LIFE COVER 2-23-1968: Olympic charmer Peggy Fleming

Peggy Fleming Looks Back at Her 1968 Olympic Triumph

A sports icon talks with Foto about her own Olympic moment; her long career in the public eye; and the state of figure skating today.

 
In February 1968, Peggy Fleming won the United States’ only gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France. Skating with quiet flair and remarkable poise, the 19-year-old won (some say healed) a nation’s heart and, virtually overnight, entered American sports lore. Here, exactly 50 years later, Fleming speaks with Foto about her Olympic moment, as well as her long career in the public eye. And she doesn't shy from weighing in on the state of her beloved sport today.

The Girl From Colorado Bettmann/Bettmann Archive The Girl From Colorado “I came from a family that did not have a lot of money,” Fleming told Foto of her youth in Colorado. “To win gold in a glamorous sport like figure skating — it was like, ‘The simple girl wins the Olympics!’" But for many in the famously tight-knit (if intensely competitive) sport, the moment represented far more than a lone victory at the Games. For U.S. figure skating, Fleming's win was, in a real sense, the start of a new era. A rebirth. Flight 548: The Darkest Hour Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Flight 548: The Darkest Hour On Feb. 15, 1961, Sabena Flight 548 from New York crashed on its approach to an airport in Brussels, en route to Prague, killing all 72 people on board -- including the entire American figure skating team (18 skaters, 16 family members and coaches). The disaster remains one of the darkest episodes in U.S. sports history, and it forced American skating into a prolonged period of rebuilding. Seven years later, Peggy Fleming's gold-medal performance showed the world, and her fellow Americans, that U.S. skating was back. (Pictured: The U.S. team poses before boarding its ill-fated flight to Brussels. At left is team manager Dean McMinn. Alongside him is 16-year-old Laurence Owen, "America's Queen of the Ice.") A Little Hope Art Rickerby/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images A Little Hope Fleming's win could not, by any means, erase the pain of the 1961 disaster. But for a country in the throes of political and cultural upheaval, Grenoble was something of a respite from the incessant turmoil of the times. "I think [my win] gave people hope. If I could do it, they could, too. In an era like the late Sixties, with the war in Vietnam and everything else — I think winning the medal sort of reassured people that everything would be okay.” Fantastic Four The Denver Post/Denver Post via Getty Images Fantastic Four Fleming was hardly a novice in the skating world when the '68 Olympics began. She had already won four U.S. Championships, one North American Championship, and two World Championships. (Pictured: Coach Carlo Fassi and the great British skater Jean Westwood join four young hopefuls before the 1966 national championships in California, which Fleming won. Left to right: Billy Chapel, Fleming, Lorna Dyer, and John Carrell.) Focused in France John G. Zimmerman/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images Focused in France Long before she scaled Olympian heights, Peggy Fleming was a self-described tomboy who loved all kinds of sports. “I was number two of four girls,” she says, “and growing up I played sports with my dad. I loved baseball. I'd go body surfing with him, and play golf. Everything.” (Pictured: Fleming during practice at the outdoor rink, Parc Paul Mistral, Grenoble, prior to skating for gold.) Almost Famous Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Almost Famous Peggy Fleming, not quite your typical teenager, takes in the sight of the ice rink in Grenoble, France, February 1968. An Early Start ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images An Early Start With no hint of false modesty, Fleming speaks of learning to skate in refreshingly straightforward terms. “When my parents introduced us to skating, I stepped on the ice and went, ‘Wow, this is so easy.’ And when a kid is introduced to a sport that feels easy, she’s going to stick with it.” (Pictured: Fleming on the ice in 1966.) Soar Winner STAFF/AFP/Getty Images Soar Winner Fleming was known not only for her strength on skates, but her grace. That was no accident. She loved music and took ballet lessons when young, and she looked to both art forms “as my inspiration for how I wanted to move on the ice. I also loved the athleticism of [skating]. I loved to jump as high as I could, and make it look effortless. That's the goal in ballet, and in figure skating: to make everything look easy.” (Pictured: Fleming in flight during practice, Grenoble, February, 1968.) Icons and Inspiration Central Press/Getty Images Icons and Inspiration Asked if there was anyone she especially admired when she was young, Fleming doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely! The Russian husband and wife pair, Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov. They were very elegant, and they moved so effortlessly. They would often compliment me, because our styles were similar. I wanted to be like them. The music they chose, the simplicity of their moves. Oh, I just loved it.” (Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov in action, January 1964.) Famous Friends STAFF/AFP/Getty Images Famous Friends Her Olympic gold not only made Fleming a star; it boosted her already lofty status among her athletic peers. Here French skiing legend Jean-Claude Killy, who won three golds at Grenoble, chats with Fleming during the last days of the '68 Games. Welcome Home, Peggy! Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Welcome Home, Peggy! Peggy Fleming waves to her fellow Coloradans during a parade in her honor in Colorado Springs following her return home from Grenoble. Looking Back Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Looking Back “I can't believe that fifty years has gone by,” Fleming says today. But she also acknowledges that the gold medal and the exposure it generated gave her, quite quickly, “a great career [in professional skating and in broadcasting]. I didn't have time to really digest things along the way, because it just kept going and going and going.” (Pictured: Fleming at the White House with President Lyndon Johnson, March 1968.) From Ice to Screen NBC/NBC via Getty Images From Ice to Screen Winning the lone American gold in Grenoble also transformed Fleming from a star athlete to a pop-culture phenomenon. Before 1968 was over, she starred in the first of numerous TV specials she would host through the years. Song and dance superstar Gene Kelly, still spry in his 50s, was among the guests on NBC’s “Here’s Peggy Fleming" in November 1968. Peggy and. . . Little Richard? ABC Photo Archives/ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images Peggy and. . . Little Richard? Fleming was rarely out of the public eye for long in the years immediately following her feat in the Olympics. Here, she and TV host Dick Cavett bask in the strange wonder of Little Richard in May 1969. On Today's Talent STAFF/AFP/Getty Images On Today's Talent Pivoting to today’s figure skaters, Fleming sees tons of talent, but also a loss of some of the sport’s soul. “Skating isn't all about jumps,” she says. “It's about grace. It's about the interpretation of the music. We need to bring that balance back. Right now, the men are more artistic than the women. You don't have to flail your arms every second while you're skating to show everybody you can interpret the music. Sometimes, interpreting the music means holding a move longer.” (Pictured: Fleming in Grenoble, 1968.) Game Changer TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images Game Changer Peggy Fleming holds her "Athlete Who Changed the Game" award during a Sports Illustrated awards event at Madison Square Garden in December 1999. The ceremony honored the greatest athletes of the previous 100 years. Forever Grateful Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Scott Hamilton Forever Grateful Today, after a long, celebrated career as a skating commentator for ABC Sports; as a wife, mother, and grandmother; as a breast cancer survivor and activist, Peggy Fleming is thankful for everything she's earned. “Give back to other people,” she advises. “Be giving and be grateful. I'm very grateful for what happened to me. I was one of the lucky ones who had everything go right, at exactly the right time.” (Pictured: Fleming speaks at the second annual "An Evening of Scott Hamilton & Friends" to benefit The Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation, November 2017, in Nashville.)