Fleming launched modern era of figure skating

Updated: March 16, 2005, 12:30 PM ET
By Lisette Hilton | Special to ESPN.com

"I'm sure every girl out there wished that she could move like Peggy -- or look like Peggy -- and float like her on the ice," says 1992 Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Known for her beauty and grace on and off the ice, Peggy Fleming dominated women's figure skating from 1966 to 1968, capping her career with her triumph at the 1968 Olympic Winter Games. At 19, Fleming was the only American to take home gold from Grenoble, France.

Peggy Fleming
AP PhotoPeggy Fleming won the second of three ladies' crowns at the 1967 World Figure Skating Championships in Vienna, Austria.
"She launched figure skating's modern era," Sports Illustrated wrote in 1994 when it named her one of the 40 individuals who most significantly altered or elevated sports in the previous 40 years. "Pretty and balletic, elegant and stylish, Fleming took a staid sport that was shackled by its inscrutable compulsory figures and arcane scoring system and, with television as her ally, made it marvelously glamorous. Ever since, certainly to North Americans, figure skating has been the marquee sport of the Winter Games and increasingly staple of prime-time television."

Her Olympic victory got her on the cover of Life magazine and then a few months later, she turned professional, signing a $500,000 deal with the Ice Follies. Later, she appeared with the Ice Capades, Holiday on Ice and other skating shows.

"With some skaters there's a lot of fuss and feathers, but nothing is happening," said Dick Button, a two-time Olympic champion. "With Peggy, there's no fuss and feathers, and a great deal is happening."

The five-time national champion and three-time world champ was born on July 27, 1948 on a farm outside San Jose, Cal., the second of Al and Doris Fleming's four daughters. Al, a former Marine who had been wounded by a Japanese grenade in World War II, drank too much and too often. A newspaper pressman, he often traveled to find work. There were times when the family didn't have a house to live in. One summer, the Flemings made a campsite their home.

Peggy first donned a pair of figure skates at nine when her father took the family to a rink. Her memory of skating on the ice was one of quiet, effortless movement.

Two years later, she won her first competition, the Central Pacific Juvenile Girls Championship in California. Fleming took junior skating by storm, winning the juvenile, novice, junior and senior regional titles of the Southwest Pacific region and three of four Pacific Coast Sectional titles between 1960 and 1963.

Though the family was usually hard pressed for money, somehow there was enough to pay for coaches and lessons. Fleming normally practiced at least four hours a day, often rising before dawn to get open time at the local ice rink.

She first competed in the U.S. Championships in 1962, when she won a silver medal in the Novice Ladies' division. The next year, she earned the bronze medal in the Junior Ladies competition.

By the time Fleming was 15, Carol Heiss Jenkins, an Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, predicted on ABC that Fleming had the jumps and the power to win the 1968 Olympics.

Fleming's rise to the top was much needed in the sport. When she was 12, tragedy had struck figure skating. On Feb. 14, 1961 the entire U.S. delegation -- including 18 skaters, coaches, judges and family members -- was killed in a plane crash outside Brussels en route to the world championships in Prague. Among the victims was Bill Kipp, Fleming's coach.

In the wake of the crash, junior skaters were pushed to fill the void of talent on the U.S. skating team. Many believe Fleming's success after that disaster brought women's figure skating back on its feet, creating a love affair between the American public and women skaters.

In 1964, at 15, Fleming won the first of her five consecutive U.S. championships, beating one of her closest competitors, Tina Noyes, in Cleveland. At the Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, the 15-year-old Fleming was the highest American finisher, coming in sixth in her first international competition.

The next year, the family moved from California to Colorado Springs so Fleming, who needed improvement in the compulsories, could work under prominent coach Carlo Fassi.

After placing third in her first appearance at the world championship in 1965, she came back the next year to win the title in Davos, Switzerland. Fleming successfully defended her championship in 1967 in Vienna, Austria.

As a two-time world champion, she entered the 1968 Olympics the overwhelming favorite. She was the darling of the international press and had been described as "doe-eyed," "fragile," "the leggy wisp," and "America's shy Bambi." The judges loved her rich looks and delicate, airy style. She was almost unbeatable in compulsories and tops at figures. Just before the Games, ABC had named Fleming the network's "Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year."

At Grenoble, she built a sizable lead in the compulsory school figures, which then accounted for 60 percent of the scoring. She easily won all the first-place votes despite a shaky free-skating program in which she turned a double axel into a single and double-footed the landing of an incomplete double lutz.

Fleming's performance occurred during the first year that the Olympics were televised live and in color on ABC. Her grace and beauty not only captured the people who had traveled to the Olympics but also the television audience as she turned women's figure skating into a glamorous event. Fleming became a marketing sensation for figure skating and female athletes.

"Fleming became the original American ice princess, incongruously so, since she was not, by nature, glamorous," Sports Illustrated wrote. "Off the ice she was small-town America through and through: unpretentious, hard working, middle class, level-headed. But she carried herself like a star during performances. On the ice she was stylish in a manner more reminiscent of ballet dancing than figure skating, and she was inoffensively sexy, teeming with femininity and energy. All these charms translated beautifully over the picture tube."

After winning the Olympics, she captured her third straight world championship, in Geneva, Switzerland.

Fleming's first foray into professional skating for a TV audience was six months after the Olympics, on the Sun Valley Special, which won two Emmy awards. She went on to star in four more television specials.

In 1973, during the Cold War, Fleming's fourth television show became the first joint production by Soviets and Americans filmed entirely in the USSR.

Her popularity led her to gaining commercial endorsements for vitamins, soap and panty hose. Later, she became a successful television commentator, frequently working with Button.

She also made guest appearances on TV shows and hosted a special on poaching in East Africa. In 1980, Fleming was the first figure skater ever invited to perform at the White House, and in 1986 she was asked to perform at the national celebration to unveil the Statue of Liberty in New York City.

In 1970, Fleming married dermatologist Greg Jenkins, a former amateur figure skater, and they had two sons, Andy in 1977 and Todd in 1988.

While her life seemed a storybook existence, Fleming endured a life-and-death challenge in 1998, the 30th anniversary of her gold medal. She faced her own mortality after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Choosing to make her experience public, she carried it off with pride, dignity and honesty - much like she had her entire skating career. Her plight and triumph over breast cancer have given hope to cancer sufferers worldwide.

Sports Illustrated again honored Fleming in 1999 when they named her among seven athletes -- Jackie Robinson, Arnold Palmer, Billie Jean King, Pele, Richard Petty and Bill Russell were the other six -- as 20th century athletes who changed their sport.

To this day, Fleming provides commentary as an analyst for ABC Sports, which she joined in 1981. Living in the San Francisco Bay area, she balances a busy schedule of commercial endorsements, speaking engagements and her family.

ALSO SEE