Can a teenage girl in a home-sewn costume change the face of ice skating?
50 years ago Peggy Fleming did, when she took home the Gold Medal at the 1968 Olympics in Switzerland.
Today, figure skating is the marquee event of the Winter Olympics, arguably the most glamorous of sports. But the woman who ushered it in had more in common with Tonya Harding than Nancy Kerrigan.
Lionized for her beauty, grace and glamour, Peggy Fleming came from a working-class background. Her dad was a newspaper press operator, and they moved around the country several times. One summer they found themselves homeless and had to make their home at a campground.
Peggy was nine years old when she first stepped on the ice. Her talent was quickly apparent, but nurturing it took sacrifice. Her father drove her to the daily pre-dawn practices and drove the Zamboni at the rink. Her mother sewed her skating costumes and made coaching decisions, moving the family to a new state to place her daughter with the best coaches. When Peggy was 12, her coach and the entire US Skating team were killed in a plane crash en route to the World Championships. In the aftermath of the crash a scholarship fund was set up to support skaters in financial need, of whom Peggy Fleming was one.
Three years later Peggy made it to the Olympics with a new coach and finished 6th. She was 15, but savvy enough to know who and what she wanted to be, saying the experience gave her perspective of her own skating. “I thought, ‘Well, I want to do something different,’ and so I went back and started trying to find my style and to find myself,” she said.
The style she created was visually appealing and her timing was perfect, as the 1968 Olympics were the first games broadcast in color. Her mother also took advantage of the new color technology—she designed the chartreuse green dress Peggy skated in to call to mind the chartreuse liqueur made by local monks in hopes that the French and Swiss would connect with it and applaud her daughter.
Whether they did or not, she made the color iconic and glamorous. During the games, a bad flu broke out in the Olympic village, and Peggy moved in with her mother—who was staying at an unglamorous hotel near the train station. From those digs, she won America’s only gold medal at the 1968 games.
Peggy Fleming stood on the podium many times—in addition to the Olympic wins, she was three-time consecutive World Championship champion from 1966-68 and five-time consecutive U.S. National champion from 1964-68. A kid from the working class, she never stopped working. She turned pro after the 1968 Olympics, skated in Russia during the Cold War, skated at the White House, skated at the unveiling of the restored Statue of Liberty.
In 1998, thirty years after her historic win, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She said, “This is another kind of competition, but I’m being coached by an excellent team, and I’ve got a real strong competitive spirit.” She and her husband operated their own vineyard in Northern California for a number of years and one of their most famous wines was one called “Victories Rose”. It was created specifically to raise funds for breast cancer research, and 100% of the funds were donated to research.
Peggy Fleming was inducted into the U.S. & World Figure Skating Halls of Fame in 1976; and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983. In 2003, she received the “Lombardi Award of Excellence” from the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation, awarded annually to an individual who exemplifies the spirit of the Coach. In 1999, she was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the seven athletes who changed the face of sports in the 20th century. The others were Jackie Robinson, Arnold Palmer, Billy Jean King, Pele, Richard Petty and Bill Russell.
From a kid in a campground to a legend who shaped a sport, Peggy Fleming has always made (and continues to make) grit look graceful.
Watch her Gold Medal performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw9XZAA72lw