In 2013, Dorothy Hamill entered Dancing With the Stars. Partway through the series, she quit due to a lumbar cyst causing pain, numbness and weakness in her back and legs, which would have resulted in back surgery had she kept competing.
As a pro athlete – Hamill won the gold medal in women’s singles at the 1976 winter Olympics – pain has been a regular part of her life. Falling on the ice, repetition injuries and muscle fatigue are part of the game.
Life threw a couple of curve balls in there, too. In 1997 she suffered a herniated disk that led doctors to discover, after two years of chronic pain, that she also had osteoarthritis. In 2008 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a cutting-edge treatment plan at Johns Hopkins.
Through the years, she’s found that exercise and a healthy diet have been an integral part of pain management, and she’s devoted her life to helping others find a daily routine that works for them.
At 58, Hamill is focusing on her family – husband John MacCall and now-grown daughter Alexandra – her Figure Skating Fantasy Camps and her daily devotion to exercise and eating right.
Tell us about being diagnosed with osteoarthritis.
In 1999, I was experiencing pain in my neck, arms and fingers. I was soon diagnosed with osteoarthritis and knew I inherited it from my grandmother who suffered from it. My brother also has it. All the falling on the ice probably didn’t help. I started physical therapy and found exercises to ease pain in my hips and spine. Through gentle exercises, I’ve been able to manage the pain.
What are your tips for getting and staying active, especially for people with chronic pain?
I recommend being active every day and finding exercises that work for you. I have found walking and riding a recumbent bike are great pain management techniques. I also enjoy trail walks and hiking. It’s very soothing to be in nature. When I exercise I feel better, so it’s important to find movements that are good for your body but to make sure you are doing them correctly. It’s also important to listen to your body and not overdo it.
What’s your connection with Get Moving America?
Last year, I travelled with them spreading the message of getting out of your chair and moving. The organization promotes the importance of taking the first steps towards everyday exercise no matter who you are.
Are there any methods that you swear by?
I have been doing Gyrotonic for a year-and-a-half and it has really helped my chronic pain. It’s similar to yoga and Pilates, and it uses custom-designed equipment that focuses on spiraling, circling sequences designed to strengthen and stretch your body. It’s really working for me as a pain-management tool because it’s the only exercise I do that helps the chronic nerve pain in my lower back. It strengthens the muscles and stretches them in a good way.
It was developed in Eastern Europe for gymnasts and I feel like skaters and gymnasts put their bodies in very unnatural ways. Gyrotonic gets my body back to the way it’s supposed to be – the way I was born. It helps me feel lighter and stronger.
Aging and pain often go hand-in-hand. How do you deal with aging, particularly the reality of what your body can do now vs. what it could do when you were an Olympic medalist?
I stop myself from focusing on the fact that I’m getting older and can’t do everything I used to be able to do. Instead, I focus on eating healthy and keeping an active lifestyle. I try to move as much as possible, like taking the stairs, walking at airports, and parking in the farthest parking spot. If I can’t get out, sometimes I just go up and down the stairs in my house.
Was there a moment where you were in so much pain that you thought of giving up on skating?
Yes, I didn’t want to give up but I wasn’t sure I could continue. I was on tour and I couldn’t sleep at night because the pain was excruciating. So, I started getting deep-tissue massage, which was actually making my condition worse. A doctor told me I had osteoarthritis in my cervical spine.
I couldn’t take off on a jump, would compensate and kept falling. It got so bad couldn’t turn my head or lift my arm. It took me a year to get back.
I found a well-known sports medicine center and gradually started exercising and strengthening, which eventually reduced the chronic pain. Nerves take a long time to recover. Luckily I was not committed to tour during that time. I had to wear a cervical collar and it reminded me of my grandmother. I always picture her wearing one.
How did you cope with the setback?
I couldn’t stop because my daughter was young and I needed to look after her. So I focused on my daily physical therapy because it helped so much.
How are you doing today?
I’ve had little osteoarthritis flare-ups but now my biggest issue is a cyst in my lower back, which is what caused me to quit DWTS. I am trying pain management so I don’t have to have surgery. Right now, I have some numbness and weakness in my foot and toes but it’s not affecting my life bad enough for surgery. I’ve received several opinions but am waiting it out.
For more on Hamill’s life, read our 2014 interview: From America’s Sweetheart to Survivor