In the early mornings, after dropping her 11-year-old daughter off at school, Dorothy Hamill drives down to Millersville, to a low-slung gray building just off Interstate 97. There, in an old ice rink, she puts on classical music, or James Taylor, or sometimes K.D. Lang, laces up her white boots and steps out onto the milky surface.
Away from here, she's a single mom making a home in Baltimore, a twice-divorced woman who has found a new love, a star who has endured scrutiny, bankruptcy and, lately, arthritis.
But at 43, much about Dorothy Hamill hasn't changed. She's still gorgeous, still kind. And still skating.
With just a few strokes, she's speeding across the ice, her short brown hair blowing back, a smile on her face. Then she goes into a spin, standing straight up, rotating faster and faster, gradually moving her arms all the way above her head, until she is a blur.
Her execution of this move, a scratch spin, is considered the best in the world. Still.
Twenty-four years after she won an Olympic gold medal, Hamill skates six days a week and in dozens of shows a year. Amazing those inside the sport, she spins and jumps and glides at nearly the same level she did in 1976. Last year, she remastered her double lutz jump; this year, she's trying to regain the other move she had lost: the difficult double axel.
"I would love to do it one more time," Hamill says, "even if I don't perform it, to do it once or twice in practice, before I hang my skates up completely."
That is likely a ways off. Hamill still ranks among top figure skaters, years after many younger competitors have dropped out. Her jumps, while not triples, are known for their big, perfect arcs. She carries herself on the ice with elegance, finishing off every move, appreciating every nuance of blade and edge. She skates quietly, almost softly across the rink.
These are qualities often missing in today's younger skaters, whose training and programs focus on hitting multiple triple jumps.
"She's a legend that deserves to be," says Brian Boitano, 36, an Olympic gold medalist and long-time professional champion. "Nobody spins as well as her to this day. I still see her do a scratch spin every night and go, 'Whoa, how does she do that?'
"She's a queen."
Return to competition
Several weeks ago, at the Goodwill Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., Hamill competed for the first time since 1976. All the traits that made her a champion were still with her: meticulous preparation, rigorous training, beautiful choreography -- and her old nemesis, her nerves. She paced backstage.
"She gets so nervous that she just about gets sick," says JoJo Starbuck, a three-time national pairs champion. "But she has this incredible, steel-like tenacity. The spotlight hits her, and she's sparkling like a million bucks."
In her long program, skating to "Love Makes the World Go Round," Hamill landed several double jumps, and at one point, she circled the center of the ice with a series of graceful moves, holding her arms out to the audience as if she were passing around her happiness.
By the time she ended with the scratch spin, the crowd was on its feet, shouting and cheering.
Hamill didn't expect to surpass skaters with arsenals of triple jumps who were only toddlers when she won the gold medal. But even as she earned near-perfect marks for presentation, she criticized herself.
"It's not about ability. It's about mental toughness, which I don't have, partly from being a mom, partly from being almost 44," she said. "I would have liked to have skated better, just for me. You just want to skate your best."
But the competition on live television was a triumph for her. Hamill won a friendly duel, beating out Katarina Witt, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is about 10 years younger than she.
Tonight at the Arena
Tonight, Hamill skates with the world's top figure skaters in Champions on Ice, a 34-city national tour that opens at the Baltimore Arena. Most of the skaters are in their 20s, with a few in their 30s. But the show's organizers didn't hesitate to sign up Hamill, who is under contract for three years.
"Any city you go into, she has one of the loudest receptions of anybody," said Michael Collins, tour manager and son of Tom Collins, the tour's founder. "She's not doing the big jumps, but her style of skating is classic. You look out in the audience, and they are mesmerized."
Added Nicole Bobek, 22, the 1995 U.S. champion, who is on the tour: "The way she holds herself, it's exquisite. She can just make one line and get a standing ovation."
Physicians can't say why someone like Hamill has been able to maintain her skills at such a high level for so long.
Dr. Howard Silby, chair of sports medicine committee of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, said his group is working on a major study to find out what it takes mentally and physically to become a figure-skating champion. The report, which won't be done for at least a year, is analyzing many factors, including aerobic training, jump height, biomechanics and even sports psychology.
Researchers are also looking at the biological changes that occur over the years to these athletes, particularly in pre-teen female skaters as they struggle to adjust to their older, more mature bodies. Eric Lang, the athletic trainer for Champions on Ice, doubts that many of today's younger skaters will be able to repeat Hamill's longevity, since, he says, they have performed too many triple jumps too early.
For Hamill's part, experts say her success is probably a combination of good genes, taking scrupulous care of herself, training hard and, maybe more than anything else, loving the sport.
Skating is Hamill's passion. She even calls it therapy.
Sitting in a restaurant recently near the Benfield Pines Ice Rink, where she practices, she sipped mushroom soup and tried to describe what it feels like to skate.
