Pioneer of Post-Olympic Good Life
Peggy Fleming's 1968 gold medal was only the first step
When Olympic figure skating culminates next week in the women's competition in Nagano, Japan, former champion Peggy Fleming will watch from her California home with interest and empathy.
Having been to the winter Games, and having won in 1968, she feels she can relate to all the skaters. "I know what they are going through and I know how much it can change your life when the outcome is positive," she observed during a recent appearance in Boston.
Speaking after a final rehearsal for "Skaters' Tribute to Hollywood," which ESPN will air before the Academy Awards in March, she cautions young athletes against shortsightedness when it comes to the Olympics.
"It's not the end of your career," she says. "It's a nice beginning of another era of your career, another dimension of your career."
Fleming knows. She's basically written the book on translating Olympic acclaim into endless opportunity. Six months after her 1968 Olympic triumph in Grenoble, France, she starred in the first of a series of five TV specials.
Since then, she has maintained a public presence in any number of ways - as a longtime TV commentator for ABC Sports, as a product endorser, as honorary chairman of the PTA and board member of various organizations, and as a professional skater.
In 1980 she was the first skater to perform at the White House, where she's been invited by four different administrations, and in 1986 she was a headliner for the national celebration held to unveil the refurbished Statue of Liberty.
In her own way, Fleming is almost as much of a symbol as Lady Liberty. She remains the picture of the storybook ice queen - feminine, graceful, and mature. She sees these same qualities in reigning American champion Michelle Kwan, the gold-medal favorite and Fleming's choice to ascend the Olympic throne. "Michelle is what our sport is all about," she says.
Asked about her own ability to project a positive image for figure skating, Fleming says it's a matter of upbringing. "I think when you have good values taught to you at home and good values and the basics taught to you in your sport it carries you through life."
And who was Fleming's key adviser when she emerged from the '68 Olympics as the gold medalist?
"My mom," she says.
Mother and daughter faced a largely uncharted world of decisions.
"I had no idea what lay ahead of me because no one had done the things that I did as a professional," Fleming says. "Carol Heiss [the 1960 Olympic champion] 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."
Fleming entered the '68 winter Games as the two-time world and five-time national champion. She says that her best performance of the season occurred at nationals the month before and that at Grenoble she was was worried that something would go wrong.
"I went out scared to death, but good training habits and muscle memory took over," she recalls. "It was kind of a robot performance. It was good enough to win, though."
Besides being a personal victory, her gold medal was significant to the United States. It was the Americans' only top finish at Grenoble and brought the US its first figure skating gold since the US team was killed in a 1961 plane crash.
Even in 1968, Fleming says, skating at the Olympics was the ultimate challenge.
"There are a lot more distractions at the Olympic Games," she says. "There's a lot more hype, a lot more press, and a lot of athletes from other sports."
Although media attention has intensified on today's skaters, Fleming says they own an edge in the experience department. "They do at least 10 or more competitions each year," she notes. "We only did two or three."
Olympic glory can overwhelm some athletes, but, in a sense, figure skating prepared Fleming for sorting out the options she faced.
"Skaters have to make many decisions along the way, what music to use, what choreographer and coach to hire," she says. "After you win the Olympics it's just different kinds of decisions, about your image, who you're going to work with, and what kinds of shows you want to do."
For the most part, Fleming says people have respected her privacy away from the ice rink. In 1970 she married dermatologist Greg Jenkins. They live in the San Francisco Bay area and have two sons, ages 9 and 21, neither of whom is into figure skating. The older son is into snowboarding. The younger son, to his mother's delight, is into baseball, a sport she loved even as a child. They practice together in the front yard.
In addition, she keeps up her figure skating by occasionally accepting invitations to perform.
That she does so 30 years after winning the Olympics surprises her, she acknowledges.
"I think, 'What have I gotten myself into now?' " she says laughing. "But I think it's good to scare yourself once in awhile. It's like a goal. You're committed. I will do the best I can, no matter what's going on, whether or not there's a lot of chaos going on in my life. I will focus on the job, make sure my family's OK, but I get it done."