Peggy Fleming, 1968 Olympic champ, wants more artistry in figure skating

Has the sport become too jump-heavy? American Peggy Fleming, the ladies’ winner in Grenoble, thinks so. Plus, shares her memories of victory 52 years later in a wide-ranging exclusive interview.

By Nick McCarvel

Favoured to win the gold medal in figure skating at the Winter Olympics in 1968 in Grenoble, France, 19-year-old Peggy Fleming’s mother, Doris, wanted her to stand out to the French crowd.

So Doris, who made all of USA star Peggy’s costumes, constructed a sleek chartreuse dress for her daughter, an ode to the region of France known for the Chartreuse Mountains and its famous monastery, where monks made liqueur, which was also called – and still is – chartreuse.

“I think it went over everyone's head,” Fleming laughed last week, in an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel. “She put a lot of thought behind it. That color (symbolises) new growth and a new beginning, like in nature, the early leaves. (My mom) thought if I wore the colors of chartreuse, it would endear me to the French people and they would applaud more.”

While Fleming says the dress did little to win favour with the French fans, she didn’t need its help, earning the accolades of the judging panel and an American audience watching at home on TV in colour for the very first time.

She left with a different colour around her neck: Gold. And international stardom for her strong yet quiet skating.

Peggy Fleming, Grenoble 1968 Olympic Games

Fleming is celebrating her 72nd birthday on 27 July and still stays involved in skating. Earlier in the month, she helped oversee the third annual Peggy Fleming Trophy, which highlights skaters’ artistic abilities, and made headlines as a virtual, skate-from-home-ice competition. Some think the event could be the way of the future in the next couple of years.

Fleming wants it to catch on in another way, too: For its focus artistry, with rules highlighting spins, step sequences, an athletes’ “signature move” (their choice), and a limit on number of jumps, among other things.

“I think we've lost our audience over the past few years because people don't like to watch people fall all the time,” Fleming said as part of her Olympic Channel conversation. “That kind of breaks the spell. I think watching the Peggy Fleming Trophy, you can relax and enjoy beautiful skating. It’s a new showcase to show what (these skaters) can do.”

In a wide-ranging interview from her home outside of Denver, Fleming talks more about her want for more artistry in modern skating, explains how she dealt with pressure as the favourite in 1968, discusses some of the skaters she loved commentating about the most and much, much more.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for brevity.

Checking in with Peggy

Olympic Channel (OC): Peggy thank you for your time. Tell us about what life has looked like for you the last few months. It’s been different for everyone.

Peggy Fleming: We’ve been staying home a lot. A lot of home cooking, a lot of projects we have procrastinated about doing for years. This gives us time to do that. And we've been reading. We also planted a vegetable garden and now see our grandkids every once in a while. Life has been pretty quiet.

OC: You’re an American icon, but tell us about what has been most important to you in the last few years with the work you’ve taken on.

Fleming: I had breast cancer in 1998, and then I did a lot of speaking engagements on behalf of breast cancer research and motivating people to take charge of their health and take care of themselves My story was it was a good one to share: We caught it early.

Balance is important to me. And I think that's what life is, is, being able to balance your work, your home life, your children. All the work that I was doing was traveling around the world commentating, doing shows. So I really spaced stuff out so that I didn't miss important things from our kids. And they turned out pretty normal: One is a wine maker and the other one works for a dog toy company right here in Colorado.

Remembering Grenoble

OC: Let’s talk about the 1968 Olympics. You were a two-time world champion going into Grenoble, having placed sixth at the 1964 Games in Innsbruck at the age of 15. What was the pressure like? And your nerves?

Fleming: The Olympics are a totally different level of nerves that you don't know how you're going to handle until you're there. I think that I was a little more nervous than normal because I had so much pressure on me to win and the expectations of everyone (else).

OC: How much did you feel like that experience in 1964 helped you, even if you still were just a teenager?

Fleming: Well, when I was 15 in Innsbruck, I had just won the national championship. I didn't have a passport, didn't have a warm coat because we were from California. Going to the Olympics, my eyes were like saucers. I participated in the opening ceremonies and I loved the Olympic Village.

I had never seen skaters from all over the world. And the lady that won do was Sjoukje Dijkstra from the Netherlands. She was really powerful, athletic. I watched her skate and I thought, ‘I think I can skate better than that.’ I aspired to do my own thing. And I went home and had a new perspective on my skating and my training and who I was.

OC: After your free skate in Grenoble, it was almost a foregone conclusion that you would win. We have this footage of you sitting rink side, alone, waiting to receive your scores. What do you remember?

Fleming: I was calm at that time because my coach wasn't around me, my mom wasn't around me. I don't know why they had to go and sit in the penalty box (laughing). It was kind of odd.

But then once my marks were over, then I got to walk back stage and be with my mom and my coach and really be relieved that the pressure was over. We all felt that. I felt good that I did a good job showing all the work that they put into motivating me over the years and training me.

'A very, very proud moment'

OC: And then what about the moment of actually getting the gold medal around your neck? Amazingly it was the only American gold won in Grenoble.

Fleming: That’s a very, very proud moment, accomplishing that dream. It was an out-of-body experience. I was proud of myself. To actually have the medal on… it was it was magical. It made me feel good about representing the U.S.

