Strengthened by struggle, Scott Hamilton continues to inspire

Feb 01 2018
Posted by: Megan O'Neill
Strengthened by struggle, Scott Hamilton continues to inspire

By: Megan O'Neill


A tree without wind is one without strength. Scott Hamilton and a large glass dome in Arizona taught me that. 

In the late 1980s, a research facility called Biosphere 2 was constructed in the desert as a closed and controlled ecological system that attempted to sustain and study the life systems inside of it. The controlled environment allowed trees to grow as they were meant to, but as they matured, they fell over. The reason? No wind. 

Without resistance, trees were not building stress wood (higher strength tissue that’s produced by exposure to wind), and the root system was nothing more than shallow. Without the necessary forces, trees were left with little stress and little ability to thrive. Under the belief that living beings are strengthened by struggle, Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton tells this story.

“We need resistance. We need stress,” he says. “We need things pushing against us to form us and make us strong enough to be significant.” 

By the mid-80s, Scott Hamilton couldn’t lose. He was significant. He won the gold medal in every World Championship from 1981-84 and placed first in the Sarajevo Winter Olympics before turning professional. He was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990, was charismatic and passionate and captured the hearts of American viewers. He’s had an extensive career as an Olympic broadcaster, taken to the pen as a best-selling author and began a foundation dedicated to cancer research and survivorship.

All of that, he says, is the result of building muscles emotionally and physically to combat the forces and resistance that will always be present. 

The power of a strongly rooted optimist. 

Like the trees he mentions, strength was created from struggle. As a child, Hamilton thrived on the ice but suffered from a rare disorder that meant limited nutrient absorption and stunted growth. Then there was the diagnosis of testicular cancer; he beat the disease in 1997. There’s also the recurring pituitary brain tumors, both of which he survived in 2004 and 2010. And most recently, the benign pituitary brain tumor that has miraculously shrunk since 2016.

He’s said that he’s made a day job of collecting life-threatening diseases. But it’s Scott Hamilton, so bring on the wind. 

It’s been 34 years since his gold medal-winning, artistically brilliant and technically excellent performance in Sarajevo, and the 59-year-old’s resolve has only been reinforced. “I’ve met so many people who have just collapsed under scrutiny and pressure,” he says. “They’ve allowed all this external stuff to crush them. But without that external pressure, there’s no such thing as a diamond.”

Hamilton says this and somehow misses sounding clichéd. It’s authentic. It’s been the foundation of his journey as someone who welcomed change in order to win. The sport of figure skating continues to become more athletic, explosive and demanding, and with today’s scoring system, every moment of the program is judged. When Hamilton took the ice in Sarajevo, his second time competing on Olympic ice, he was the favorite simply because he welcomed change. And failure. 

“Once you start building those muscles, resiliency, and understanding that failure isn’t the end, it’s the beginning, it turns things upside down,” Hamilton says. “Failure is not devastating or humiliating, and it doesn’t preclude you from advancing.” 

Hamilton’s reflections make him a wealth of knowledge and talent for his students, skaters at the Scott Hamilton Skating Academy in Antioch. The Franklin, Tenn., resident and his staff of coaches offer lessons at the Ford Ice Center, where the academy is located in partnership with the Nashville Predators. Hamilton says it’s the fastest-growing at-capacity skating academy in the country. 

With about 430 participants, the classes serve the needs of both recreational and competitive skaters. There’s even a “Scott’s Tots” class, introductory lessons divided into four progressive levels for children with no prior skating experience (the 3-year-old tot class, he laughs, can be likened to “cats in a bathtub.")

In teaching, Hamilton is not of the participation trophy mind set. But understanding that each skater deserves to be cared for was vital as he built his staff. “The first thing I asked our coaches: ‘Do you remember every coach you had skating?’ They would all say ‘Yes.’ I’d say, ‘Do the math. Every single one of these kids that you’re coaching is going to remember you for the rest of their life.' And that’s not pressure; that’s this incredible opportunity to be significant in someone else’s life.”

When Hamilton first stepped into international competition, someone pulled him aside and said “it’s really nice that you’re starting to skate better, but you’re too short to ever be competitive on the international scene.” It was a world judge. 

For anyone in a high-stakes, competitive and subjective environment, it’s hard to run from comments that can linger beneath the surface, eating at the roots that provide you your strength. Hamilton, as he still does to this day, steps back, separates fact from opinion and determines what, if any, credence can be placed on negativity, failure or judgement. 

“It’s funny because when you start building new muscle — emotional, physical, spiritual muscle — you process failure differently,” he says. “You process other people’s opinions and destructive remarks differently. You’re able to edit them.”

It’s how he hopes to train through his academy, offering children the best opportunity to compete in the marketplace, know how to lose and know how to process failure so they can move on. The big-picture stuff. 

During the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Hamilton’s role with NBC will include that big picture stuff in a “professor emeritus” type role, reporting from various South Korean venues. It’s just one of many upcoming projects for Hamilton. Another is the release of his third book, Finish First: Winning Changes Everything, which will be available on Feb. 6. The Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation, established in 2014, will also continue in its nationwide movement, including the expansion of the Sk8 to Elimin8 Cancer program, a peer-to-peer fundraising opportunity that allows skaters to become philanthropists and raise money in honor or memory of those affected by cancer. This year, the program plans to hold about 20 events across the country. 

The CARES Foundation team will also be moving into new office space at the nearly built Provision Cares Center for Proton Therapy in Franklin. According to Provision Cares, who  is building and managing the facility, the new Franklin center will be open to all properly credentialed radiation oncologists, regardless of hospital affiliation, to bring proton therapy to Middle Tennessee.

Hamilton's CARES Foundation advocates for proton therapy as one of the treatment forms dedicated to changing the future of cancer, something he does not intend to shy away from. As always, Hamilton will find ways to endure the stress, endure the wind. As for his fans, there will continue to be few examples of persistence much better than him. 

“With some chipping and polishing and molding, with some time and care, we can be valuable in that we’re worth something to others," he says. "We can provide opportunity. It just takes getting rid of those things that hold us back over time.”  

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