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FIVE QUESTIONS

Dorothy Hamill on skating and regaining strength

For the Olympian, the ice was once a way to escape into her world of shyness. Now it's a way to call her back into a world of health.

By James S. Fell

March 2, 2013

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You know you're famous when your haircut becomes the haircut.

Dorothy Hamill wasn't prepared for fame. She just loved to skate. As a shy child, she fell in love with being outside on a pond, breathing fresh air and feeling like she was in her own world. Her mom took care of all the details that advanced Dorothy's career to the point where she captured Olympic figure skating gold in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1976.

And she's still skating, appearing in the latest run of Stars on Ice, which is being presented today in Anaheim at the Honda Center. And she has been added to "Dancing With the Stars" for Season 16 of the ABC reality competition show.

Tell me about your first time on skates.

It was on a pond in Connecticut. There was something so exhilarating about it. It was a magical kind of freedom. After the first time, I wanted to learn to skate backwards, and that's what hooked me.

I begged and begged my mother about learning to skate backwards, and my mom signed me up for group lessons at age 8. After eight weeks of group lessons, I got gold stars, and that allowed me to have a scholarship for one free private lesson that was 15 minutes long, and I thought that was amazing. That's what led to more private lessons.

When did you know you wanted to be competitive?

I never discovered that. When I was 9, one of the other skating moms suggested to my mother that she sign me up for a competition in the middle of Central Park in New York called the Wollman Open. I didn't really understand what is was all about, but I had fun and won a silver medal.

I didn't know about competition or the Olympics until Peggy Fleming won in 1968. My mother looked after all of the competition stuff. I just skated. I didn't really love competition, but that was the only way to get better. You'd see more talent. My mom took charge of helping me improve and being competitive. There was no plan. It just kind of snowballed. I never thought I'd compete at the world level. I was just very passionate about it.

Did you feel as though your childhood was all about skating?

I was having a great time, and I never felt that it interfered with my childhood. I was shy, so this was my outlet. I never felt like I was sacrificing. In my teen years leading up to the Olympics, I loved having the excuse to skip out on parties because of skating. Partying wasn't my thing anyway. Mostly I hung out with other skaters. We were all buddies, so it's not like I missed out on socializing. I was really enjoying myself.

How did your life change after Innsbruck?

It was just so different than what you think it will be like. All of sudden there are interviews and press conferences and being wined and dined and endorsements, and I was so ill-equipped to deal with any of that. It was a whole different world. Ultimately my life has been so enriched by it.

What I remember is that it never really sinks in. You don't change, but a lot of what happens around you starts to change. I didn't know anything to say at these press conferences other than being able to tell people how to do a double axel.

I know what breast cancer can do to a person's life. You were diagnosed in 2007. What effect did it have on your skating?

When one gets that diagnosis, it's devastating. I had a lumpectomy, and they took some lymph nodes. Then they had to go back in and take some more lymph nodes. I was in the middle of a tour and trying to perform. The radiation treatment just zapped any energy for at least a year and a half. I'm also on a drug called tamoxifen.

For a couple of years I didn't feel like doing anything, but now that I'm feeling better I'm trying to be more active and eat healthy. I had to get back in shape for Stars on Ice. When I got the invitation, I realized I had a long way to go, and it was only two months out. It wasn't enough to get back to full strength. It's coming back now because of the tour. I'm definitely feeling stronger now.

health@latimes.com