There's a good chance that at least some of what you know about figure skating you learned from Scott Hamilton.
If you've watched skating on television in the last few decades, the exuberant Olympic gold medalist-turned cancer survivor-turned commentator and media personality is the guy you've been listening to.
He's enthusiastically explained, again and again, the difference between a triple axel and a triple lutz. He's talked viewers through everything from Tonya Harding's on-ice meltdown at the 1994 Lillehammer Games to Evan Lysacek's gold medal-winning Olympic performance in Vancouver in 2010.
And in a couple months, he'll be sitting inside the CenturyLink Center, headset on, excitedly telling people across the country about all the jumps and twists and falls on the ice in Omaha.
Hamilton, whose last long stay in Nebraska was for a week-long series of shows with the Ice Capades, will be the lead voice of NBC's coverage of the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The event, which will run from Jan. 20 to Jan. 27, serves as a qualifier for the World Championships. In Olympic years, it determines who competes in the Olympic Games.
For the 54-year-old skater, it will be another chance to convey the atmosphere and excitement of a live competition to people sitting in the quiet of their living rooms. And it's another opportunity to be up close to the sport that sparked a career as an author, motivational speaker, organizer of charitable groups and, perhaps most importantly, a performer.
This, after all, is the man who thrilled crowds as a young skater by adding back flips to his programs — and kept doing it into his 50s.
“Skating is a hybrid: It's an athletic event but it's more of an entertainment event. ... When I was competing, I felt like I had to compete in order to be an entertainer,” he said.
As a skater, Hamilton started picking up speed in the late 1970s, making the medal stand at the U.S. Championships and finishing in fifth place at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. But after taking the gold at nationals in 1981 — followed by gold at the World Championships — he was nearly unstoppable. For four straight years, he was at the top of the podium at nationals and worlds, and in Sarajevo in 1984, won an Olympic gold medal.
Hamilton turned professional in 1984 and began a decades-long career performing with touring skating shows, including one he started: Scott Hamilton's American Tour, which was later renamed Stars on Ice. He also began appearing on TV, first as a skating commentator and then on shows ranging from “Entertainment Tonight” to a game show called “Wanna Bet?” He was a contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice” and a celebrity juror on “Jury Duty.” In 2007, he hit the big screen in the Will Ferrell ice skating comedy “Blades of Glory.”
In the meantime, he's made his rounds on the motivational speaking circuit (making more than 30 appearances each year) and spends a significant amount of time on charity work, both for his own organization, the Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative (Cancer Alliance for Research, Education and Survivorship) and others. He survived cancer in 1997 and overcame a benign brain tumor in 2004.
Despite all of those efforts, Hamilton doesn't seem to have lost his excitement for the sport that started it all.
He's been there for all of the big moments, and easily rattles off the names and dates of skaters and events that left a mark. Asked about his favorite performances, he doesn't pause at all.
“Mine!” he exclaims.
But he has plenty of others to list. He's been wowed by skaters who will perform in Omaha, including defending gold medalist Jeremy Abbott and two-time national champion Alissa Czisny.
Then there's the big names, the ones who boosted the sport to a national audience in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I remember watching (Brian) Boitano come up, how he kind of chased me out of it, and the champion he became in the '88 season,” he said. “I got to call Kristi Yamaguchi's gold-medal winning first Olympics. Any of the firsts are kind of amazing.”
Those kind of firsts, he said, are what make watching skating particularly exciting.
In Omaha, he said, people should pay attention to the top, senior-level competitors, but they shouldn't forget about the younger skaters coming up through the novice and junior levels.
After all, it's a sport where stars can be made in four minutes on the ice. Each national championship, he said, is a chance for someone else to become the next big thing.
Hamilton thinks Gracie Gold, a 17-year-old skater competing in Omaha for the first time as a senior-level skater, could make for this year's moment.
“She's kind of one of those skaters you want to be able to say: 'I was there when it happened,'” he said. “Like when Janet Lynn took over from Peggy Fleming, and then Dorothy Hamill. It's a changing of the guard.”
Plus, Hamilton said, he likes the idea that the crowd can have a big impact on that moment. If a skater puts on a nearly flawless performance, the roar of the crowd might be enough to push him or her to the top of the medal stand.
“The louder the audience, the more they can inspire a judge to give a higher mark,” he said.
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