Scott Hamilton Has Progressed by Leaps and Bounds from a Stunted Child to a Skating Champ

updated 03/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

At age 9, Scott Hamilton finally felt well enough to attempt regular exercise, even sports. Soon after giving gymnastics a tumble, he discovered something special in ice skating, an almost chemically gratifying joy in the coolness of the rink and the way the air coursed through his troubled body, enabling him to breathe as never before. In addition, he recalls proudly, "People said I had natural ability. I had finally found something I could do as well as everyone else."

To say the least. Today, at 24, Scott Hamilton is a superb figure skater. A three-time national champion, he is expected to capture his third consecutive world championship in Helsinki this week, perhaps as prelude to winning Olympic gold in 1984. Not bad for a young man who, as a child in Toledo, Ohio, seemed destined for an invalid's life. Or worse.

Scott's trauma began at 5, when his parents, Ernest and Dorothy, discovered that he had abruptly stopped growing. The Hamiltons—he an associate professor of biology at Bowling Green State University, she an assistant professor of family relations—had adopted Scott when he was 6 weeks old. They took their ailing son to the University of Michigan Hospital, where they were told he suffered from "malabsorption syndrome" (impaired digestion of food). Ernest remembers that his son was put on a "crazy diet," which forbade dairy products and "meant he literally starved for the next two or three years." Then, says Ernest, "We were told he would only have six months to live."

Dorothy whisked her son off to the famed Children's Hospital in Boston, where doctors now diagnosed his ailment as Shwachman's syndrome, a disease that prevents the proper digestion of food, thereby stunting growth. Treatment was largely a matter of intravenous nourishment with vitamins and food supplements. The cure took, but the illness left its imprint, both physically and emotionally. Dwarfed by his peers (he is 5'3", 110 pounds today), Scott grew up fearing confrontations, but at the same time he learned to turn his size to advantage. "Being short," he says laughing, "you can really take people to the wall. You know a big guy isn't going to hit you in front of a lot of people." He also developed an engaging sense of humor about himself. "I go into a department store to buy a new blazer; I get the one with the duck on the pocket."

Figure skating helped ease Scott into adolescence. It gave him standing and a much needed set of friends. At the Wagon Wheel Figure Skating Club in Rockton, Ill., a future Olympian named Gordy McKellen treated him "like a little brother" and affectionately dubbed him "Peanut." Things were fine until 1977, when Scott was 19. Dorothy Hamilton, who had devoted herself to curing her son's illness, died of cancer. Scott was devastated. "I felt so guilty," he says. "She was so giving and terrific, and I didn't do my best as a skater."

It was at this point that Hamilton dedicated himself to the strict regime of the world-class figure skater. In 1977, the last competition Dorothy saw, he had finished ninth in the Nationals. In 1978 he won a spot on the U.S. World Team. In 1981 he beat David Santee of Janesville, Wis. and became the U.S. men's champion. "Man, I had arrived," he thought. "I did it." Alas, once more tragedy shadowed him. Ernest had a stroke. Scott remembers saying to himself, "When is it going to end? Can I have something good and be happy without something bad?"

Fortunately, the stroke was not severe, and Scott weathered his descent into self-pity. Four weeks later, at the world championships in Hartford, Conn., he went head to head with archrival Santee, and won. The plucky little man with the duck on his blazer pocket liked to say he had been "playing catch-up" his entire life. Now he had arrived indeed.

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