Fleming, Peggy (1948—)

views updated

Fleming, Peggy (1948—)

American figure skater and Olympic gold medalist who is generally credited with popularizing competitive ice skating for American audiences and turning it into the most closely watched event at the winter Olympic Games. Born July 27, 1948, in San Jose, California; attended Colorado State College; daughter of Albert Fleming (a pressman) and Dorothy Fleming; had three sisters: Janice, Maxine, and Cathy Fleming; married Gregory Jenkins (a dermatologist), in 1970; children: two sons, Andrew and Todd.

Began skating competitively at the age of nine (1957); by age 16, had won the first of five successive U.S. figure skating championships, being much admired for her combination of technical precision and artistic sensibility; captured and held the world title for three years running (1966, 1967, 1968) and capped her amateur career by winning her country a gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France (1968), the only American to do so; began competing professionally after her Olympic win; starred in several television specials and major ice shows and continued to serve as a network sports commentator.

In 1957, nine-year-old Peggy Fleming began taking skating lessons at a rink in Cleveland, Ohio, under the watchful eye of the rink's resident instructor, Harriet Lapish . A few months later as Fleming came off the ice, Lapish asked the young girl if she would like to enter a competition. She would be required to demonstrate her knowledge of the basic exercises and figures she had been learning, warned Lapish, yes, even Peggy's favorite, the "sit-spin," in which she crouched to the ice on one leg with the other extended, twirling gracefully and smiling serenely. Some weeks later, Peggy Fleming skated perfectly through the Preliminary Test of the U.S. Figure Skating Association (USFSA), her first step on the path that would lead, ten years later, to an Olympic Gold medal and world attention as figure skating's first superstar.

Until the day of Lapish's suggestion, skating had been just another of the athletic activities Fleming's parents had devised for the most active of their four daughters. "I used to play baseball and golf with [my father]," Peggy says. "I roller skated, and I just loved to run around, dancing and looking at my shadow." All the girls—Janice , the oldest, along with Peggy's younger sisters Maxine and Cathy —had been born in San Jose, California, Peggy arriving on July 27, 1948. Albert Fleming, a World War II veteran, had moved his family to the Midwest to take advantage of a job-training program as a pressman for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The long winters added a whole new category of outdoor activities for a family that could rarely be found sitting still, for Albert and Dorothy Fleming made sure the girls were exposed to a wide variety of pursuits. "My father loved all kinds of athletic activity," said Fleming, "and my parents offered us all the things they could." Although violin and flute lessons were among the offerings, neither helped to dissipate Peggy's apparently limitless energy. She discovered skating on her own and fondly recalls the silence of an empty rink, the whisper of skates on clean, glistening ice, and the sense of effortless movement. "She took to it right away," Maxine says. "She started skating as though she had been at it for a long time."

I think I'll always be connected to skating. It's a change from housework.

—Peggy Fleming

Less than a year after passing her Preliminaries, Fleming sailed through the USFSA's First Level test by demonstrating her knowledge of school figures, the elementary circles and figure-eights upon which even the most complicated maneuvers are based. Her father had by then completed his training, and the Flemings moved back to San Jose where Peggy's penchant for skating led her to her second coach, Eugene Turner, in nearby Berkeley. Turner drilled his students relentlessly in perfecting their school figures, going so far as to require them to skate their routines in the dark. Under his careful eye, Peggy passed her Second Level test just after her tenth birthday and was entered in the Juvenile Girls event of the USFSA's Central Pacific regional trials in San Francisco. It was her first exposure to a major audience, but few could have judged from her flawless performance in the school figures how nervous she had been. Her standing after skating the required three figures was high enough to qualify her for the second phase of the event, her first competitive freestyle performance in public, skated to music and combining school figures and maneuvers in any way the competitor wished. When all the scores were in, Fleming had placed first.

