Fleming, Peggy

views updated Jun 27 2018

Peggy Fleming


American figure skater

One of the most influential female athletes of the past century, Peggy Fleming combined grace and power to create some of the most memorable figure-skating programs of her era. After winning a surprising victory at the 1964 United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) National Championship as a fifteen-year-old, Fleming went on to capture four more consecutive national titles. She also added three International Skating Union (ISU) World Championship titles from 1965 to 1968 to her list of accomplishments. At the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, Fleming became the only American athlete to win a gold medal at the games. Retiring from the amateur ranks after winning her third World Championship later that year, Fleming went on to star in a number of figure skating television specials and appeared with various touring ice shows in the 1970s. Her work as a skating analyst for the ABC network kept her in the public eye in the 1980s and 1990s. After a diagnosis of breast cancer in 1998, Fleming also campaigned to raise awareness of the importance of early detection and treatment for the disease. Married to dermatologist Greg Jenkins since 1970 and the mother two sons, Fleming remains one of the most admired figures in the world of sports.

Showed Early Promise

Peggy Gale Jenkins was born on July 27, 1948 in San Jose, California. She was the second of Albert and Doris (Deal) Fleming's four daughters. For the first several years of her life the Flemings lived in the San Jose area, where Al Fleming had a job as a newspaper press operator for the San Jose Mercury News. Fleming started skating at age nine and found it to be a good outlet for her naturally competitive spirit. Just a year after starting skating lessons, Fleming took home the gold medal in the Bay Area Juvenile Championship.

In 1960 the Flemings moved to Pasadena in southern California. Fleming's figure skating activities increasingly became the center of her family's life. Her father got up early to resurface the ice at a local rink so that his daughter could have extra practice time in the morning, and her mother sewed her costumes, found suitable coaches, and cleared away any distractions that might take her daughter's focus away from her skating. As Fleming recalled in her 1999 autobiography, The Long Program: Skating Toward Life's Victories, "I wouldn't have started skating if it weren't for my Dad, but I became a skater because of my mom. It is not stretching the point to say, 'We became a skater,' two people, one pair of skates. We each had a job to do to make me a champion skater, and I certainly didn't do it on my own."

With her family's support, Fleming rose quickly through the USFSA's ranks. She won the gold medal in the Pacific Coast Juvenile Championship in 1960, followed by another gold in the Pacific Coast Novice Championship in 1961. In 1962 she continued her winning streak with a gold at the Pacific Coast Championship and added a silver medal in the National Novice Championship. A bronze medal at the 1963 National Junior Championship earned Fleming a berth at the following year's National Championship as a senior-level skater. Astounding everyone at the event, Fleming won the title, which meant that she also qualified to go to the 1964 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria. Fleming placed sixth at the Games and then attended her first ISU World Championship, where she placed seventh.


1948Born on July 27 to Albert and Doris (Deal) Fleming in San Jose, California
1958Begins taking figure skating lessons
1965Begins working with coach Carlo Fassi
1968Retires from amateur ranks
1970Marries Greg Jenkins on June 13
1980Begins working as commentator for ABC Sports
1998Recovers from breast cancer

Thrown into Spotlight

Under her mother's watchful eye, Fleming had made a spectacular rise in the figure-skating world and was ranked as the best American skater by the time she was fifteen years old. Part of her rapid rise in the sport was due to the 1961 airplane crash in Brussels, Belgium, that had claimed the lives of almost the entire U.S. figure skating delegation, which was on its way to that year's World Championship. With America's best skaters suddenly gone, the USFSA looked to younger skaters, such as Fleming, to build up a program that was previously the best in the world. Americans Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss Jenkins had claimed the Olympic Gold Medals in women's figure skating in 1956 and 1960, and now Fleming was the leading contender to bring home another gold medal in 1968.

In order to help her daughter live up to her initial promise, Doris Fleming often made coaching changes; one such change, after her daughter's victory at the 1965 National Championship and third-place showing at that year's World Championship, took the Flemings to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where coach Carlo Fassi was teaching. The change was a crucial one in Fleming's career, as Fassi worked with her intensively on practicing her compulsory (or school) figures, which were a major portion in the scoring of USFSA and ISU events. Fassi's demand that Fleming treat every practice session as an actual competition paid off. She repeated as National Champion in 1966 and then took the gold medal at the World Championship in Davos, Switzerland later that year. In addition to helping her skating career, the move to Colorado Springs was also significant in Fleming's personal life as it occurred shortly after her father died of a heart attack in 1966. It was during this time that she also met Greg Jenkins, a former pairs skater who would eventually attend medical school and become a dermatologist. The two started dating in 1966 and were married four years later, on June 13, 1970.

