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A Skater's Enduring Grace

Dorothy Hamill glides back into the ice arena

TWENTY years after she won an Olympic gold medal in figure skating, Dorothy Hamill is still in the sport she loves, searching for the right blend of opportunities.

Recently she was in Boston to participate in the Hershey's Kisses Figure Skating Challenge, an event that felt like an exhibition despite a team format.

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"I thought it would be fun to be with the youngsters, and I got the best ones on my team," said Hamill, who was joined on the "Celtics" by newly crowned world champions Michelle Kwan and Todd Eldredge.

It was the first time Hamill had skated in a United States Figure Skating Association-sanctioned event since 1976, when she struck Olympic gold as a 19-year-old in Innsbruck, Austria.

She said she was duly cautious about accepting the invitation. "I tried to get as much information as I could," she recalled. "What is the judging? Who are the teams? ... It wasn't an instant 'yes.' "

The two-night event, taped by ABC Sports, will air April 21, with Hamill's opening-night pratfall edited out. She landed on her seat while skating backward, then hurried to squeeze in a required jump. The faux pas was not the most becoming way for a former world champion to show off her considerable artistry, but Hamill took it in stride, even managing to comically check the "landing gear" after taking her final bows.

During a post-show interview, she made no excuses, but admitted that the experience had its unsettling aspects. "I looked over at the judges and realized some of them were older than me," she said, laughing. The house lights also presented an unexpected challenge. "It's kind of distracting when you can see people," she observed. Clearly, years of show skating have made her more comfortable with theatrically lit arenas.

Even greater distractions have occurred off the ice, where Hamill volunteered that she had been spending hours in phone conversations with lawyers. Recently she filed for bankruptcy after a series of financial setbacks. She's also going through a divorce.

These are trying times personally. Yet at the conclusion of a small group interview, Hamill exhibits the grace of a champion, extending a firm handshake and smile to each reporter.

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She looks much the way she did at the '76 Olympics, partly because of her trademark "wedge" hairstyle, which Life magazine called one of the most important fashion statements of the last 50 years. ("I'm going to do something very drastic with my hair soon," Hamill says.)

Hamill temporarily quit skating 15 months ago. "I didn't want to have anything to do with it I was so burned-out from my experience of owning an ice show," she says.

Several years ago she bought the Ice Capades, the bankrupt touring show she'd spent eight seasons with after winning the 1976 Olympic and world titles. It was a dream come true.

The possibilities of ensemble skating came to excite her as a member of the John Curry Skating Company in 1984. Curry was the '76 men's Olympic champion.

"I love watching solos," Hamill says, "but when I worked with John's company, I realized that one skater is beautiful and two skaters are even more beautiful. However, when you do ensemble with really fine skaters moving as one, there's nothing like it."

Artistically, the decision to acquire the Ice Capades led to a production of "Cinderella." Running the show was not easy, though, especially for the mother of a five-year-old facing union troubles, mounting expenses, and the responsibility for two regional troupes. Last year, Hamill and husband Ken Forsythe sold the Capades.

Her sabbatical ended last October when the promoters of the Legends on Ice asked her to fill in for injured Katarina Witt. "I knew eventually I wanted to skate again but didn't think it would be so soon," says the four-time world professional champion (1984-87).

Although she'd only done a little biking and roller-blading to keep in shape, she boldly accepted the invitation to perform 10 days later. Encouraged by her reentry, she plans to do between five and 10 events or shows a year. This is in addition to serving as a broadcasting commentator for FOX and other skating-related assignments, such as hosting PBS's "An Evening of Championship Skating," airing May 8.

Hamill says she finds it's difficult to focus on skating "because there's always something that takes precedence over practice." Raising daughter Alexandra ranks No. 1. "Being a mom is really the most important thing right now," she says.

Mother and daughter recently watched the world championships on TV. After seeing a "wonderful" women's competition, daughter Alexandra sat down to write Michelle Kwan a note.

"My daughter put all these little sparkles on it, then had me sign a picture of myself to give to Michelle," says Hamill, who adds with facetious good humor: "Just what she needs."

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