Fleming, Peggy Gale

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FLEMING, Peggy Gale

(b. 27 July 1948 in San Jose, California), winner of five U.S. National Figure Skating Championships between 1964 and 1968, three World Championships between 1966 and 1968, and an Olympic gold medal in 1968, who demonstrated the power and grace of female athleticism in competitive sports.

Fleming was the second of four daughters in the family of Albert Eugene and Doris Elizabeth Deal Fleming. Her father, who worked as a newspaper press operator, enjoyed skating as a hobby; when his second daughter was nine years old, a family trip to a San Francisco–area skating rink changed her life. "From that day on, I was a different girl," Fleming wrote in her 1999 memoir, The Long Program. "I had found the thing that made everything else fall into place." Her natural ability as a figure skater was encouraged by her parents, who signed Fleming up with her first coach during a six-month stay in Cleveland in 1958. By the time the family resettled in the San Francisco Bay area the following year, Fleming was practicing on the ice almost every day. After the family moved to Pasadena, California, in 1960, Albert took his daughter to practice so early each morning that he ended up driving the rink's Zamboni machine to smooth the ice for her session.

While her father's encouragement was crucial in Fleming's early development as a skater, her mother became the dominant force in her competitive career, which began with a 1959 win in the Bay Area Juvenile Competition. The following year she won the juvenile division of the Pacific Coast Championships in Squaw Valley, California; in the two succeeding years, Fleming advanced to become the gold medalist in the novice and senior ranks of the Pacific Coast Championships as well. As her daughter moved through the ranks, Doris oversaw her development with a series of coaches specializing in figure skating choreography, technique, and interpretation.

Like the rest of the U.S. figure skating program, Fleming received a jolt when one of her first coaches, Bill Kipp, died along with thirty-three members of the U.S. delegation on its way to the 1961 World Championships in Prague. Seventy-three people perished when Sabena Flight 548 went down with a stalled engine just before landing at the Belgian National Airport near Brussels on 15 February 1961. In addition to Kipp, almost all of that year's U.S. medal winners died in the accident, including all three ladies champions. The World Championships were canceled in the wake of the tragedy, and the U.S. Figure Skating Association scrambled to rebuild its program after losing its top skaters. Fleming suddenly became a top prospect for the American team's future.

Just into her teens, Fleming won the Pacific Coast Novice Championship despite an illness that had her vomiting on the ice after her free skate. The win sent Fleming on her first trip to the U.S. National Championships in 1962, where she won a silver medal in the Novice Ladies competition. The next year she took a bronze medal in the Junior Ladies division of the Nationals, which qualified her for her first Senior National competition, scheduled for Cleveland in January 1964. Fleming astounded the figure skating world when she won the event and was awarded the gold medal as the U.S. ladies champion on 24 January 1964. The win also qualified her for the U.S. Olympic team for the 1964 Games in Innsbruck, Austria. That competition, where the fifteen-year-old finished an impressive sixth place, helped Fleming develop her sense of style on the ice in comparison to her European rivals, who dominated that year's event with performances that emphasized their athleticism. As Fleming later remembered in The Long Program, "I was very respectful of what the other women did athletically, but not aesthetically.… Seeing what I didn't want to be made me resolve to be both athletic and feminine. I could begin to see the skater I wanted to be." Indeed, the power that Fleming delivered in her subsequent skating performances belied her five-foot, four-inch frame.

At the U.S. Nationals in 1965, Fleming repeated her win of the prior year. Doris, who continued to sew all of her daughter's skating costumes and made the major decisions regarding her career, moved the family to Colorado Springs, Colorado, after the 1965 World Championships, where Fleming won her first world medal, a bronze. The move teamed Fleming with coach Carlo Fassi, who had a reputation for instilling technical superiority in his pupils, a major factor in competitions where compulsory figures counted heavily in the final score. Fassi also built up Fleming's strength and stamina by having her practice outdoors in the chilly, high-altitude climate of Colorado Springs. Fleming continued to work with coach Bob Paul on her choreography, and in the following three years, Fleming's competitive drive, coaching, and family support proved to be an unbeatable combination. At the 1966 World Championships in Davos, Switzerland, she pulled another upset victory by dethroning the previous year's champion, Petra Burka of Canada. The newly crowned seventeen-year-old champion made the cover of Sports Illustrated as "Our New World Champion" but suffered a devastating loss when her father died shortly thereafter of a heart attack at the age of forty-one.

Fleming repeated as U.S. and World champion in 1967. After winning the 1968 U.S. Nationals with a stunning performance in Philadelphia—which she considered the best free skate of her career—Fleming was considered the favorite for the gold medal at the 1968 Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France. While the scores on her compulsory figures put her far ahead of her competitors going into the final free skate, Fleming's nerves prevented her from doing her best. She was disappointed to miss some of her jumps—including her trademark move, a spread eagle into a double axel followed by another spread eagle—but her power and grace were sufficient throughout the rest of the routine to win the overall competition. As these games were the first Olympics televised in color, Fleming's appearance at the final free skate in a chartreuse dress made by her mother had an immediate impact on the American public. Featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Life magazine in February 1968, Fleming was the only U.S. gold medalist at the 1968 Winter Olympics. The following month Fleming won her third title at the 1968 World Championships in Geneva, Switzerland, and retired from amateur competition.

Through the 1970s Fleming starred in annual variety-show specials on ABC television that featured her in skits as well as on skates; she continues to star in ice reviews as well and remains in the public eye as a figure skating commentator for ABC Sports. Married to Greg Jenkins since 1970, Fleming has two sons and became a grandmother in 1999. She recovered from a 1998 bout with breast cancer to become a national spokesperson for early diagnosis and treatment of the disease. For her contribution to the development of figure skating's popularity and as an example of female athleticism, Fleming was honored in 1999 as one of only seven recipients of the Sports Illustrated Twentieth Century Sports Award: Athletes Who Changed the Game; she has also been inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, the International Women's Hall of Fame, and the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Few athletes have matched her combination of power and grace, let alone her competitive success.

Fleming wrote The Long Program: Skating Toward Life's Victories (1999) with Peter Kaminsky. She twice was the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story. The first article, "A Paris Fling for a Teen Queen" (2 May 1966), celebrated her victory in the 1966 World Championship; the second, "The Perils of Peggy and a Great Silver Raid" (19 Feb. 1968), marked her Olympic victory. Background information on the 1968 Winter Olympics is covered in Chronicle of the Olympics, 1896–1996 (1996), and Allen Guttman, The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games (1992). A series by Bob Duffy and John Powers on the 1961 plane crash that devastated the U.S. team appeared in the Boston Globe, "Remembering Flight 548: The Tragic Story of the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Team" (29–31 Dec. 2000). Competition results for figure skating events are listed on the web site of the International Skating Union at <http://www.isu.org/historical/historical.html>.

Timothy Borden