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Peggy Fleming Celebrates 50 Years Of Strength And Grace

By Lynn Rutherford | Dec. 20, 2017, 10:44 a.m. (ET)

Peggy Fleming competes at the Olympic Winter Games Grenoble 1968 in Grenoble, France.


Peggy Fleming has come full circle, in more ways than one.

Nearly 50 years after she won the only U.S. gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games Grenoble 1968, Fleming makes her home in the Denver area, not far from where she spent the final three seasons of her competitive career training at the Broadmoor World Arena and met her husband of 48 years, Greg Jenkins.

“We just thought, this is where we need to be at this stage of our lives,” Fleming, 69, said. “Greg went to Colorado College, that’s where we met and fell in love. Life-changing things happened here.”

So the couple sold their home in Los Gatos, California, swapping it for a residence near the Southern Rocky Mountains. It is the latest of several downshifts: around 2012, Greg retired from his dermatology practice. That same year, the couple closed their successful Fleming Jenkins Vineyards and Winery, where they grew Chardonnay grapes and created Victories, a dry rose, to help raise funds for breast cancer research. (Fleming is a breast cancer survivor.)

“We did sell our house in California; we lived there for 40 years and raised our two sons (Andy and Todd) there,” Fleming said. “We just thought, well, they are so far away. (Andy) has three sons of his own, aged 18, 14 and 12, and (Todd) is at UC Davis getting his masters in winemaking, so we’re still kind of in the wine business.”

Now, Peggy and Greg live just 15 minutes away from Andy’s family.

“We could not be happier,” she said, emphasizing every syllable. “It was a huge, very scary decision to uproot ourselves from California and move to Colorado, but it seems perfect. We’ve been there since February and we just love it.”

Retirement doesn’t equate to inactivity for the couple. They’ve rediscovered tennis, a sport they played decades ago, and gotten reacquainted with college friends. She may have stopped doing double axels decades ago, but Fleming is a big proponent of physical fitness.

“(Andy) played tennis growing up and now we all can play together,” she said. “There are courts in our neighborhood and lessons and drills. It’s an active, fun neighborhood, and people participate in all kinds of things, no matter what their age, which is fun.

“Old age today isn’t what it was 20 or 30 years ago,” she added. “I think people are being more active, they are being more engaged and challenging themselves. I admire that. I still try to challenge myself, and I think when you stay engaged and stay moving, you’re healthier, your life is more interesting and it just feels good.”

There were U.S. Olympic figure skating champions before Fleming, including Dick Button (1948 and 1952), Tenley Albright and Hayes Allen Jenkins (1956), and Carol Heiss and David Jenkins (1960). But Fleming — who combined a ballerina’s grace with her era’s most difficult double jumps, as well as excellence in the then-important compulsory figures — launched the sport’s modern era. She was the first skating star of television’s color age, bringing wholesome glamour and a touch of sex appeal into America’s living rooms.

“I didn’t go out as a young skater and say, ‘I want to win the Olympics and be the best ever,’” Fleming said. “I just wanted to be the best I could be and improve every year. Things kind of fell into place, I won the Olympics and television was a big thing then.”

Peggy Fleming is honored with a Caesars Tribute II award at the press conference for The Caesars Tribute II: A Salute to the Ladies of the Ice on Dec. 2, 2011 in Atlantic City, N.J.

Those words gloss over a hard-fought path to the top. In a sport often populated by the well-off, Fleming’s family was of modest means. Father Al was a newspaper pressman; mother Doris scrimped to pay for Peggy’s lessons and sewed her daughter’s costumes. The family, including Peggy’s three sisters, moved often as Doris sought out the best coaches for her daughter. One of those coaches, William Kipp, was killed in the 1961 plane crash that took the lives of the entire U.S. world figure skating team.

The deaths of skaters ranked above Fleming brought her to prominence at a young age.  In 1964, she won her first U.S. title and competed at the Innsbruck Olympics. After winning her second U.S. crown in 1965, she moved to Colorado Springs to train at the Broadmoor under coach Carlo Fassi, an Italian champion who would go on to coach Dorothy Hamill to 1976 Olympic gold.

“It was perfect ice conditions and the (high) altitude helped my endurance,” Fleming said of the resort’s arena, which was demolished in 1994. “Carlo was the perfect coach at that stage of my career, to really pull together all I learned from other coaches.”

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Fassi led Fleming to her first world title in Davos, Switzerland, in 1966. Three weeks later, her father Al succumbed to a heart attack, his third, at age 41.

“I was on a tour of champions in Moscow,” Fleming told this reporter in 2009. “Someone from the U.S. embassy came and found my mom and me at the airport and flew us home. That really took the wind out of me, but I learned how to be strong. Watching my mom continue on raising four girls instilled a lot of character in me. She was a great example.”

In Philadelphia in 1968, Fleming won her fifth consecutive U.S. title with what she remembers as her greatest free skate ever. Her program in Grenoble was marred by a few uncharacteristic mistakes on jumps, but she was ranked first by every judge in the compulsory figures and free skate.

“There was tremendous pressure on me because I was twice world champion going into that Olympics and was expected to win,” she said. “I didn’t march in the opening parade, because my coach didn’t want me to risk getting sick or pulling a muscle.”

A few weeks later, Fleming won her third and final world title in Geneva, Switzerland. From there, she embarked on a lucrative professional career, including tours with Ice Follies, Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice; five primetime television specials with co-stars like Olympic skier Jean-Claude Killy and Hollywood veteran Gene Kelly; and, in 1983, a co-starring role in Radio City Music Hall’s Ice.

Fleming is quick to say such opportunities wouldn’t be possible in today’s more fragmented entertainment world.

“Times are changing, the habits of people watching television are changing and all the sports are changing,” she said. “They want more, more and more excitement, and I think skating has gotten a little off balance with triple jumps and quad jumps. People are falling all the time on television and I don’t think the audience really enjoys watching that.”

In 1981, Fleming began her longest-running professional engagement, sitting beside Button for more than 20 years to comment on ABC figure skating broadcasts. Her soft, well-modulated voice delivered mostly positive remarks about competitors, although she, like the more acerbic Button, could criticize skaters’ choreography and positions.

“Number one, I liked her; number two, I respected her; number three, she won the Olympics,” Button said when asked what made their partnership work. “Number four, she was not that willing to be critical with skaters and I think that counterbalanced me, since I was willing to be critical. I asked her to marry me once and she said, ‘You are about 20 years too late.’”

Two celebrations will help mark the 50th anniversary of Fleming’s gold medal. The 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, held in her hometown of San Jose, California, in early January, will honor Fleming and her fellow Olympic figure skating champions with a Hall of Fame reception and on-ice introduction. And on Jan. 20, the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs will hold its Legacy of Ice gala, featuring a fireside chat with Fleming and live auction of special resort packages. The proceeds will be split equally between USA Hockey and the United States Figure Skating Memorial Fund.

“We’ve kind of come full circle, back to the Broadmoor,” Fleming said. “We are going to make a wall (in our house) with memories of The Broadmoor. It’s very special to us. It really changed my life.”

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.