It was just a year ago and Scott Hamilton was reaching the pinnacle of the world of figure skating. The dynamic skater was draped with an Olympic gold medal in February and netted a fourth consecutive world title a month later, culminating one of the most brilliant careers ever for an American skater.
But in bolting the amateur ranks for a professional career, Hamilton is growing frustrated. He has found that turning professional in skating is tantamount to retirement in other sports. There is no regular professional competition and the bulk of the skating is in glittery traveling ice shows.
"I've competed for 18 years and now I have to leave it," said Hamilton, who was in the nation's capital with the Ice Capades. "I'm not competing in any sense any more. And it's frustrating."
Hamilton, who shares the billing in the show with a group of cartoon characters on ice, said he does not want to compromise his status as a technically brilliant skater while working in the ice show.
"There's an athletic credibility type of thing in there," he said of performing in the ice show.
"But I'm not an artiste. I don't have any problems with who my audience is. I just want to skate and I want to skate well."
With an ice show, Hamilton has been forced to get accustomed to being just one of the attractions, not the main event.
"The Snorks (the cartoon characters) are there for the kids. Bolero (a dance routine) is there for the adults. And I'm there for people who want to see Olympic-style skating. Everybody is just a part of the show."
Even with the glitzy nature of the show, Hamilton said he refuses to slack off in the quality of his skating.
"It's not like I'm going out there and waving or resting on my laurels. I've seen other skaters do that. I don't feel good about that," said Hamilton.
But not all is frustrating for Hamilton, who is drawing a six-figure salary as a professional.
He said he has been able to shake free of the conservative skating that marked his four years as world champion.
"With exhibition skating, you can do anything you want. As a professional, you don't have those (amateur) guidelines," he added. "You don't have anyone judging you. You don't have any competition structure at all."
While champion, he said, he did not take chances on the ice--instead relying on more familiar and predictable routines.
"I wasn't allowed to take risks or gambles or do certain things that would improve my skating (as champion). I wanted to play it safe. In a way, I would improve 25 percent instead of a possible 50 because I had to be good enough and consistent and predictable in order to hang on to the title," he said.
"I was a little conservative. I did more than enough improving each year to hang on--and them some--to the title because each year I won by a bigger margin. It's just that a couple of the things I might have done, I couldn't because this was the system that was working, this was the system that I kept on doing. So I didn't explore other areas. So I guess that's the way that I was stunted."
Even with the six-figure sum he takes in from the Ice Capades, Hamilton said as a professional skater he could never make what some amateur athletes get through endorsements.
"As a professional, it would be really difficult for me to make as much as (track star) Carl Lewis, who's an amateur. And he's complaining about not making enough money," said Hamilton. "It just seems kind of odd. I don't understand how there can be such a discrepancy."
Hamilton said he wants to see the world of professional skating grow along the lines of the expansion of tennis.
"I'd like to see it develop like tennis did and have your Wimbledons and have your Australian Opens. And it can happen. Skating is big enough for it to happen. It's just laying the groundwork," said Hamilton.
He said he is hoping the Olympic Games are opened to professionals.
"I hope they'll consider opening all the sports to professional athletes. The Olympics is to find the ultimate athlete. Why not let (Wayne) Gretsky play hockey?"
Hamilton, looking back on his remarkable amateur career, said the odds are stacked against an American succeeding in international competition.
"I did something that hadn't been done since 1960, and that is hang on to a world title for four years in a row. It's difficult for an American to do it. You know, Europeans have a certain style of skating, a certain eye for what they want to see. And they have six judges out of nine," said Hamilton.
"And they are also tighter as a community because they have a European championship every year. The other countries--Canada, the United States and the orient, China and Japan--don't really have any kind of unity like that. So for an American to go in and win a world championship more than a year in a row is kind of rough because you've got six judges that aren't of that taste or that style."
Hamilton has watched the sport of skating develop from more dainty artistic moves to rigorous athletic competition.
"Skating has gone from something that was drawing patterns on the ice to the dynamics of jumping to something very artistic. When I was growing up, skating was an art form," said Hamilton. "(But) I was always one who cared more about the direct competitive side of skating, the technical side, the side of 'Oh, I can do that better."'
He added: "I didn't put too much importance on the artistic side. I wanted to be competitive. I wanted to be an athlete. So I'd say in the last eight years, the real athletic side of skating has come out."
"When you're getting into the dance and everything else, it's more like a recital than a competition."
The sport follows the lead of the champion, Hamilton said, and has developed into a battle of technical skill and execution mainly because that was his style. But the sport could once again bounce to the artistic style.
"It goes through cycles. And it depends on the champion. When you have a world champion who gears more toward the artistic side, then you have a lot of skaters trying to emulate. And it could go back that way. But I don't see any skater like that coming up."
Hamilton said he does not know what he will be doing five or 10 years down the road, but one can be sure that it will be on ice.
"I want to skate as long as I can and I want to develop the pro competition sort of thing," he said. "I'd like to be in Ice Capades as long as it lasts, but I'd also like to keep my athletic credibility and compete."