But her next competition provided a lesson she never forgot. Jubilant at her regional championship and swelled with confidence, Fleming skated onto the ice at the next week's finals for the Pacific Coast championship sure that winning was as natural to her as breathing. She placed last. "I think that whole experience helped me quite a bit," she said years later. "It was no fun finishing last, and I decided if I was going to compete, I'd better get serious about it." From that point on, Fleming would never be out of the top five contenders at any event; at the next year's Pacific Coast championships at Squaw Valley, she easily placed first to become the West Coast's Juvenile Girls champion. By now, she had begun to think more about her freestyle and had already set herself apart from her competitors by adding graceful arm movements taken from ballet to her routine, as well as a difficult "double salchow"—a jump from the back inside edge of her left skate to the back outside edge of her right, with two airborne spins on the way. Her stunning performance at Squaw Valley attracted the attention of Bill Kipp, who was about to be named coach of the U.S. figure skating team headed for the 1961 World Games in Prague. Kipp agreed to take Fleming on as a student at his rink in Pasadena.

Bill Kipp successfully guided Peggy through her Fourth Level test, began preparing her for the USFSA's next level of competition, Novice Girls, and even found Fleming a summer job as a solo skater for the Arctic Blades Ice Review tour of the western United States. More important, Kipp encouraged Fleming to start thinking more seriously about the image she wanted to present on the ice, urging her to watch his older skaters for ideas on a personal style. What Fleming observed, she later said, was a lack of any sort of style at all in the older group. In 1960, ladies figure skating was characterized, as it had been for 30 years, by what one sports commentator called the "Ice Follies approach," all spectacle and little substance. Fleming's older peers, said fellow competitor Dick Button, were "clumping around, skating fast like hockey players, flailing the ice with quick stops and trying to overpower you with gimmicks. The crowd may like it, but it's not beautiful and it's not good skating." Fleming told Kipp she wanted to leave her audience with a sense of grace and elegance, so that "everything blends smoothly as you flow across the ice." It was under Kipp's guidance that the Peggy Fleming style, a sophisticated blend of ballet and skating that would revolutionize women's figure skating, began to develop.

By late 1960, Fleming had won her first Novice Girls title at the Pacific Coast championships and looked forward to beginning her training for the Fifth Level tests on Kipp's return from the World Games. In February 1961, she arrived home from school to be told by her mother that the plane carrying the entire United States skating team and six coaches, Bill Kipp among them, had crashed en route to Prague. There were no survivors. (American figure skating coach Maribel Vinson Owen and her medal-winning daughters Laurence Owen and Maribel Owen were also killed.) Added to the personal tragedy of the crash was the fact that the United States was left with no skating team in place for the Olympic Games three years hence, while Fleming's own progress seem blocked. Her decision to quit skating resisted the pleas of her family, Peggy arguing that the Flemings could ill afford to support what now seemed to her merely a hobby. It took a former student of Kipp's familiar with his teaching methods to talk Fleming back onto the amateur circuit.

Doriann Swett 's encouragement and coaching got Peggy successfully through her Fifth Level test, the Southwest Pacific regional Junior Girls championship, and to Great Falls, Montana, to skate for the 1961 Pacific Coast Junior Girls title. As she advanced up the USFSA's competition ladder, Fleming worried constantly about the expense placed on her family's already strained finances. "You already have the best equipment that money can buy—yourself and your two legs," Swett reassured her. Fleming's extraordinary talent was so obvious to everyone that even the severe viral infection that struck her during the Great Falls competition, and forced her to leave the ice before completing her freestyle, could not stop her advancement. Her skating up to that point had been so flawless that the USFSA's Pacific Coast regional committee agreed to issue a letter qualifying her to compete at the 1962 National championships in Boston, normally awarded only to the top three scores at each regional level. Fleming skated well, but not well enough, ranking second and missing the National championship title. It was only the second time in her nearly four years of competing that she failed to take first place.

