiastic,” she said. “I am also looking forward to working with special needs youngsters. That is another reason I love WFS as it includes all skaters, all levels, and abilities including the inclusive skaters where anyone can be part of the events.”

In addition to the officiating duties already mentioned, Hamill also judged all the inclusive skating events at the 2017-2019 Championships.

“Skating brings so much joy to me, and I want others to feel the same joy,” she said.