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Hamill lends helping hand to Flatt

Olympic champion hopes to help teen achieve her dreams

Rachael Flatt and Dorothy Hamill are enjoying their mentoring relationship.
Rachael Flatt and Dorothy Hamill are enjoying their mentoring relationship. (Tara Modlin)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(06/18/2009) - Since she began mentoring Rachael Flatt this spring, it's been the question on everyone's lips: will Dorothy Hamill ask her protégé to get a "Hamill wedge?"

"I'd never do that," laughed Hamill of her signature '70s haircut. "The thing I really don't want people to think is I am going to try to change Rachael, try to have her do what I did."

That doesn't mean Hamill isn't up for giving some gentle advice.

"I would love to take her to a hairstylist and find something comfortable for her; all the girls are wearing buns these days," said Hamill, who is 52 but looks far younger.

"Rachael doesn't have to do something that's the same as what everyone else is doing. It's important she find what is comfortable and works for her. If you feel comfortable, ultimately your performances come to life."

Helping to add vivacity and charm to Flatt's technically strong programs is Hamill's main goal. The 1976 Olympic champion saw Flatt win her second consecutive U.S. silver medal in Cleveland this January and was instantly taken with the 16-year-old's competitive fire and drive.

"I didn't even know about the mentor program," she remembered. "I heard about it from Brian Boitano in passing; he mentioned he was mentoring Alissa Czisny and Ryan Bradley, and I thought that was terrific.

"Then I watched the ladies at nationals and I was really impressed [with Rachael]. I remember thinking, 'what a fresh, beautiful face.'"

Hamill gave Flatt a standing ovation, which caught the eye of the skater's coach, Tom Zakrajsek, an old friend of Hamill's who performed in her Nutcracker on Ice tour.

"Apparently Tom thought, 'this is the person who would be great to mentor Rachael,' and I got a call out of blue from Mitch Moyer [U.S. Figure Skating's senior director of athlete high performance] about it," Hamill said.

"I'm still learning and figuring out how I can be of help, not just say 'do this' or 'don't do that.' Rachael is very talented. There's just a different style about her, which is nice to see. She wants to be original."

Not only is Hamill mentoring Flatt, but she and fellow Olympian Peter Carruthers, who won the 1984 silver medal in pairs with his sister Kitty, were on hand at U.S. Figure Skating's "Champs Camp" last week to discuss their Olympic experiences with athletes on track to qualify for the 2010 or 2014 Games.

"Sometimes I still think, 'wow, I'm talking to Dorothy Hamill, I can't believe it,'" said Flatt. "She's been so nice, so supportive. I'm just looking forward to working with her all this season."

Hamill is clear about the details of the relationship: her role is to supplement and reinforce what Zakrajsek and Flatt's choreographer, Lori Nichol, are imparting to the skater.

"Nobody is better than Tom in teaching technique and jumps, and Lori Nichol is brilliant and a wonderful match for Rachael," Hamill said. "What I would like to do is build on what they do, and just be an advocate for Rachael and what she is feeling and thinking.

"She is so smart and so positive. She really doesn't need any help, she just needs to know what to expect. She has done so much more than I ever did at her age."

Hamill is being modest. At age 16, she placed second at the 1973 U.S. Figure Skating Championships to Janet Lynn and fourth at worlds. The following year, she won the first of three successive U.S. titles and the first of two successive world silver medals. In 1976, she became America's sweetheart with wins at both the Olympics and worlds.

What she readily admits is she was never a serious student, preferring her time on the ice to time hitting the books. That's in contrast to Flatt, a multi-tasker who wins her medals while excelling in advanced placement (AP) classes and maintaining a perfect grade-point average.

"Rachael is such a good student and she has the opportunity to do anything she wants to do; it is really important she focus on school," Hamill said. "And there is the other side of it, the physical and mental side of competing at the Olympics. You can only do that for a limited time. She has such a great brain she can do other things when she's older.

"It's a fine line, continuing your studies and focusing as much as she can on school work, but also realizing she has a great shot this year [for the Olympics] and a good, strong shot four years after that. Not that I was ever a good student but I sure know how hard it was for me to give time to both."

Hamill hopes to spend some quality time with the skater later this summer.

"I got a copy of Rachael's schedule so I'm going to try to go up [to Toronto] when she's working with Lori a little bit," she said. "Lori and I worked together in John Curry's skating company so I have an idea where she's coming from, the tiny little things that take a lot of work and training.

"And I would really love for Rachael to come to Nantucket, where I've been spending my summers. It's a fantastic rink. [When I competed] I always loved to get out of where I was training in the summer, out of the pressure cooker; it's nice to be able to train in a different setting, see different faces and have a different person to talk to. It's not like I have anything to teach her that Tom and Lori can't, but I want to help them."

It will mark a return to the ice for Hamill, who makes her year-round home in Baltimore. Since announcing her breast cancer diagnosis in early 2008, she hasn't skated much.

"I haven't performed in over a year; you know, there's not too much going on in the old lady show skating world these days," she laughed. "For a while I didn't feel too well physically from some medication I was on. Now I'm better; I'm trying to find a balance of how much I can do.

"Nantucket is absolutely glorious. I can't imagine a more perfect world. The rink there is a great facility in summer; it's perfectly quiet and nice, just a cool place to be and people are lovely. I can walk out front door, get coffee, walk the dogs and then skate."

Hamill recently revived her Web site with information on a skating fantasy camp for adults in Nantucket this September. She got the idea from experiences with her daughter, Alex.

"I sent my daughter to camp years ago, and she really didn't have the greatest time, she was homesick," she remembered. "And I thought, 'this is great, here I am spending all this money. Maybe I'm the one who should go to a camp.' And I met a lot of adults who felt the same. So I thought, 'I'll put together a skating camp.'"

She envisions the five-day camp as suitable "for all levels of skaters, and not just women. It's being held in a storybook place; everything is included, you just have to get yourself to Nantucket. Carruthers will also be there, and we'll be talking about our experiences, both amateur and pro."

Hamill has more conflicted feelings about her book, "A Skating Life," published by Hyperion Press in 2007. It openly discussed not only her lifelong battle with depression and two failed marriages, but her complicated relationship with her parents.

"In a way, it was cathartic," she said. "But I certainly have mixed feelings. It was a lot more work [than I thought]; we had 18 months, which didn't turn out to be nearly enough. One of the problems is I worked with my co-author [Deborah Amelon], who is a good friend of mine, over the telephone and she was on the west coast while I was on the east. She'd be typing and I'd be ready for bed, so my tone and my inflection didn't always come through.

"I would have liked to talk more about all of the many really wonderful things about my training and competitive years, but you know, publishers don't always want all of that. For me it was important to tell people that as glamorous and wonderful as it all was, it took a giant sacrifice -- not from me, but from my family."