Back in Pasadena, the Flemings rallied to give Peggy another chance at the Nationals. Her father, who had already taken a second part-time job in addition to his night shift at Pasadena's Star News, drove her to the rink every morning at 5:30 and even learned how to operate the ice-scraping machinery so Peggy would have a clean surface for her morning practice. Her mother made all of her daughter's skating outfits by hand, despite the increasing sophistication and style needed for the higher levels of competition, while her sisters screened music for her freestyle program. Peggy herself skated every morning from 5:30 to 8:30, put in a full day at school, then skated again from 3:30 to 5:00 before

returning home for dinner. She often ended her day with another two hours of evening practice. By late 1962, she had qualified again for the National championships, held that year closer to home, in Long Beach, California. She scored well on her compulsory program but placed third in the freestyle and for the second time in two years went home empty-handed, again convinced that her skating dreams were ended.

But just as they had done a year before, the family convinced her otherwise. Over the next ten months, Peggy passed the Eighth and final USFSA test, allowing her to compete at the Senior Ladies level; and by late 1963, she qualified once again for the Nationals. The reward this time, however, was much more than just the National title. The three highest scorers would automatically be placed on the U.S. Olympic Team at the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, which began little more than a month after the Nationals. Fleming was delighted to hear that the Nationals would be held at the same rink in Cleveland where she had trained five years before with Harriet Lapish. The Flemings solved the considerable expense of traveling halfway across the country by sending Peggy alone by air, while Dorothy and Albert left by car ahead of her for the four-day drive from Pasadena.

The competition began hopefully, with Peggy completing her compulsory program in third place; and from her first movement as the music began for her freestyle, Fleming's work over the past year with skater-turned-choreographer Bob Turk became immediately apparent. The audience was riveted by her balletic movements, balancing athletic strength with an artistic sensibility that was more performance than program, and to which the graceful leaps and spins seemed organically connected as part of a flowing, elegant whole. The judges agreed, awarding her near perfect scores and making Peggy Fleming, at 15½, the youngest competitor up to that time to win the National Senior Ladies title. Even better, Fleming was on her way to the Olympics.

With the tragic loss of the expected 1964 team three years earlier, Innsbruck provided the world its first opportunity to watch the new crop of skaters that would normally not have been considered ready for international competition. Fleming, it was thought, had a chance at the bronze medal, even after she placed eighth at the end of her compulsory school figures. All she needed to advance in the rankings, said her fans, was a repeat performance of her Nationals freestyle. But as 11,000 spectators and an international television audience watched, Fleming fell to the ice halfway through the program during a routine maneuver. She completed the program to generous applause and, as evidence of her superlative style despite the fall, finished sixth in the overall rankings. She offered no excuses, even though she had been suffering from a severe cold during the competition. Privately, Fleming told friends that the higher altitude at Innsbruck, higher than any other venue at which she had skated, affected her endurance and left her exhausted going into the freestyle event. Her suspicions were confirmed at the World Games in Germany the next month, where she placed seventh. Nonetheless, she was asked by the International Skating Union to join 30 of the world's top skaters for its World Championships Tour of Europe. She skated two performances a night at the tour's stops in Italy, Germany, France and Switzerland, where her All-American charm and graceful routine was widely praised. But as she skated off the ice after a performance in Germany, Fleming could tell by the look on her mother's face that something was terribly wrong. Her father, she learned, had suffered a heart attack.

Back in Pasadena, Peggy stayed off the ice while her father recuperated and would have quit skating once and for all if Albert hadn't convinced her otherwise. Absent from the circuit for several months, Fleming reentered the skating world by way of an exhibition at Sun Valley in the late summer of 1964, where she met Bob Paul, a gold medalist in the Pairs competition at the 1960 Olympics. Paul devised a training routine to build up her endurance and refined Fleming's freestyle even further. "I want everyone else to enjoy the performance as much as I do," she told him, "whether they like athletics or ballet or music. It should be a combination of all three." By the time of the Nationals in Lake Placid, Fleming successfully defended her National title with scores as high as 5.9 (out of a maximum 6.0) but slipped to third place in the World Games held just a month later at Colorado Springs. Again, Fleming felt it was her lack of altitude training that had hurt her. As they had done several times over the past nine years, the Flemings found a solution by moving permanently to Colorado Springs, where Albert arranged for Peggy to practice at the famed Broadmoor Hotel under the coach who would make her the most famous skater in the world.