Although she continued to work with coach Bob Paul on her choreography, Fassi's technical input and insights helped Fleming to become almost unbeatable after 1966. Often described as having nerves of steel in competition, Fleming credited her mother for helping her get ready for events by taking the pressure off of her daughter. Doris Fleming indeed earned a reputation as a formidable force on the skating circuit and went out of her way to help her daughter keep her focus on skating. On the ice, Fleming developed into a skater who combined athleticism with grace and power. Her style contrasted significantly with many European skaters, who often demonstrated significant technical ability but only rudimentary choreography. The best example of Fleming's unique style was shown in her spread eagle move into a double axel jump followed by another spread eagle. Although the combination was extremely difficult to execute, it created a breathtaking and impressive moment on the ice.

Awards and Accomplishments

1959Won gold medal, United Figure Skating Association (USFSA) Bay Area Juvenile Championship
1960Won gold medal, USFSA Pacific Coast Juvenile Championship
1961Won gold medal, USFSA Pacific Coast Novice Championship
1962Won gold medal, USFSA Pacific Coast Championship
1962Won silver medal, USFSA National Novice Championship
1963Won bronze medal, USFSA National Junior Championship
1964Placed sixth at the Innsbruck Winter Olympic Games
1964Placed seventh at the International Skating Union (ISU) World Championship
1964-68Won gold medals, USFSA National Championship
1965Won bronze medal, ISU World Championship
1966-68Won gold medals, ISU World Championship
1967Named ABC Athlete of the Year
1968Received Babe Didrickson Zaharias Award
1968Won gold medal, women's figure skating, Grenoble Winter Olympic Games
1974Inducted into U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame
1976Inducted into USFSA Hall of Fame
1976Inducted into World Figure Skating Hall of Fame
1981Inducted into International Women's Sports Hall of Fame
1997Received U.S. Olympic Committee Olympic Spirit Award

The Long Program: Skating Toward Life's Victories

I was proud to be on the [1964 Winter Olympic] team, but I hated the Olympic uniforms. Even then, fashion was becoming an important part ofthe total package. How you looked said a lot about your style, and yourstyle was what made your skating different and special. Those tight skipants and geeky wool jackets with red and blue stripes on the collar werenot my style. Still, when all the American team walked into the arena with allthe thousands of other athletes, all of us in our uniforms and all of usmarching behind our flagsit was breathtaking: a hundred thousand peo-ple roaring and applauding, under the snow-capped Alps and the bluestblue sky in the world. Everybody should have a first Olympicsit movesyou, takes over your emotions and overwhelms you until you can hardlythink. And everyone should be fortunate enough to go on to have a secondOlympics, so that you have time to take it all in.

Source: Peggy Fleming, with Peter Kaminsky, The Long Program: Skating Toward Life's Victories, New York: Pocket Books, 1999, p. 40.

Olympic Champion

Having won consecutive World Championships in 1966 and 1967 and U.S. National Championships from 1964 to 1967, Fleming entered the 1968 season as the favorite for the Olympic gold medal. Her competitive season got off to a remarkable start at the 1968 U.S. Nationals in Philadelphia, where Fleming's free skate ranked among the best-ever performances in women's figure skating up to that time. At the 1968 Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France, Fleming once again led the field after the first two segments of the competition going into the final free skate. Although she had trouble with some of her jumps and the performance was not her best, Fleming skated well enough to win the event. She was the only gold medal winner among the American athletes at the Games, a feat that made her accomplishment even more notable back home. Two weeks later Fleming delivered a much better performance of her free skate at the 1968 World Championships in Geneva, Switzerland, and announced her retirement from amateur ranks.

On Television as Performer and Broadcaster

Most Olympic champion figure skaters had previously encountered few career opportunities beyond skating in ice show reviews such as the Ice Capades. Fleming changed that pattern by forging into the realm of network television, beginning with her 1968 special on NBC, Here's Peggy Fleming, which included a guest appearance by Gene Kelley. It was the first of five successful specials that Fleming made for NBC. The series included a 1973 show filmed in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), U.S.S.R., which made it the first American-Soviet joint television production. Fleming also made selected appearances with the touring companies of the Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice programs throughout the 1970s. In 1973 she appeared in her own review, "Peggy's Dinner Theater on Ice," in Lake Tahoe, California; it later toured the country as "Peggy Fleming's Concert on Ice." On January 30, 1977, Fleming gave birth to her first son, Andy. Her second son, Todd, arrived in September 1988.

