Scott Hamilton is only five feet, four inches tall and doesn’t weigh more than 150 pounds. But the Olympic figure skating champion – probably the most famous male skater in history – might be the strongest man you’ll ever meet.
Even if you never meet Hamilton, now 58, his story will inspire you. That story goes beyond the ice. Beyond the spotlight. Beyond the cheers of thousands of fans in an arena. It goes back to a day 40 years ago when he walked alone down a country road just a few minutes following his adopted mother’s death due to breast cancer.
Before that walk, Hamilton was a perennial ninth-place finisher in figure skating competitions. Despite his parents’ encouragement and financial sacrifices, Hamilton had no real ambition to be any better than ninth.
“I had no ability to turn my talent, or whatever it was, into something else,’’ Hamilton recently told a group cancer survivors in Charleston, S.C. “I always found a way to screw it up.’’
But in that walk, Hamilton said, “I decided to take her with me wherever I go. For once in my life be accountable to her. That gave me a hunger and tenacity I never knew I had.’’
Dorothy Hamilton’s underachieving son used that hunger and tenacity to fuel four years (1981-84) of undefeated skating competition, a gold medal at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, and a standing as one of America’s most beloved Olympic heroes.
The word “hero’’ is thrown around too much these days on athletes, but it more than applies to Hamilton, who has dedicated his life to cancer research through the Scott Hamilton Cares Foundation. And not just because of his mother. Twenty years after Dorothy Hamilton died, Hamilton himself was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Once again, the loneliness crept upon him. Again, he fought it off, not only with hunger and tenacity, but with laughter.
Testicular cancer? Couldn’t it be another kind?
“I told the doctors that wasn’t going to work,’’ Hamilton said with his familiar victory stand smile. “I’m a public person with a high population of female fans.’’
But testicular cancer it was. And Hamilton’s fight for his life was on.
“It was a massive wake-up call,’’ Hamilton said. “The diagnosis just shakes you to your core. But that fear is almost instantly replaced with power and the courage and determination to get your life back.”
Taking back your life, either as a cancer survivor or one undergoing treatment for cancer, was Hamilton’s primary message as the featured speaker at Extended Stay America’s Hotel Keys of Hope third cancer survivors reunion.
In 2013, Extended Stay America created the Hotel Keys of Hope program to support the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge program, to help those in need of lifesaving cancer treatments away from home.
“We believe in what we do and not just what we say,’’ said Tom Buoy, Executive Vice President, Marketing and Revenue Management for Extended Stay America, whose mother has fought various forms of cancer. “We have chosen to take a stand.’’
To date, Buoy said, Extended Stay America has donated more than 85,000 hotel stays in locations throughout the US, and helped more than 12,000 patients and their families overcome the financial stress of travelling for treatment.
The Hotel Keys of Hope program has pledged a total of 150,000 free or deeply discounted rooms so that an estimated 15,000 cancer patients and their caregivers can save more than $5 million in lodging cost and get access to potentially lifesaving cancer treatment.
“What a blessing the program is for people,’’ said Hamilton, who on behalf of his Foundation accepted a $10,000 check from Extended Stay America executives. “To have a place away from home that has a kitchen… to live like you want to live and sleep close to where you’re being treated. What an extraordinary gift that is.’’
For Hamilton, married and the father of three sons, the greatest gift is the gift of life and family. That’s the message he delivers daily to cancer patients and survivors.
“You can look at cancer as a disease that shakes us to our core. Or we can look at cancer as a reminder of how to focus on how precious life is.’’
Hamilton’s personal fight with cancer is not over. In 2004, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“I’ll deal with it when I need to,’’ he said. “In the meantime, I’m loving my kids (and wife Tracie) and cheering on anybody who needs cheering up until I run out of days.’’
Let’s hope the cheering never stops.