Italy's Carlo Fassi had been the World Champion before turning full-time to coaching and settling at the Broadmoor, with its Olympic-sized indoor and outdoor rinks. Fassi and Fleming focused on the upcoming 1966 World Games in Davos, Switzerland, where Peggy would again be exposed to an outdoor rink at a high altitude. It was Fassi who strengthened Fleming's school figures, always her weaker discipline, by forcing her to make her turns and figures mathematically precise. Fleming remembered this training period as the happiest of her career. Her father's health was strong enough for the family to ski and hike together; the pressure of school work had been eased somewhat by enrolling in the Professional High School in Hollywood, which allowed her to study by correspondence and receive her diploma; and Fassi's mix of stern disciplinarian and good-humored mentor were immensely appealing to her. "I owe him so much," Fleming said after Fassi's death from a heart attack in 1997. "He was like your father, your mentor, your strength when you didn't feel you could do it. He always brought out the best in me, like no one else has ever done." It was through Fassi that Fleming had met, in Europe while touring with the ISU, a young admirer named Greg Jenkins. As she began her training at the Broadmoor, she was delighted to discover that Jenkins was just entering Colorado State University and living in Colorado Springs. Fassi was only too happy to reintroduce them. As Fleming headed for the 1966 Nationals in Berkeley, Jenkins awarded her with the first in a long series of good-luck charms—a green chewing-gum wrapper that Peggy never failed to pin inside her costume before entering the rink.

Fleming skated to her third Nationals title at Berkeley and left almost immediately for the World Games in Davos, Fassi mentioning on the journey to Switzerland that a defending World champion (that year, Canadian Petra Burka ) had only been defeated four times in the history of the international competition. Peggy, meanwhile, knew from Fassi that her chief rival in Davos would be the European Ladies Champion, East German Gabriele Seyfert . But at the end of the compulsories, Fleming led Seyfert by 49 points, proof that Fassi had been right to concentrate on her school figures. Her final weapon was the opening figure developed by Fassi for her freestyle, skated to Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. It was a spread eagle and double axel, followed quickly by a double flip—a daring combination never before seen at the World Games. At the end of the judging, Fleming had captured first place in the overall competition by 62 points, becoming, at 17, the best woman skater in the world.

Burka, Petra (1946—)

Canadian figure skater and the first woman to perform a triple Salchow in competition. Born on November 17, 1946, in Canada; daughter of Ellen Petra Burka (a skating coach born in Amsterdam, Holland, August 11, 1921).

Petra Burka was born in Canada in 1946, the daughter of Ellen Petra Burka , a skating coach who produced 26 Canadian Olympic and World champions and medalists, including Toller Cranston, Christopher Bowman, Elvis Stojko, and her own daughter. Petra Burka began skating at age six. At 14, she won the Canadian junior figure skating title. In 1962, she placed fourth at the World championships and made history that year as the first female to perform a triple Salchow in competition. Two years later, Burka won an Olympic bronze medal in figure skating in Innsbruck, Austria; Sjoukje Dijkstra of Holland took home the gold. The following year, Petra won the Canadian national title, along with the North American and World championships. The first ladies champion in Canada since Barbara Ann Scott , she was voted Canada's top female athlete two years in a row. In 1997, Petra Burka was inducted into the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Her mother had been inducted the preceding year.

Seyfert, Gabriele (c. 1948—)

East German figure skater. Name variations: Gaby. Born around 1948; daughter of Jutta Mueller (her mother and also her coach).