In 1980 Fleming began appearing as a skating analyst on the ABC network, often teamed with two-time Olympic gold medalist Dick Button . Although the two had different approachesFleming's gentle critiques contrasted greatly with Button's sharp on-air personalitythe appreciation they both had for skating was obvious. More than twenty years later, both still appear together in ABC's telecasts of national and international skating events. In 1997, while covering the World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, Fleming was saddened by the death of her former coach, Carlo Fassi, who was attending the event to supervise his student, American skater Nicole Bobek.

Raised Breast Cancer Awareness

At the U.S. Nationals in Philadelphia in January 1998, Fleming discovered a lump in her left breast. Although she continued to work through the next few weeks, a biopsy showed that the lump was malignant. Undergoing surgery to remove the cancer on February 10exactly thirty years after she had won her gold medal in GrenobleFleming later underwent radiation therapy and made a speedy recovery.

Inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1974, Fleming was also honored with an induction into the USFSA Hall of Fame and World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1976. In 1981 she was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame and in 1997 was the recipient of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Olympic Spirit Award. Each of these honors has highlighted Fleming's contribution to figure skating and to athletic endeavors in general. In combining sheer athletic power with aesthetic grace, Fleming was one of the first figure skaters to be able to integrate impressive jump sequences with choreographed ballet. As a National, World, and Olympic champion, she also has helped to popularize the sport of figure skating and expand the range of professional opportunities available to skaters after they had left the amateur ranks. More than thirty years after her last competition, Fleming remains a popular and admired personality, not only in the sports world but for her contributions to publicizing women's health issues as well.

Where Is She Now?

The mother of two sons, Andy and Todd, Fleming makes her home inthe San Jose suburb of Los Gatos with her husband, Dr. Greg Jenkins. Inearly 1998, after noticing a lump in her left breast, Fleming confronted a di-agnosis of breast cancer that required surgery. The procedure was per-formed in February 1998; after undergoing radiation therapy, Fleming madea full recovery. "I have no explanation for it," Fleming told Karen S. Schnei-der of People about her speedy return to health. "Something must be liningup right. Whatever the case, I am very grateful." Fleming subsequentlymade numerous personal appearances to heighten awareness of breastcancer, particularly the importance of frequent self-examinations andprompt medical treatment.

After more than twenty years as a skating analyst for the ABC net-work, Fleming also remains a fixture on television. In addition to her dutiesas a broadcaster, Fleming appears frequently in advertisements for Os-Cal, a calcium dietary supplement. The recipient of numerous awards during hercareer, Fleming was honored in 1997 by the U.S. Olympic Committee withits Olympic Spirit Award.


(With Peter Kaminsky) The Long Program: Skating Toward Life's Victories. New York: Pocket Books, 1999.



Brennan, Christine. Edge of Glory: The Inside Story of the Quest for Figure Skating's Olympic Gold Medals. New York: Scribner, 1998.

Brennan, Christine. Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating. New York: Scribner, 1996.

Fleming, Peggy with Peter Kaminsky. The Long Program: Skating Toward Life's Victories. New York: Pocket Books, 1999.

Smith, Beverley. Talking Figure Skating: Behind the Scenes in the World's Most Glamorous Sport. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1997.

U.S. Figure Skating Association. The Official Book of Figure Skating. New York: Simon & Schuster Editions, 1998.


Ottum, Bob. "The Perils of Peggy and a Great Silver Raid." Sports Illustrated (February 19, 1968): 18, 21.

Schneider, Karen S. "Gold Mettle: A Month after Being Diagnosed with Breast Cancer, Olympic Skating

Champion Peggy Fleming Is on Her Way to Recovery." People (March 2, 1998): 88.

Sketch by Timothy Borden

Fleming, Peggy

views updated May 18 2018

Peggy Fleming

American ice skater Peggy Fleming (born 1948) was the only U.S. athlete to win an Olympic gold medal at the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France. One of skating's first bona-fide celebrities, Fleming is credited with luring legions of youth to the sport and for making figure skating a staple of sports broad casting on network television. "Pretty and balletic, elegant and stylish," noted Sports Illustrated writer E. M. Swift, "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."

Unlike many of her homegrown competitors, Peggy Gale Fleming came from a working-class background. She was born on July 27, 1948, in San Jose, California, to Al and Doris Fleming. The family, which would eventually grow to include four daughters, initially lived on a farm in Morgan Hill, California, but began relocating frequently as Fleming's star rose in the junior ranks. Her father was a newspaper-plant press operator who first put his daughter on skates at the age of nine at a Bay Area rink. She proved a natural from the start and began skating daily.

