The opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics were held Friday. I’ll probably watch some of the events of the Olympics over the next couple of weeks. I enjoy some of the competitions, like downhill skiing and speed skating. But I’m really not into some events, like figure skating. And it seems like figure skating dominates most of the television time.
Figure skating was a lot more interesting a couple of decades ago. You had Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding slugging it out for medals. (Tonya took that slugging it out part literally.) You also had male skaters, like Scott Hamilton, making the men’s competition interesting. And Scott’s story is interesting. I was reminded about that recently when I heard an interview with Hamilton on the radio. I was also reminded how a person can overcome failure and obstacles, and still be a success.
Scott Hamilton was unwanted when he was born in 1958. He was adopted when he was six weeks old by Ernest and Dorothy Hamilton. When Hamilton was two years old he contracted a mysterious illness that caused him to stop growing. After numerous tests and several wrong diagnoses, the disease began to correct itself. Doctors believe that the strenuous physical exercise in his skating helped Scott overcome his physical problems. Years later, it would be determined that a congenital brain tumor would be the root cause of his illness.
But Scott would never grow to full height. During his competition days, he was 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed a little over a hundred pounds. His parents thought that ice skating would help him develop his muscles and coordination. Scott really took to skating, and its training and competition. But he wasn’t an immediate success. In his first competition Scott finished dead last. He did better in his next event, where he finished ninth; that’s out of ten competitors.
But he didn’t let those failures stop him. In 1980, Hamilton finished third in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, earning him a place on the U.S. Olympic team. He finished in fifth place at the 1980 Winter Olympics. His breakthrough performance was in the 1981 U.S. Championships. Scott never lost an amateur competition again. In 1981 he won gold in the World Figure Skating Championships. He won gold again in 1982 and 1983 at the U.S. and World Championships, and won the gold medal at the 1984 Winter Olympics. He won that year’s World Championships and then turned professional in April 1984.
Not all of Scott Hamilton’s competitions have been on ice. In 1997, Hamilton was successfully treated for testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen. He was diagnosed with benign brain tumors in 2004, 2010 and 2016, and some treatments have involved intricate surgery. The same determination that kept him competing as a skater kept him fighting during the battles with cancer.
Scott estimates he fell down 41,600 times in his career—and got up 41,600 times. “That made me understand the process of facing a challenge,” he says. When he received his cancer diagnosis, “that didn’t make me happy. So I learned the process of getting better. Chemo, break, surgery, break, back to life. I can do that. It was not any different than failing a figures test and getting better at it. I just broke it down step by step, and I became more successful.”
Scott now lives in Franklin, Tennessee, with his wife, Tracie, with their four children. If you watch any of the figure skating during the Winter Olympics, you will probably hear Scott on the commentary. And now you will know a little more about him. Falling down doesn’t make you a failure. It’s only when you don’t get back up. Scott Hamilton has fallen many times in his life. And he has gotten back up every time.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]