Scott Hamilton recently spoke at the RootsTech, the largest family history and genealogy conference in the world, sponsored in part by FamilySearch.
Scott Hamilton is arguably the most popular figure skater of all times, a best-selling author and Olympic gold medalist, so he must have glided right through life without a hard fall, right?
Not so. In those days when newspapers took personal ads that included a short description of yourself, he joked with a friend that his would look something like this if he were to be 100% honest: “Short, bald, half-neutered, chemoed, surgically-repaired, retired male figure skater of unknown ethnic origin seeks beautiful woman for long walks, laughter and an interest in my hobby of collecting life-threatening illnesses.”
“Believe it or not,” he said, “I got a taker.”
“I’ had my darkest years when I was at the top of my good fortune,” he admits, but he came to believe that trials are actually “God’s scheduled opportunities for us,” and he speaks of his life, which has been riddled with challenges, with humor and faith and a good will that is contagious.
Scott was adopted at six weeks of age by “an amazing family.” “You know that’s me,” he jokes, pointing to a newborn photo of himself. “Same hairline.”
His parents wanted a big family, but every time his mother was pregnant, she’d carry the baby to full-term and then have a still-born. “My mom was the center of my universe. She was the best woman I’ve ever known,” he said. “She was the driving force in my family.”
His sister looked at him when his parents brought him home and said, “He’s not very cute. Can you take him back and exchange him for another baby?”
“A lot of people thought I looked like my Mom,” Scott said, “and she would say, you always resemble the ones you love the most.”
“We’d celebrate that I was adopted every day,” Scott said. Later in life when children would tease him about being adopted, he’d say, “Yes, I was adopted. My parents chose me. Your parents got stuck with whatever came out.”
He had a beautiful family situation, he said, with frequent interactions with his grandparents. Yet, the variety of illnesses that would plague him through his life began as a child. He said, “I always joke that the counter that’s in your kitchen that the children run under all the time, and you know that one day they are going to bash their heads because they’ve grown taller, that never happened to me.” He was sick and small and as a man only grew to be 5’4’’.
“I was on this never-ending journey of hospitals,” he said. His parents even went back to his birth parents to see if they could solve the health mystery, but it was a mystery that never was solved. Finally the doctors said, “We have no idea what’s going on. We just think you need to go home and live a normal life,” he said. “My parents were just shattered and exhausted from this four-year adventure” going from hospital to hospital.”
During these many hospital visits, Scott’s Mom slept in the chair in the corner of the room and was under a great deal of stress. Finally, the doctor suggested to them that they needed a morning off and that the university offered classes at a new ice skating rink every Saturday morning. “Put him in those classes and he will be well supervised,” the doctor assured them.
When he got to the rink, he was excited to be with well kids, but was still wearing a nose tube because of the supplement that he wouldn’t drink. No one would have figured him for a future gold medalist.
“As I started to skate my health got better. They couldn’t figure out why,” said Scott. “There was never a chance that I would be anything but a skater. That was going to be my life.
“The problem with that was I wasn’t very good. I failed tests all the time, and I didn’t have any focus. There was this thing called compulsory figures that I just couldn’t stand doing. It was boring and I hated it, so of course I wasn’t very good at it. I plodded along, and plodded along. I would do ok in a competition and then fall and only did all right.
“If you are a female figure skater and you medal, you’re really good. If you are male figure skater and you don’t medal you probably should be doing something else,” Scott said. “I was doing just OK and my parents, who were both school teachers, were doing everything they could to keep me in skating.”
Scott finally got to the point that he needed to go to a place where they had great coaching. It was time to make the quantum leap to the national championships. At the competition, he said wryly, “I rose to the occasion. I fell five times in front of 17,000 people.
“It was humiliating and devastating and I said, ‘I’m never going to do that again.’” He worked really hard that next year and only fell twice and came in next to the last. By the time he was getting to the junior level, he finally beat two guys. He came in seven out of nine.
It was then that his mother was diagnosed with cancer. “I knew that times were hard,” said Scott. “She had sacrificed everything for her children.” Under this new stress, his parents told him, “we’re broke.” You can keep skating one more year and make it great. When you graduate from high school, you can go on to the university for free, but they could afford no more skating.