The Flemings went to Cleveland, Ohio, for a time, while Al Fleming took a six-month stint in order to learn how to run a color printing press, and Fleming's supportive mother found a coach for her there. The coach put the young skater through a series of paces and tests and suggested she was already good enough to compete. Fleming was only 11 years old in 1960 when she came in last in Los Angeles at the Pacific Coast Juvenile Figure Skating Championship. As she recalled the event in her autobiography, The Long Program: Skating toward Life's Victories. "I was humiliated, especially for my family, who had made the drive down to L.A. The sheer embarrassment of it all gave me a jolt. From that day on I was serious about every competition I entered." Two weeks later, she entered another Pacific Coast event and took first place.

Father Drove Zamboni

Her first-place win began a long winning streak for Fleming in juniors events. Her family moved to Pasadena, and she began working with a new coach there. Her father worked in the printing department of the Los Angeles Timesand actually learned how to drive the ice-resurfacing machine—called a Zamboni—because the ice was too rough for the early-morning practice sessions Fleming put in. The cost of renting the ice time in some of the skating arenas where she practiced was more than he sometimes earned per hour as a press operator. Her mother, meanwhile, sewed all her competition costumes at home. As Fleming recalled in her memoir, "We were often made to feel that we were crashing the party. We just weren't from the same world as the more well-off families whose sons and daughters were part of the country club set known as 'the skating world.'"

A tragic event occurred in February 1961 when Fleming's Pasadena coach, Bill Kemp, was killed in a plane crash in Belgium. He and 18 members of the U.S. figure skating team were en route to the World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia, when their plane went down. The loss decimated the U.S. figure-skating program. Fleming proved to be a key to the rebuilding of the U.S. figure skating team following the crash. She won the Pacific Coast Women's Championships in 1963 and the U.S. championships the following year, making her, at age 15, the youngest national title-holder in the event's history. In 1964 she won the senior nationals and found herself on the way to the Olympics soon thereafter.

Heralded as Ice Star

In the run-up to the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Fleming was touted in the press as skating's new star and the potential savior for American figure skating after its tragic loss. "There is a dash of flamboyance to her skating that everyone finds appealing," New York Times writer Lincoln A. Werden remarked of her style on the ice. Fleming faced stiff international competition at the Innsbruck Games, however, and harbored no illusions. As she told the New York Times, "If I'm among the first 10, I'll be satisfied." Indeed, at the Games she managed only a sixth-place finish, but the experience was a pivotal one for her career. "Seeing the other skaters in Innsbruck was a very important thing for my growth as an athlete and a competitor," Fleming wrote in The Long Program. "Being there gave me a different perspective on the European skaters. This was before the days of skating on television, so I really had no idea what the competition looked like or what their style was."

Returning home, Fleming went on to win her second U.S. national title in 1965 and came in third at the 1965 World Championships that year as well. Realizing that the World Championships' high-altitude setting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, had seemed to make her tire more easily, Fleming and her family relocated there so that she might train under such conditions. She spent four hours practicing each morning, then attended classes at Cheyenne Mountain High School, and worked with her coach for another three hours later in the day. She readied for the 1966 World Championships in Davos, Switzerland, which was to take place at an outdoor venue. Before she departed, she told the New York Times's Werden that the Davos event was going to prove more of a challenge for her than the indoor rink in Colorado Springs the previous year. "That makes a big difference," she explained. "You need more physical force, you have the wind to skate against, the rays of the glaring sun and the texture of outdoor ice."

The dedication paid off, and Fleming won the women's World Championship title that year. Skating aficionados were enthused about Fleming's potential. Dick Button, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, called the teen "a delicate lady on ice. She is not a fiery skater, and she shouldn't be made to be," he told the New York Times. "With some skaters there is a lot of fuss and feathers, but nothing is happening. With Peggy there's no fuss and feathers, and a great deal is happening. The only other skater in her class since the war has been Tenley Albright."

In 1966 Fleming began classes at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and continued her arduous practice sessions in preparation for the 1968 Olympics. She won another world title in 1967 and arrived in Grenoble early the next year with a chartreuse-colored skating costume her mother had sewed. The unusual green shade was a nod to a monastery near Grenoble at which the odd green liqueur of the same name was made. There were few other American athletes who were predicted to take a gold medal in any of the other Winter Olympic events save for her, and though she appeared nonplussed at the time, Fleming later recalled in an interview with Winston-Salem Journal writer Lisa O'Donnell that she was indeed unsettled by the pressure. "My overwhelming memories are of the nerves," she said that day in February of 1968. "When I get nervous, I fiddle with my hair. I kept putting on more and more hair spray. I used a can of Aquanet. I don't think my hair moved for two weeks."