In 1968, Gaby Seyfert won the Olympic silver medal in figure skating at the Grenoble Winter Games. Seyfert went on to win the World championships in 1969 and 1970. She was also European Ladies Champion in 1967.

suggested reading:

Seyfert, Gaby. Da muss noch was sein. Mein Leben, mehr als Pflicht und Kür (an autobiography), 1998.

The 1966 World championship, the first of three consecutive World titles, marked the beginning of Fleming's second try for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. She trained with Fassi six hours a day, six days a week, in preparation for the 1967 Nationals in Omaha, Nebraska, taking time off only to help defray the expenses of her career by going once again on the ISU's World Champions tour in Europe. One day in Moscow, as Fleming and her mother hurried to catch a plane for the tour's next stop in Germany, an attaché from the American Embassy stopped them just as they were about to board. The embassy had received a call, he said, and it was tragic news. Albert Fleming, who had always remained behind in the States to look after things while Peggy and Dorothy were away, had died. Fleming had last seen him in Boston at a benefit event, little more than a month before, when Albert had driven all the way from Colorado to visit with her before she returned to Europe for the ISU tour. He had died in Cleveland, where he had stopped to visit relatives on his way back to Colorado. "He worked so hard to help me," Fleming told the press on her return to the United States, recalling how Albert had thought nothing of changing jobs so that she could be near the best coaches and facilities. "He was so instrumental. He taught me how to take care of my body, to warm up and warm down, not to overtrain, and to take care of injuries."

Although publicly Fleming sidestepped questions about her future, she privately told Dorothy and her sisters that she wanted to quit skating, complete her courses for an education degree at Colorado State, and help support the family. Greg Jenkins, who became something of a big brother to the younger girls in the absence of their father, joined with Dorothy and Carlo Fassi in urging her to continue long enough to reach the Olympics in Grenoble, France, just a year away. Fleming reluctantly agreed after insisting she would retire after the Winter Games. The public never knew how much Peggy missed her father, but everyone noticed the difference in her form at the 1967 Omaha Nationals, technically perfect but without the artistic spark that usually ignited her time on the ice. She won her fourth consecutive National title nonetheless, followed by the North American Ladies title in Montreal, and her second World title in Vienna, which she won despite a bad spill during the freestyle that sent her spinning into the rink's sidewall.

Fassi stepped up her training as soon as Fleming returned from Vienna, where the European press had called her "America's shy Bambi" and had noted with much speculation the presence of Greg Jenkins at every event. Gaby Seyfert, whom Peggy had once again defeated in the World championships, noted that "Peggy has no weaknesses. [She] lands softly and everything she does is connected. It's pure ballerina." Former men's champion Dick Button called her the "Audrey Hepburn of skating. With some skaters," he said, "there's a lot of fuss and feathers, but nothing is happening. With Peggy, there's no fuss and feathers, and a great deal is happening."

By the time of the 1968 Nationals in Philadelphia, Fleming seemed unstoppable. The judges all awarded her 5.9's for technical method in her freestyle, while two of them gave her perfect 6.0's for interpretation and style. With her fifth consecutive National championship behind her, Fleming set off for Grenoble. Bothered by an incipient cold that threatened to race through the Olympic Village, Peggy set tongues wagging when she obtained permission from the Olympic Committee to move out of the Village and into a nearby hotel with her mother. Some observers put the blame on Dorothy as the instigator, pointing out Dorothy's reputation as an assertive and sometimes overly protective stage mother. Fleming always bristled at the talk, remembering that in 1968 the days of professional management and corporate sponsorships were still in the future. "At the time my mother was like my agent-manager. She made all my costumes, she was a buffer. To hire someone to do that was considered amateurish, and we didn't have the money anyhow."

