These Portraits Capture the Agony and Ecstasy of What It Means to Be an Olympian

From Sonja Henie to Shaun White, see these rare images from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery

Olympic Dreams by Neil Leifer, 1984 (NPG, gift of Time magazine © Neil Leifer)

If there’s one thing that’s consistent about the Olympics, it’s innovation and change. This year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, introduces four new events, including the daredevil freestyling ramp jumping known as big-air snowboarding. And the unprecedented addition of hundreds of Russian athletes cleared to compete without representing their home country (barred for doping violations) newly defines the historic competion between nations. But when the closing ceremonies end and the medals are displayed, Olympic athletes return to their lives—some achieving even greater success or quiet normalcy, others falling to personal tragedy. As the February 9 opening ceremonies draw nearer, searched the collections of the National Portrait Gallery to remember some of the greats of the Winter Olympic games, past and recent. From the bright young figure skater whose fall shocked the nation to the recognizable redhead vying for yet another record, they defied the odds, broke the rules and continue to intrigue us long after the snow has thawed.

Dorothy Hamill

From her namesake move to her iconic haircut, Dorothy Hamill quickly made a name for herself as both a figure skater and a cultural darling when she took home the gold medal for the United States at the 1976 Olympics. There, her innovative “Hamill Camel,” a jump that suspends performers face-down and parallel to the ice before landing in a sitting spin, became her trademark. As she entered into the world of professional skating, her distinct “Wash ‘n’ Wear” wedge cut swayed and bounced with her into the spotlight and was quickly copied by women across America.

Hamill has remained active in the sport since the height of her fame, performing in several ice shows and winning a Daytime Emmy for her 1983 performance in Romeo and Juliet on Ice. In 2009 Hamill helped to start a program called I-Skate, teaching children with physical disabilities to ice skate using specially designed walkers and adaptive skates.

As for the ice? “Fifty years later, I still love it,” Hamill has said. “I can’t do what I did and I don’t do it as much, but I still love it.”

Hamill is pictured in her famous “Hamill Camel” in a 1976 photo by John G. Zimmerman.

About Zoe Sayler
Zoe Sayler

Zoe Sayler is an Editorial Intern at Smithsonian Magazine, a senior at Stanford University and a fervent supporter of women who are funny and know it. Read her work at

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