The entire U.S. figure skating delegation was killed in a plane crash heading to the 1961 World Championships, including then-12-year-old Peggy Fleming’s coach. Within days, a memorial fund for the team – that still exists today – was put in motion, and Fleming was a direct beneficiary. By winning gold in 1968, Fleming became a symbol of the rebirth of U.S. Figure Skating.
Peggy Fleming was the second of four daughters born to parents Doris, a homemaker, and Al, a newspaper pressman. Al was a World War II veteran, once wounded by a Japanese grenade, and Doris tried to hide his drinking problem from the family.
They moved often – money was tight – including cross-country stops from San Jose, California to Cleveland, Ohio to Pasadena, California. One summer, they didn’t have a home at all; instead, they stayed at a campsite.
Al took the family to the ice rink for the first time when Peggy was 9 years old. She loved the quiet of the rink, the glide of her skates underneath her feet. Her parents found a way to continue to pay for lessons.
She began working with young coach Bill Kipp in Paramount, California for a few years. She won numerous local and regional competitions at the juvenile, novice, and junior skating levels.
When Fleming was 12, in 1961, Kipp was headed to that year’s world championships as a coach with the rest of the upper echelon of the sport.
The entire team was flying to Worlds (in Prague) from New York with a stopover in Brussels, Belgium. All 72 passengers, including 34 figure skaters, coaches, officials, and other members of the extended team were killed when Sabena Flight 548 crashed outside the Brussels airport the morning of February 15, 1961. A farmer near the crash was also killed by shrapnel.
No reason for the crash has ever been determined. The FBI even probed possible terrorist links. Authorities eventually agreed that the most likely explanation was that a mechanical failure caused the plane to go down. The pilot retracted the landing gear on the initial runway approach, and did not communicate with ground control for the plane’s final few moments in the air. The landing was aborted, and the plane turned left to continue to circle the airport three more times. It bucked and banked, climbing steeper into the air. It turned vertical and spiral downward, exploding on impact.
Among the rubble was the issue of Sports Illustrated, which featured ’61 ladies national champion Laurence Owen, 15, on the cover – “America’s Most Exciting Girl Skater” – it was a world championships preview article.
Austrian officials, U.S. Figure Skating, and other forces lobbied to continue to hold the world championships, but ultimately they were canceled by the International Skating Union as “a sign of mourning over the deaths of our American comrades,” they said.
U.S. Figure Skating – which had essentially lost an entire generation of the top athletes in their sport, coaches, and additional resources – set up a memorial fund within days. It still exists today, with many elite figure skaters the direct recipients of the gifts. U.S. Figure Skating also mandated that from then on, no U.S. team traveling to international competition would fly together ever again.
U.S. figure skaters at the younger levels were under pressure to quickly ascend the ranks. Fleming was one of the earliest beneficiaries of the memorial fund, using money she was given to buy new skates. Her family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she was able to secure better training.
She became national champion in 1964 and qualified for her first Olympics, where she finished in sixth place in Innsbruck, Austria. Without a deep team, the U.S. was expected to struggle at the 1964 Games. However, Scott Allen, who was two days shy of turning 15, won a bronze medal in the men’s even. And in pairs skating, after a minor scandal involving the amateur status of a German team, the U.S. brother-sister team of Vivian and Ronald Joseph were elevated to bronze medals as well.
“Those were my social Olympics,” she told The New York Times. “‘My eyes were really big. I watched and had a lot of fun. It was Europe. Innsbruck. I had never been out of California much. I had a blast. Free clothes. Free Olympic stuff.”
Fleming later said that without the tremendous pressure on her shoulders that were present during the 1968 Olympics, she was able to freely enjoy more aspects of the 1964 Olympics. She wasn’t expected to win, then. She watched the skaters who were on the podium and tried to find inspiration through them. She found some of them too athletic, not as graceful, but she learned from each them and was able to further develop her own style of skating. She wanted to create something different – be more pleasing to look at – and it worked.
At the 1965 World Championships, Fleming won a bronze medal. Fleming went on to win back-to-back world titles in 1966 and 1967, entering the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France as the overwhelming favorite. They would be the first Olympics broadcast in color.
Fleming lived in the Olympic Village until it was time for her to compete; rumors of a French flu were abundant and she wanted to avoid falling ill. She moved in with her mother, Doris, at a hotel near the Grenoble train station. Doris had made six dresses that week, including a chartreuse costume with rhinestoned cuffs and neckline. She picked chartreuse after learning that monks in the Grenoble region of France made Chartreuse Liqueur at a nearby monastery. Doris believed that the particular green hue, reminiscent of the herbal liqueur, would subliminally cause French audiences to cheer on her daughter, which would in turn boost Fleming’s confidence.
Fleming later wrote in her autobiography, The Long Program: Skating Toward Life’s Victories, “Mom’s idea was way too subtle (or just too far out) for the crowd, and I was too much in my own world to pay attention to her subtle gestures.”
As it was, Fleming had built up such an overwhelming lead after the compulsory figures that a gold medal was virtually guaranteed. Her free skate was riddled with errors. When she first stepped on the ice, she later noted in her autobiography, the cuff of her sleeve snagged on her tights and she worried that her dress might come apart during the program. Skating to a medley of classical pieces, she singled a planned double Axel and two-footed the landing on an underrotated double Lutz – but it didn’t matter. She was unanimously awarded all of the first place votes and won gold.
After the victory, she reportedly ate chocolate cake with whipped cream – her favorite – and asked a friend how they liked her “new necklace.”
Fleming’s medal was the first figure skating gold following the tragedy of 1961, and it was the only gold medal won by the entire U.S. delegation at the Grenoble Olympics.
Foreign media dubbed her a “classic,” a “Grecian beauty,” and “America’s Shy Bambi,” all due to her graceful, floating skating style. Silver medalist Gaby Seyfert of Germany called her a “pure ballerina.”
She won her third world title in 1968 and signed a professional contract a few months later. She married a former amateur pairs skater, dermatologist Greg Jenkins, in 1970 and they had two sons. She toured with several ice shows, starred in television specials (winning two Emmy Awards), endorsed a variety of products, performed at the White House, and had a nearly three-decade career as a television commentator.
In 1998, she went through a public battle with breast cancer and continues to support research causes. For about five years, Fleming and her husband produced wine on their California property, with many of the proceeds going to breast cancer research charities.
On the site to donate to the U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund, Peggy Fleming is quoted as saying: “I came from a very simple family, and the Memorial Fund helped me buy skates, which helped my family tremendously. The Memorial Fund is about helping the future of our sport so that it is opened up to anyone with the talent and the will to work hard and to accept the challenge that they can do it. A lack of financial means should not hold you back from your dream.”