Olympic Champion Scott Hamilton is Not First (and why we love him for it)

by Marie Notcheva

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Sarajevo Olympics, 1984. With Canada’s Brian Orser (left) and Czechoslovakia’s Jozef Sabovcik 

Two-time Olympian and 1984 gold medalist Scott Hamilton is happy being in second place, and he delights in sharing the secret of his contentment. The semi-retired figure skater has a vibrant faith in Christ, Whom he credits for sustaining him not only on the heights of the medal podium, but in the depths of cancer treatments; failed relationships; and self-doubt.

As hard as it is for me to believe, it was 31 years ago that I watched Scott take the gold medal in Sarajevo. As a wide-eyed middle school kid, I was fascinated by the Cold War drama of East German Katerina Witt vs. American Rosalynn Sumners; the impossible heights of Scott’s and Canadian Brian Orser’s triple jumps and Russian splits; and the incredible beauty and pageantry of the sport of figure skating. I was hooked.

We all were rooting for Scott to win – not because his long program was the best (by his own admission, it wasn’t a clean skate); but partly because he was just so darn likeable. That shouldn’t be a factor in determining athletic championships, but in figure skating – the most subjective sport there is – we fans cheer hardest for the most authentic-seeming competitors.

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Scott in the 1980’s

As an aside, one podium moment that made a great impression on my 12-year-old self was Rosalynn’s graceful demeanor taking the silver medal next to Katerina Witt. It is hard for today’s generation to understand the pressure and tension of certain sports during the Cold War, and how much was at stake. As disappointed as she had to be, Ros smiled sweetly and was very gracious during the post-medal ceremony press conference towards her arch rival – no hint of the diva-like behavior that often characterizes high-level skating.

But I digress. The fact of the matter is, Scott Hamilton was, and is, a Really Cool Guy© – before, during and after his National, Olympic and World Championship wins. However, that fact completely misses the point and he would probably find it patronizing – because Scott wants the world to know that he is Second – second to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Recently, friends of mine in Albania translated and subtitled Scott’s “I Am Second” video for use in a Christian students’ meeting….a fact Scott himself found so cool he sent a personal video message. He seemed as tickled to know he has friends in Albania as a student was to know they have “a brother who is an Olympic champion”. It was an extremely thoughtful and much-appreciated gesture.

The Backstory – and New Life

One lesson I learned as a student was never to “idolize” sports stars or other celebrities, even “Christian celebrities”. More than elsewhere, we Americans do tend to put our “sports darlings” on pedestals; granting them near saint-like status. This is particularly true of female figure skaters and gymnasts. Then, when the tabloids report unflattering news about them, we have the nerve to be collectively surprised. Our idols have “fallen”, because we forget that sports stars, (while exceptionally talented), are still flawed human beings with clay feet like the rest of us. Many athletes are, indeed, truly good role models and have given back; helped others; and deserve personal respect and accolades – including Scott Hamilton. But they all have had personal journeys and setbacks. Scott is transparent enough to share these with his fans, and point them to the lessons he’s learned along the way.

In 1999, Scott published his autobiography, “Landing It: My Life On and Off the Ice” (Kensington; 340 pgs.) I read this at the time, and it was a wonderful, in-depth and personal look at his rise as a figure skater; the details of touring and competitive skating, and his relationships with other champion skaters. The reader really got to know Scott personally, as he transparently shared about even highly personal details of his life. Diagnosed with cancer the previous year (while on tour with Stars on Ice), he included details about his treatment, and the support of other skaters. One line in particular stands out from “Landing It” – Scott mentioned fellow champion skater, Paul Wylie, “who is very religious, asking how he could pray for [him]”. Scott described himself as not being particularly religious, but was touched by Paul’s concern.  “Landing It” was a very enjoyable memoir which any skating fan would enjoy.

And then……Scott became a believer; met and married the love of his life Tracie; and a benign brain tumor was discovered. With his trademark self-deprecating humor, he added this to what he calls his “personal collection of life-threatening illnesses”. And then, he wrote another book: “The Great Eight: How to Be Happy (When You Have Every Reason to be Miserable)”. In this second book, targeted to a more mainstream-audience, Scott illustrates through anecdotal experiences and biblical principles, what helps to keep his mind and emotions on an even keel – and live a satisfying, successful life of joy, no matter the circumstances.

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Biblical yet Relatable

What makes “The Great Eight” so good is that Scott’s writing is personable, down-to-earth and relatable, but not too heavily “doctrinal” which might put off some readers. Released by Christian publisher Tommy Nelson, Scott’s message remains faithful to Scripture; yet the reader never feels “preached to”. As a biblical counselor, I am used to reading tomes that connect “orthodoxy” with “orthopraxy” (doctrine with practice), and subconsciously screen all books for how true they are to Scripture. While the title has a “positive thinking” connotation, Scott demonstrates throughout his “eight principles” how correct and positive thinking is, indeed, the fruit of a renewed mind.