That next year, Scott said, “weird things started happening. I decided to actually work.” He made it to the nationals and his Mom came, wearing a wig because the chemotherapy had taken all of her hair, and she had a sling on her left arm because she had a mastectomy. Still, she had a twinkle in her eye for pride for her son.
About a week before the national competition, Scott started landing his first triple spin, but on the night of the nationals, his coach said, “You are in a really good position to have your best finish ever. Don’t warm up the triple before you skate, because we don’t want to know if it is there or not.” Scott said, “I had this history of just wiping out all over the ice at nationals. The coach said, ‘If you feel like doing it, what have you got to lose? It’s your last competition. Do it.’”
Scott landed the first triple ever in competition and won the national title in what was to have been his last competition ever. However, his parents found sponsors for him so that he could continue.
The next year he was 18, sponsored, and in an apartment on his own. He went to the nationals and it was an “epic fail.” He fell hard on his first jump. He said, “I was undertrained. I was unprepared. I was lost. I was this clueless 18-year old kid. It was the worst thing ever, because that is the last time my mother would ever see me skate in competition. She lost her battle to cancer.
He had choices at that time. He could have dissolved into self-pity. Instead, “I decided I wanted to honor my mother in every single thing that I did. I took her on the ice with me every single day.” Scott worked hard and the very next year he went from being 9th in the country to being 11th in the world.
People stepped in to play the role of surrogate mothers and father for him, including his coach Don Laws who was with Scott training him every single day, not just in skating, but in confidence and integrity. “My preparation through him,” said Scott, “was to be ready for any circumstance under the harshest conditions. That ribbon around my neck at the Olympics was the gold medal he allowed me to win by his miraculous training.”
On March 17, 1997, Scott was diagnosed with cancer and then three years later on March 17, 2000, he met the woman who would become his wife—Tracy Hamilton. Every year they celebrate March 17 as the best/worst day. “I had been knocked down enough times and gotten up enough times to be able to recognize that the greatest gift I ever received was her.”
Having survived testicular cancer, Scott wasn’t sure if they could have a family, but then nine months and two days later, they gave birth to a son. He said, “As an adopted child, this was the first time I saw flesh of my own flesh, and I was staring directly into my own eyes and it was a feeling like no other. I’m a father. I’m starting my own family tree.”
As Scott and Tracy were raising this child, more health issues arose for him. This time it was a brain tumor on his pituitary gland. But they wanted another child desperately, so they got to work. They prayed and prayed hard. On the way home from a brain scan he got the text that indicated a baby was on its way. When he saw his second son’s flaming red hair, Scott said, “I must be Irish!” Ethnic origins cleared up.
Both boys were thriving and their lives were full and complete. Yet, as he was preparing for the 2010 Olympics, and an earthquake shattered Port au Prince, Haiti and shattered Tracy’s heart at the same time.
She just felt compelled to go help—and it was the beginning of what would be 27 trips to Haiti to help the people there. On one trip she met two children who would have little chance in life and, Scott said, “We could give them a great one. We knew that God was totally directing our steps and that we needed to do something, We prayed, and we prayed a lot.”
So for Scott, it came full circle. The boy who was adopted and loved his family grew up to be a man who adopted other children. “My goodness, all the mysteries of life,” he said.
He was given the incredible gift of a family and now he can pass that on. “Our past is the foundation for everything that comes of it. Without our past, our present has no meaning and our future is worthless.”
The key for this man who has fought several life-threatening diseases and continues to win is faith.
He said, “Cancer was a wonderful way for the Lord to set me back on the right path. All good things came out of cancer for me. I don’t dread it and I don’t regret it. It required faith on every level—the abundance, the blessing, the times where we get knocked down, where we get course corrected.
“I don’t make any decisions without faith, without praying on it. I don’t give a talk without praying first for permission and support. There’s not a thing I get into, like the Olympics where I am on TV an hour a day where I don’t feel like the wherewithal to pull that off without prayer,” Scott said.
“The answers are all there if we are open to it. I’ve really learned that the Lord has directed my steps and he’s been there every step of the way. There’s never been a time in my life when he hasn’t been there. I recognize that in everything that I do. Try to be light. Try to be salt. Try to share the good news and hopefully when people are in their deepest suffering, they will understand the only way out.”