After the opening ceremonies on February 6, with Fleming marching behind the American flag in the parade of athletes, she settled down to work. Those around her at the time remember that she spoke little and, as was her usual habit, found a quiet corner of the dressing room to spend the tense period before her turn on the ice was called. She skated in 17th position out of more than 30 competitors, gliding onto the ice in Dorothy's chartreuse costume for her compulsory school figures as millions watched on television, the event being broadcast for the first time live and in color. When the compulsories were over, Fleming led Gaby Seyfert by 77 points. Since compulsories in those days accounted for 60% of a competitor's total score, Fleming was virtually assured of first place in the overall scores. But it was her freestyle that captivated the world, was replayed over and over for days following, and catapulted figure skating into a major spectator sport. During those four minutes, Fleming stunned her audience by opening with two double loops and a double axel, gliding through a back spiral and layback spin, soaring through two splits and a double lutz, and finishing with the spread eagle and double axel she had introduced in Davos. Spectators could hardly tell where one movement ended and the next began. Fleming knew her program had not been flawless and anxiously scanned the judge's booth amid the cheers and bouquets thrown to the ice after her performance. But her concern evaporated when the judge's cards went up. There were unanimous 5.9's for artistic quality, while all but three of the judges gave her the same rating for technique. First place was hers, by 88 points. Two days later, the gold medal was draped over Peggy Fleming's neck, the only American in any discipline at Grenoble to be so honored.

Just a month after the Olympics, Fleming won her third World championship title in Geneva, returning to the United States with her position as the world's best women's figure skater secured. At a White House ceremony at the end of that month, then-President Lyndon Johnson expressed a nation's thanks for "helping us with the gold drain by bringing back the gold medal." In early April, as she had vowed, Fleming announced her retirement from amateur competition. Shortly afterward, she signed with NBC for a series of television specials and with a management and promotion company for live events, including her own "Concert On Ice" and as the star for four seasons running of the Ice Follies tour. Her 1973 NBC special, "Peggy Fleming Visits the Soviet Union," was the first Soviet-American television venture; and in 1975, she became the youngest inductee of the Skating Hall of Fame. Of more significance to Fleming, however, was her marriage in 1970 to Greg Jenkins and the arrival of two sons, Andrew and Todd, over the next ten years.

More than 30 years after her stunning victory in Grenoble, Peggy Fleming remained an influential and respected voice in both amateur and professional sports. The 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, would have marked her 21st year as a network commentator had she not undergone an operation for breast cancer on February 10, 1998, 30 years to the day after she had won her gold medal in Grenoble. "The doctor said I'm going to be fine," she told reporters.

Fleming is also a well-known spokesperson for such organizations as the Women's Sports

Foundation and the President's Council on Physical Fitness. She has been invited to the White House by four separate administrations and became the first skater to perform there, in 1980. She has never, in fact, stopped skating. The Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy, reporting on the 1994 "Skates of Gold" tour, with Fleming leading a roster of 38 Olympic champions, noted that "it's about the grace and beauty of athleticism, and it appears that Peggy Fleming will still have her fastball long after Nolan Ryan's plaque is gathering dust in the Hall of Fame." Because of that grace and beauty, figure skating has become the most closely watched event at the Winter Olympics, and hundreds of hopeful young skaters, from Dorothy Hamill to Michelle Kwan , have been inspired by her example. Fleming, however, has often stressed the wider significance of competitive sports at any level: "I guess you could say that skating taught me to be true to the best that's within me."


Eldridge, Larry. "Peggy Fleming—Elegant Skating with Less Pressure," in The Christian Science Monitor. February 15, 1979.

Swift, E.M. "Peggy Fleming," in Sports Illustrated's Forty for the Ages. Vol. 81, no. 12. September 19, 1994.

Van Steenwyck, Elizabeth. Peggy Fleming: Cameo of a Champion. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1978.

Young, Stephanie and Bruce Curtis. Peggy Fleming: Portrait of an Ice Skater. NY: Avon Books 1984.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York