November 2009 Issue
The (Ice) Show Must Go On
Scott Hamilton, Olympic gold-medal-winning skater, cancer survivor and philanthropist, turns adversity into remarkable opportunities.
In November 2008, Scott Hamilton asked his good friend Kristi Yamaguchi a favor. The Bowling Green native and his fellow Olympian had just co-hosted an annual skating show at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena to benefit the Scott Hamilton Cancer Alliance for Research, Education and Survivorship (CARES) Initiative at the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute, and Hamilton was eager to secure her services for the fundraiser’s 10th anniversary in 2009.
“Will you come back next year?” he asked.
“I will if you will,” Yamaguchi replied.
The seemingly innocuous answer was a challenge. Yamaguchi had skated in the show; Hamilton had not.
In fact, the figure-skating icon hadn’t performed in front of a crowd since March 2004, just months before Clinic doctors discovered he had a tumor on his pituitary gland. A single high-tech radiation treatment reduced the benign inoperable growth to a mere 5 millimeters, eliminating the headaches, blurred peripheral vision, lethargy and lack of strength he had experienced. But Hamilton had remained off the ice, ostensibly so he could concentrate on raising sons Aidan and Maxx, now 6 years and 22 months respectively, with wife Tracie. He now admits that he simply didn’t want to push his aging body and live with the discomfort most professional athletes tolerate. As a result, he gained 17 pounds and lost muscle mass, stamina and flexibility.
“I was destroying my health,” the 51-year-old states as he sits in his suburban Nashville home. “Even though I was in the gym, nothing does it for me but skating. And in order for me to take skating seriously, to get the health benefits that I really needed, I had to have a goal. It had to be more than just showing up at the rink and pushing myself around.”
Twenty-five years after winning his Olympic gold medal, that goal is to perform at the 10th annual “An Evening With Scott Hamilton and Friends” ice show Nov. 7 at Quicken Loans Arena. The mere announcement that he will skate at the event, which has raised $10 million to date, has already generated plenty of media buzz. But Hamilton’s decision to mount a comeback in such a fashion resonates in other ways. Just as skating has proven to be a great healer in his life, cancer has turned out to be a great motivator — he’s developed a remarkable knack for turning his bouts with it into amazing opportunities. It was his well-publicized battle against Stage 3 testicular cancer in 1997, for example, that spawned his second career as a philanthropist, cancer-patient advocate and motivational speaker/author.
“I’ve always responded better to challenge than to success,” he explains. “Certain milestones around my health issues have reset my path to lead me to a better place.”
Cancer may have begun shaping Scott Hamilton’s life as early as the age of 2, when he developed a mysterious ailment that sapped his energy and stunted his growth. His parents, Bowling Green State University professors Ernest and Dorothy Hamilton, had adopted their middle child when he was six weeks old and had no family history to suggest a plausible cause to the baffled physicians who examined him. Hamilton now believes the problem was caused by the brain tumor, which may well have been present at birth.
“It normally shows itself by a lack of growth early in life,” he explains, citing resources he received after his diagnosis. “But in every brain scan I had during my [treatment for] testicular cancer, it never showed up. And in the early ’60s, doctors didn’t have the technology to find it.”
After six years of misdiagnoses and unsuccessful treatments, a specialist suggested the Hamiltons simply let their son lead a normal life. Shortly thereafter, the boy enrolled in skating classes at a new rink on the BGSU campus. He enjoyed the sport and, miraculously, his symptoms began to dissipate. Although he stopped growing at 5 feet 3-1/2 inches, he enjoyed a happy adolescence hanging out at Finders Records, Crankers Hamburgers and Pisanello’s Pizza when he wasn’t on the ice. Childhood friend Dave Meek says Hamilton never held a grudge against those who ridiculed his participation in a female-dominated sport, a fact evidenced when he was honored at a hometown winter festival in February.
“Those same people who called him a sissy were the first ones wanting an autograph,” Meek says. “If I was Scott, I wouldn’t have given them the time of day. But Scott treated them just like everything was fine.”
Hamilton was training with former Olympic pairs champion Pierre Brunet by the age of 13. But he admits to consistently underachieving on the ice until his mother died of breast cancer in 1977. The loss spurred him to work harder, to honor the sacrifices she had made to finance his training. He finished fifth in the men’s figure-skating competition at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, then won four consecutive national and world titles before taking the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. Those amateur successes in turn were parlayed into an impressive career as a TV commentator, professional competitor and performer, and co-founder/co-producer of “Stars on Ice,” a showcase of figure-skating champions that tours the country each year.
“My mother set a great example of bravery, dignity, humor,” Hamilton says softy. “I thought about her every moment, going through my cancer. I wanted to handle it as well as she handled hers.”
Hamilton’s own battle with the disease began with a trip to the hospital during a tour stop in Peoria, Illinois. A doctor ordered a CAT scan after the skater arrived in the emergency room doubled over in pain; he found a large abdominal mass. Hamilton’s then-
manager at Cleveland-based International Management Group suggested he head to the Cleveland Clinic for treatment immediately. After 12 weeks of chemotherapy, doctors removed the shrunken tumor and testicle that produced it, both of which had been rendered cancer-free by treatment.
Hamilton wanted to repay the Clinic for returning him to health by doing something more enduring than writing a check. Now-retired Clinic oncologist Dr. Ron Bukowski recalls discussing ideas for the organization that would become CARES with his former patient at a 1998 dinner party. “Scott genuinely wanted to help people,” says the CARES medical director emeritus. From the beginning, Hamilton has given more than his name. He attends annual leadership meetings, appears at patient functions and helps plan every ice-show benefit, including lining up the talent (see box, right). According to Bukowski, he’s even served as a mentor in CARES’ 4th Angel program, which pairs cancer patients with survivors who provide emotional support during treatment.
“He has a very nice, empathetic sense for someone who’s struggling,” Dr. Derek Raghavan, chairman and director of the Taussig Cancer Institute, concurs. “We’re very, very lucky to have him. It’s surprising how often people just forget the efforts that were made to help them. Scott hasn’t ever forgotten.”
In 2000, Hamilton began dating Tracie Robinson, a nutritionist he met through a mutual friend backstage at a “Stars on Ice” show. Hamilton says the native Tennessean, a devout Christian, renewed his self-confidence in maintaining a relationship and strengthened his faith in God. He proposed to her from the ice at the November 2002 CARES benefit, and they married in January 2003. Aidan was born exactly nine months later.
“We were so in love and so excited, knew that we wanted to start a family,” Tracie says of their plunge into domesticity. The couple moved from Los Angeles to Nashville in May 2006 so the children could grow up near their mother’s extended family in a more kid-friendly environment.
Like most things in Hamilton’s life, the return from “self-unemployed” father to professional athlete hasn’t been easy. In August, he reached a plateau in his progress after months of basically relearning to skate, a boring process that tested his patience. “I’m trying to rotate jumps, and my technique is off,” he grouses good-naturedly. And just as he expected, his body aches constantly from practice sessions and grueling workouts with a personal trainer — aches he now embraces.
“I’m in agony,” he allows, “but it’s that good, sore pain.”