The shy 19-year-old from Chicago, whose trademark was not athleticism but flowing grace and beauty, took gold after a unanimous decision by the judges – becoming the last ever figure skater to triumph without performing a triple jump.
Though she turned professional after the Games and cemented her new-found fame – she was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart” – through the Ice Capades touring extravaganza, Innsbruck was the high point of an illustrious amateur career.
Hamill took up the sport aged just 8½, and after years of private lessons and 4.30am training sessions her dedication began to pay off.
After winning the novice ladies title at the 1969 US World Championships she began to compete internationally and was taken under the wing of renowned coach Carlo Fassi, who guided John Curry to Olympic gold the same year.
His first act was to order his short-sighted protégé to start wearing large-framed spectacles – which would later become a stylistic trademark of Hamill’s, copied by fans the world over. The new partnership paid off, and Hamill went on to win the US Championships from 1974 to 1976.
She had to settle for silver in the World Championships in 1974 – after an emotional outburst on the ice – and again came second in 1975 to Dutch skater Dianne de Leeuw. As the XII Winter Games approached, she was a long way from being favourite to win the gold, not least because she had suffered a huge blow when Fassi left her to focus on Curry.
However, the pair was reunited in Austria, and Hamill overcame crippling pre-competition nerves to prove her doubters wrong. She led the competition after the compulsory figures short programme – leaving her ideally placed to cut loose in the longer freestyle routine. She did just that and took gold – partly crediting special boots Fassi had had made for her. She celebrated with a hamburger and slept with her medal under her pillow that night.
By the next morning Hamill, who went on to win the 1976 World Championship, was a sensation. She was the first woman athlete to sign a USD 1 million-a-year contract, millions of American girls copied her bobbed hairstyle and, in the ultimate celebrity accolade, toy stores were soon stocking Dorothy Hamill dolls.
Away from the showbiz, Hamill was credited with developing a new skating move —a camel spin (assuming an arabesque position with one leg extended behind, parallel to the ice surface) that turned into a sit spin – which was dubbed The Hamill Camel.
Hamill recently admitted for the first time that she triumphed in Innsbruck in spite of suffering from crippling depression, which makes her feat all the more remarkable.
The Olympic champion went on to win four consecutive professional world titles in the 1980s and then starred in Ice Capades. She is still a high-profile figure in the sport and skates professionally and for personal pleasure to this day.