Won Olympic Gold

In her free-skate event, Fleming glided across the ice to a program that featured musical selections by Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, and Rossini and came in first. She was the sole American athlete to win a gold medal at the Games, but the event was historic for another reason as well: it was the first time that the Olympics were broadcast live on television and in color as well. Fleming's verve and grace in her chartreuse-green skating outfit made her a media sensation and awakened television executives to the potential gold in televising figure-skating events. She returned home a celebrity, appearing on the covers of both Life magazine and Sports Illustrated. Button told New York Times journalist Lloyd Garrison that Fleming represented a new, balletic era for figure skating. "You see a lot of Peggy's competition clumping around, skating fast like hockey players, flailing the ice with quick stops, trying to overpower you with gimmicks. The crowd may like it but it's not beautiful and it's not good skating.… Position and recovery are just as important in skating. With Peggy, there's not a misplaced move."

Fleming turned professional soon afterward and was signed to a television contract for her own NBC special. The check for that job alone was $35,000, a huge sum of money in those days. She bought a Porsche with it but also provided for her parents, who had sacrificed so much over the years. She went on to appear in four other television specials that pulled in impressive ratings, filmed in such picturesque locales as St. Petersburg, Russia. She also began appearing regularly with the Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice and even performed at the White House—the first skater in history to do so. "I had no idea what lay ahead of me because no one had done the things that I did as a professional …," Fleming said of this era in an interview with Christian Science Monitor journalist Ross Atkin. 1960 Olympic champion Carol Heiss "did a movie with Snow White and the Three Stooges, and that was about it, so I had to do kind of groundbreaking things. Television was the tool at that time. There was satellite coverage of the Olympics and color TV."

Skating Commentator for ABC

In 1970 Fleming married Greg Jenkins, and her earnings helped put him through medical school. They had two sons and remained in the San Francisco Bay area. Fleming became a television commentator for ABC Sports in 1980, broadcasting from national, world, and Olympics events alongside Button. She has often been termed the first celebrity athlete that American skating produced in the modern era and was credited with bringing legions of new devotees to the sport in the years after 1968, thanks to the huge ratings her Olympic accomplishment garnered. Fleming, noted Sports Illustrated's Swift in a 1994 issue commemorating the most important athletes of the past four decades, "pulled U.S. skating back to its feet after the 1961 tragedy, jump-starting a program that for the next 26 years produced an unbroken string of U.S. women stars."

In early 1998, Fleming underwent surgery for breast cancer, almost 30 years to the day after she won her gold medal in Grenoble. The diagnosis was devastating, she told O'Donnell in the Winston-Salem Journal. "It was like someone pulled the rug out from me." After her lumpectomy, she endured six weeks of radiation therapy. "My athletic training kicked in," she told St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Ellen Gardner. "I wanted to be the best patient … I wanted to win." The experience and the overwhelming outpouring of support she received spurred her to write her 1999 autobiography. She has also become active in breast-cancer awareness issues and speaks publicly on the importance of early detection. The former Olympic champ rarely skates, as she told the Tampa Tribune. "I've been doing it all my life, and I just don't have time to do that anymore," Fleming admitted. "And I don't think that's a challenge for me anymore." Fleming did however, put on her skates for SmithKline Beecham Consumer Healthcare's television commercials as their spokeswoman for a calcium supplement called Os-Cal. In March 2003 Fleming was honored with the 13th Vince Lombardi Award of Excellence.


Great Women in Sports, Visible Ink Press, 1996.

Fleming, Peggy, with Peter Kaminsky, The Long Program: Skating toward Life's Victories, Pocket Books, 1999.


Christian Science Monitor, February 11, 1998.

Life, February 23, 1968.

M2 Presswire, October 29, 1999.

New York Times, January 19, 1964; February 21, 1965; February 9, 1966; February 28, 1966; February 28, 1967; February 11, 1968; March 2, 1981.

People, March 2, 1998.

PR Newswire, March 11, 2003.

Sports Illustrated, September 19, 1994.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 6, 1998.

Tampa Tribune, March 7, 2002.

Winston-Salem Journal (Winston-Salem, NC), November 26, 2002.