Can you believe it (was the only U.S. gold)? Yeah. It hasn’t happened since. When I won in ‘68, it was such an unusual time in our country and in the world, the Vietnam War and all of that.

"I think I was a breath of fresh air and hope for young people. … I'm very grateful for that whole experience. (It) changed my life forever." - Peggy Fleming to Olympic Channel.

OC: You were known for your athleticism, but also how you took what you saw from ’64 and built on it artistically. Why is the artistic side of skating so important to you still today?

Fleming: I've always loved the artistry part of skating. I love music. I played the violin before I started skating. I see it in other skaters, that they are so artistic and they really can express themselves. Not everybody is a great jumper. And I want to see skating get that balance. Like balance in life. We need the balance back in our sport. And I just think audiences will enjoy watching it more. It's more challenging for the athlete.

Peggy Fleming Trophy

OC: That is part of the reason you and your husband Greg Jenkins created the Peggy Fleming Trophy in 2018, to infuse more artistry back into the sport. But at the top level – in men’s and ladies’ skating – we’re seeing quads, quads, quads and triple Axels, too.

Fleming: We feel like skating has come to a tipping point where there's just too much emphasis on the technical side with the triple jumps and quads. And the artistry has been pushed aside.

That was the basis of the Peggy Fleming Trophy: To create a competition that showcases each skaters’ ability to perform a three-and-a-half-minute program and also a real creative side in their choreography while still demonstrating their technical skills. Everything is judged from an artistic point of view. (The approach) frees up the time for the skater to really be creative

OC: We talked earlier about the pressure you faced and mental toughness in the sport in the Olympics. Do you think that remains the challenge for skaters today: Bringing your best on the biggest stages?

Fleming: It's hard to do it. Not everybody can do it. But I think you learn over the years how to handle your nerves. And I think your training that you do every day builds up that confidence. You've got to build your confidence in yourself and go out there with that confidence that you're just doing it one more time. But sometimes the pressure does get to you. And that's OK. Not everybody can pull it together at the right time. And so we miss a lot of very talented skaters because they can't handle the pressure.

Fleming on Boitano, Kim Yuna, Kwan and more

OC: If we go back to the artistry discussion, who are some of your favourite champion artists in skating from over the years?

Fleming: There’s a few; I’ll start with Brian Boitano. I mean, the music he chose was just so perfect for him. It was strong. And, he was a strong jumper. He emoted (on the ice) with the music.

Kim Yuna. She was just magical out there, enchanting. She looked always so calm. And, you know, her costumes were tasteful and her positions were held so that you could see them. She also did the jumps… and made them look so easy. She skated very quiet, which I liked, (because) that's what I tried to do, too.

(Jayne) Torvill and (Christopher) Dean. Their performance in Sarajevo… I watched one of the practices (as a commentator) and I was just… I couldn't speak. It was so beautiful. It was all so magical. They really changed ice dancing forever. And it was a bold move to have a constant beat all the way through your program. They were outstanding. I think everybody remembers that program.

Katarina Witt. She was really glamorous and flirtatious and athletic and a good competitor. She was always confident in herself. I loved watching her. The power of her and her skating. I remember being on the ice with her (during exhibitions) and being impressed by how fast and strong she was.

Michelle Kwan is so special. She was a fabulous competitor. She always would come through with a performance. I think she taught everyone how to win, but also how to lose. And I think those were good tools for all athletes. You really felt in her performance that you got to know her and what kind of person she is on the ice.

Salt Lake memories and a message for athletes

OC: What is so captivating to you about a beautiful skater? Or someone who you feel like is more “figure skater” than “figure jumper,” to put it in your terms.

Fleming: (A skater’s) goal is to make it look effortless and that's what makes the magical performances. You know, when you watch a ballet, they make it look effortless. They don't make it look like, ‘Oh, I'm doing a really hard move.’ I'm going to stop the flow of the performance to be able to do this difficult move. It is just seamless. That's the goal, I think, for figure skaters as well, to have their performance be seamless and effortless.

OC: In 2002 you were – along with fellow American Olympic champ Scott Hamilton – chosen to be a torch bearer for the Opening Ceremony, skating it from one end of the stadium to the next. What do you remember of that?

Fleming: It was very special. Scott is forever the comedian, and he said, ‘Well, let's try not to trip or fall.’

I'm like, ‘Scott, don't say something like that before we do this.' I stayed positive. And then we hung on to dear life (laughs).

Scott Hamilton (L) and Peggy Fleming, Salt Lake City 2002

One of the other people that was involved in the opening ceremony was John Glenn, the astronaut. He and his wife were sitting behind me on the bus. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. I mean, he's just like, he's out of this world.’ I always bring an Olympic flag with me so that I get signatures of all these athletes. And I just lean back and said to him, ‘I'm just so impressed with what you have done and how brave you are. And I would love to have you sign my Olympic flag.’ He goes, ‘Well, I'm not an Olympian.’ I told him, ‘You're more than worthy.’ So he signed my flag and he said it to Peggy. And it was very special. That was really cool.

OC: Would you like to send a message out there to all the skaters – all the athletes, actually – who have been impacted by COVID-19? What would you like them to know?

Fleming: Don't forget about your ultimate dream. And all the work you've put into it so far. This is a very unusual time, but I think just you just have to hang on and keep your dream alive in your head. Because it's only a few years in your life that you're in this kind of shape in this age. Keep going for it.


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