Scott does not write like John Macarthur, or Charles Spurgeon. He writes like a friendly figure skater who really loves his family, God, and fans – and we appreciate him for it. And he is thoroughly biblical, without being overtly theological. In Chapter Two, “Trust Your Almighty Coach”, he makes a strong case for the sovereignty of God – although he never uses the term. He shows, through his own difficult life experiences (including childhood illness, failed relationships, and even a growth-inhibiting brain tumor he was born with) how nothing is coincidence in God’s grand plan.

“The divinely-scripted pattern goes back to the very beginning of my life when I was an unwanted pregnancy and was adopted by my parents. I went from being somebody’s unwanted orphan to being a prized child who couldn’t have had more love showered upon him……Trust your Almighty Coach, and beautiful things can happen.”

In subsequent chapters, he exhorts the reader to embraces losses and failure as opportunities for growth.

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Touring in the late ’90’s, before his cancer diagnosis

I especially enjoyed Chapter Four, “Keep the Ice Clear”. In it, Scott warns the reader against his lifelong Achilles heel – people pleasing (what the Bible calls “fear of man”). “Pleasing others may seem like a noble, selfless pursuit, but when taken to an extreme, it is a recipe for unhappiness,” he writes. As transparent as he is a polished performer, Scott tells us about the strain his unwillingness to confront others in love has put on some of his most treasured relationships. He then goes on to demonstrate the connection between positivity, happiness and smiling throughout trials – and being happy. James 4:7-8 reminds us to “resist the devil”, he writes; and reminds us that God gave us the gift of humor to ward off avoid negativity. A healthy dose of humor, and being able to laugh at yourself is also key:

“In 1978, I put together a routine to the tune “Short People,” by Randy Newman. There I was, nineteen years old and all of five-foot-nothing, skating around the rink to this song that proclaimed “short people got no reason to live.” The crowd just ate it up. …..If you are the kind of person who takes yourself too seriously, then pray that you are never the subject of a parody sketch on Saturday Night Live.” P. 113

Nature abhors a vacuum, and happiness doesn’t germinate simply by refusing to give in to negativity. Scott rightly points out that practicing one’s true passion – regardless of setbacks – increases day-to-day satisfaction. Of course, for him this meant ice skating – including in middle age, following his cancer treatment. As much as I love skating, his advice resonated with me as a writer. Whether a book contract or a blog post well-written and published, I enjoy the same deep satisfaction from writing as he does from landing triple axels. It was sage advice to anyone – don’t just sit there; do something to hone your craft. The satisfaction of a job well done after investing hard work is part of cultivating positivity.

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Scott and son Maxx at 2015 show

Putting Yourself Last

Fatherhood was one way Scott learned the value of putting others and their needs above his own, and the example of his mother Dorothy’s selflessness was a model he learned early on. Again, while Scott doesn’t quote Scripture to illustrate this beautiful principle, he gets the message across by sharing self-deprecating anecdotes from his youth. After “The Great Eight” was published, Scott and his wife Tracie adopted two Haitian children. Tormented by the plight of children orphaned by the earthquake in 2010, they became parents of four (the Hamiltons already had two biological sons, Aidan and Maxx).

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The Hamilton family in 2014. L to R: Aidan, Jean-Paul, Tracie, Scott, Evelyne and Maxx

Scott has also given back by establishing his own foundation, the Scott Hamilton C.A.R.E.S. Initiative (Cancer Alliance for Research, Education and Survivorship). Scott has spoken at and done a tremendous amount of charity work to help cancer sufferers, and radiates caring – even for people he’s never met. An empathetic friend to family, fans and strangers alike, he himself recognizes the importance of compassion and empathy:

“I firmly believe that God made us in His image, and that is a perfect one….One of the biggest barriers to people feeling happy about themselves is that they feel inferior, or shameful and bad about their looks or something in their past. But once you see yourself as a truly perfect creature created in God’s image who only needs to get in touch with that, the pressure of all those negative feelings lifts and you can move on. It is life changing.” (p. 176)

This is not some vapid “self-affirmation” nor a denial of our sinful condition – Scott deals with how he handled guilt over past sins earlier in the book. It is an embrace of grace, and a realization of our identity in Christ – the One to Whom Scott joyfully points. Scott Hamilton was the most enjoyable male figure skater ever to grace the ice, and he is a truly inspiring brother in Christ. His book, as well as his personal gesture to my friends and me, is a true encouragement.

Scott’s website is here: http://www.scotthamilton1984.com/

 

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