"It's feeling the way a bird would, not having any boundaries, being able to lean and curve, the wind at your face," she said, her face lighting up as she talked. "It's magical."
She loved ice skating almost instantly when, at age 8, she ventured out on a frozen pond behind her grandparents' home in Massachusetts. In her brother's skates, almost two sizes too big, she clomped around, trying to skate backward like her big sister. That day, she begged for lessons. By her teen-age years, she was working with some of the top coaches in the world, waking up at 4 a.m. to skate before high school classes, unlike most top skaters today, who are tutored. She is also among the last generation of skaters who worked for six hours daily on school figures, etching out perfect turns and figure-eights in the ice.
The February after she graduated from high school, she won the Olympic gold medal and admirers around the world. Her short haircut spawned thousands of imitators. She was nicknamed "America's Sweetheart." And she began a long, lucrative professional career, starring in numerous touring shows and television specials.
In the early 1990s, she even bought the Ice Capades, upgrading conditions for the skaters and creating a critically acclaimed show, "Cinderella." But one of the experiences that influenced her skating most was her work over the years with John Curry, a British skater and Olympic gold medalist.
Curry took ice skating to the next level, training ice skaters as dancers and putting them together in an ensemble, almost like a ballet. After he died in 1994, Nathan Birch and Tim Murphy continued his vision, founding the Next Ice Age, a Baltimore-based contemporary skating ensemble. Hamill has performed with this group at the Kennedy Center.
"She just keeps getting better," said Birch. "The fact that she keeps skating helps keep the balance in skating toward quality. She's an example of what most skaters would consider the best skating there is. We're lucky she's still doing it."
All the while, Hamill has tried to balance work with her personal life. She was married twice -- to Dean Paul Martin (Dean Martin's son) and later to Dr. Ken Forsythe, with whom she had her daughter, Alexandra. That marriage broke up after eight years, about the same time the Ice Capades became too much. Hamill declared bankruptcy. She wanted to move back East, closer to her friends, her family, and to her longtime coach and choreographer, Tim Murphy.
Researching several cities, Hamill ultimately chose Baltimore for its good schools, location and small-town feel. It reminded her of Greenwich, Conn., where she grew up. And she has many friends here.
"I always had such a good time here," says Hamill, who enjoys local theaters and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. "I love the city. I love the architecture. I love my neighbors."
In 1997, she enrolled her daughter in a private girls school, Roland Park Country School. Her new boyfriend, Dean Moye, a lighting designer she had met through the skating shows, moved in with them in an old brick home in North Baltimore that they have been renovating.
She and Moye are engaged, she said shyly, but they haven't set a date.
"I'm a little gun shy," Hamill says, "but I know we will be together."
Since she travels so much for work, she loves to be at home when she is in town, to stay around the house, sleep in her own bed, take her daughter to school. When they are out, at the movies, or hunting down antiques, Moye says Hamill often doesn't realize that people have recognized her.
One day several months ago, he says, while they were out shopping, a woman approached Hamill. "Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Dorothy Hamill?" she said.
As always, Hamill is friendly to fans, who still send her a bucketful of mail every week. Organizers of Champions on Ice say she is routinely the first to greet the line of autograph-seekers and the last to leave.
Moye, who has been with her for three years, said that in the beginning, he kept waiting for Hamill's "true self" to emerge.
"I kept thinking we're going to wake up one day, and it's all going to wear off, but it doesn't. She is a kind soul," he says. "It's like she has a pocketful of rainbows, and she just keeps throwing them up there."
At some point, after her daughter goes to college, Hamill says she would love to coach. She already serves as a casual adviser to some skaters. For now, skaters and audiences will savor her performances, for as long as she wants to be out there.
At the Goodwill Games, when she skated out onto the rink for her exhibition program, the crowd screamed and clapped so much that the music couldn't be started. Hamill begged them off, dismissing their cheers with a smile, then throwing out a kiss.
Finally, the piercing, soprano notes of an Andrew Lloyd Webber song, "Requiem, Pie Jesu," filled the arena. Slowly, gently, her arms floated upward. As she stroked across the ice, the music seemed to flow through her.
Soon, this world, and the other part of life she loves so much -- being a mom -- may intersect.
Not long after Lake Placid, Hamill's daughter made an announcement: "I want to be a skater."
Until now, Hamill, whose work has inspired many to skate and has pushed those in the top ranks to do better, has discouraged her daughter from skating. She didn't want Alex to feel pressured to follow her mother.
But Hamill is reconsidering. Alex will soon be a teen-ager. Skating is a healthy activity, and Hamill knows the people involved are good people. And she could keep a close eye on her daughter.
Maybe, she thinks, it's not such a bad idea after all.
'Champions on Ice'
Where: Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.
When: Tonight, 7: 30 p.m.
Tickets: $25 to $55
Call: 410-347-2010 or 410-481-7328