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Art on Ice

Olympic champion Peggy Fleming reflects on her gold-medal youth



There are so many perspectives on 1968; it's hard to be sure you've settled on the right one. Vietnam and rock 'n' roll were building momentum as Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were felled by assassins' bullets.

The same technology that brought the war overseas and the fighting in American streets into quiet living rooms throughout the country was also bringing, for the first time, images of a wholesome gathering of young Olympic athletes in Grenoble, France, to a society in need of a cultural antidote.

In 1968, Americans won one gold medal in the Winter Olympics. Peggy Fleming's performance in the figure-skating events helped to change the sport and served as the defining moment in her new career as an athlete and an artist.

"I think skating helped me find myself," Fleming explained in an interview earlier this week, "because it tested me in so many ways, and I think I learned who I was through experimenting and testing myself through the physical and mental side of sports." While the rest of the youth culture was experimenting with drugs and testing authority, 20-year-old Peggy Fleming was etching her legacy into the American consciousness with precision and grace, just as she carved figures on the clean French ice. It's hard to think of her in any other role than as a skater, although her new book, The Long Program: Skating Toward Life's Victories, gives nearly equal attention to her various other roles, including sportscaster, mother and, most recently, cancer survivor.

"In 1968, in the midst of the tumultuous 1960s, the Olympics were much more than just another event," Fleming writes. "It was a time of rebellion, questioning of values, drugs and protest, and there was something reassuring and attractive about a global gathering of youth, all with a direction and purpose, all young and beautiful, clean-cut and glowing with health."

Fleming is quick to recognize the ironic good fortune of coming of age, both personally and as an athlete, when she did. Her Olympic victory was a refreshing contrast to the backdrop of world events surrounding her, but it also coincided with the advent of sports and the Olympics as "big-time entertainment."

Though her unique style of skating may have peaked in the decade following her Olympic championship, the '60s were not a time when skaters could bring much topical content to their work.

"Oh no, not at all, not at all," Fleming replied when asked if she or any of her contemporaries could make the kinds of statements with their skating that Katarina Witt made about Sarajevo in the 1994 Olympics, for example. "There were pretty rigid rules and real traditional music. Traditional choreography. It's gradually gotten more free, and the rules have changed.

"I think we were just so focused on our athletic careers," Fleming recalled, talking about the atmosphere that she was both formed by and isolated from. "The world went by, and we didn't get caught up in all the other things, because we didn't have time. We had no spare time. It was always thinking about training and focusing on what we wanted, our goals."

Growing up before Olympic athletes were routinely marketed as media superstars, Fleming didn't have much opportunity to observe the great skaters who came before her. In a way, she stood at a crucial kind of crossroads, bringing a pure and original freshness and creativity to the sport while heralding an era in which it would be hard to remain as pure and untainted by the filtering lens of overexposure.

"I hadn't really seen very many elite skaters over the years," Fleming confirmed. "I saw a little bit of Carol Heiss, a little bit of Tenly Albright, Sonya Henie. I wasn't exposed to too many skaters that were a real true inspiration in the vision that I had for myself. I really looked to the world of dance and music and sports. I really loved what the guys were doing more than anything, how high they jumped, how effortless it was. Encompassing that all together was a vision I had for myself."

The desire to be as athletic and as breathtaking as the men was always blended with an urge to release her burgeoning femininity through her skating.

"Skating was the vessel into which I could pour my heart and soul," she writes, adding that "it's what made my skating different when the world in general and women in particular were looking for an athlete who skated to a different drummer." One skater she had seen was the '64 gold-medal winner, Sjourkje Dijkstra of the Netherlands, against whom Fleming competed at the age of 15, coming in sixth in the Innsbruck Olympics. She writes of Dijkstra as "a huge, muscular lady who performed huge jumps. All I could think was, 'Couldn't she be a little more feminine?'"

Another piece of the Peggy Fleming mystique was borne out of "the feelings of femininity that I was just learning about and trying to incorporate in skating ... the same feelings that millions of women were beginning to express more fully and openly in art, music, politics, marriage -- in other words, in life. We wanted to be achievers, but being an achiever didn't mean that you stopped being a woman."

Lest you be led to believe that Peggy Fleming was merely the sweet, innocent-looking princess who initiated a royal procession of champions on the ice, Fleming reveals a few of the secrets she employed to bring her sense of sensuality onto the ice and into her program. She recalls being a teenage romantic, in love with the very idea of romance and enamoured with -- even flirtatious with -- her coach, Bob Paul, who struck her as cute.

"When you are doing something soft and pretty and feminine," she writes, "some romantic chemistry -- a power boost of hormones -- helps the piece." She stuck to that philosophy throughout her professional career, skating at ice shows where she would peek through the curtains before her appearance, locate a man "who looked interesting and sexy" and then skate the number to him, slipping into a fantasy with the man. "When I was on the ice, in the lights, with the music and the motion, there was a certain kind of flirtation that gave great energy and expressiveness to my performance," she writes. "Sex with a proper stranger -- in my fantasies -- saved many a boring night on the ice."

For Fleming, all her creativity and artistry began with the music. "That's what really inspired me," she revealed in our interview. "As a young child, I played the violin. I think that that started the spark. Then came the choreography. ...the impact of music and choreography tends to really emphasize an overall feeling of what you really want out of the program."

Although her book hesitates to reveal details about her personal life, Fleming vividly re-creates several programs, complete with emotional intensity, including the '64 gold-medal program and the "Ave Maria" she skated for her father a few weeks before he died. "The music was haunting, and the skating was linked to the music," she writes of the latter program. "It wasn't just a general background melody. Giving life to music through skating was something I wanted to be known for."

In The Long Program, Fleming describes the pre-'60s version of the sport as "gymnastics with some music in the background." Fleming set out to find a way to convey her self and emotions through her skating, taking advantage of "one of the few athletic endeavors in which taste and elegance and grace count in the standings."

She reminds her readers that graceful, lithely acrobatic and fluid athletes like Joe DiMaggio, Lynn Swann or Michael Jordan will always be remembered "for the way they seemed to glide so effortlessly, moving under a fly ball, leaping for a reception, flowing like water between the outstretched arms of defenders. Their inherent grace and good taste made them memorable, but those qualities never showed up in the box score."

In her landmark skating career, Peggy Fleming ensured that her artistry would always be counted.

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