In the public's eyes, skater Dorothy Hamill was "America's sweetheart." In 1976, she was the perky 19-year-old with the famous hairdo "the wedge" who won an Olympic gold medal for her dazzling figure skating. Her life seemed to glide as easily as her skates. But as Hamill, now 51 and the mother of a 19-year-old daughter, reveals in her frank new book, A Skating Life: My Story, that behind the scenes, she was in the grip of serious depression, which ran through her family. TIME's Andrea Sachs spoke with Hamill, who was in Minneapolis for her book tour.
TIME: In your book, you reveal for the first time that you've had problems with depression. Why did you decide to talk now?
Hamill: Mostly because I'm at a comfortable place in my life, and it's something that I've dealt with, something that's been in my family on both my mother's side and my father's side. I think it's important for people to be more aware of it, to know that you can get help and still carry on and lead a fairly normal life, be successful and pursue your dreams. It's taken me a long time to not be embarrassed or ashamed. In spite of it all, I was still able to win an Olympics and have a career and a family.
Do you still experience depression?
I have it under control, but I keep monitoring it. I've gotten to the point where I really know when I dip and have some of those feelings. But so far I think I've got it pretty much managed.
Are you taking medication now?
I am. Yes.
You write about how your parents self-medicated by drinking.
Yes. I think it's a very common thing, especially that generation. My dad would come home from work and they'd have their cocktail hour. My father had two brothers who committed suicide. [There's] a lot of alcoholism on both my mother's side and my father's side, so there is certainly a huge stigma with that. And also people who were depressed or not able to function would [be] sent away. I just remember my mother at times, we'd be so frustrated because we wouldn't understand why she was acting the way she was. Now as a parent I can see a lot of it, and also with my own depression, what my parents must have gone through not really knowing or being diagnosed.
You write that your mother wasn't in the arena when you won your Olympic gold medal. Do you attribute that to her emotional problems?
I don't know. I'm actually not exactly sure if that was the reason. I suppose it could be. I remember my coach, Carlo Fassi, always saying to people, 'Oh, Dorothy's mother makes her nervous and Dorothy never skates well when her mother is in the arena.' It's true. I could just sense when my mother was at a practice session. I could just feel her eyes boring holes through me. I could look up and just tell from the way she was sitting that she was either upset with me or not happy or I wasn't doing something right. So part of it was that. I think she didn't want Carlo Fassi to blame her if something went wrong. The other thing is that she would get so nervous that she couldn't even sit still. She'd be pacing back and forth. But in many ways it's still odd to me that after [changing] her whole life so that I could skate, [making] sure I had the right coaches, driving me [to practice] and being up earlier than I was, here was what we were all working for and she wasn't able to be there for those four minutes in the arena. But I can understand it a lot more now.
You started skating at eight and a half. What's it like to find your calling so early?
It's not the norm. It's rather unusual, I think, and it's been tough for my daughter to find something that she loves. So I am so happy that not only did I find it so early in life, I still have it. It's still my love and my passion and it's always there for me.
Do you still enjoy skating as much as you always did?
I do. I do, I do. I obviously don't do it as much. I'm not able to concentrate only on skating the way I did when I was an amateur, but yes I still love it.
How many hours a day do you skate now?
I start with a couple of hours a day because we're creating new material to go on the road with Broadway on Ice.
Do you feel that exercise helps your mood when you're doing a lot of skating?
It certainly helps, but it's not the only thing. A lot of people who have depression understand that the last thing in the world you want to do when you're feeling that way is get up and exercise. It's virtually impossible to do that. It's like somebody beating you.
Who was your sports role model as you were growing up?
Certainly Peggy Fleming was, but Janet Lynn was the young woman I just idolized. I thought she had the perfect blend of athleticism, artistry, delicateness and power. And she was a beautiful blonde pixie with this radiant smile. She was just a generation before me. But Peggy Fleming was so beautiful, swan-like and elegant. I was in those days considered more of an athletic skater, so I knew I could never be like Peggy Fleming. I always thought that Janet Lynn was probably something realistic for me to aspire to.
What was it like having the most famous haircut in the world?
Actually, I think Princess Diana probably had the most famous haircut, or Farah Fawcett or Jennifer Aniston. It was very strange because I always had short hair and I always hated my short hair. So I was always trying to find a new style. I would look at magazines and try to find something that I thought was somewhat attractive that I could skate with. It took me two years to get an appointment with Mr. Suga who cut my hair for the Olympics. Who knew? I had no idea that it would be popular.