When 19-year-old Peggy Fleming glided into the adoring embrace of the American public by winning the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, she launched figure skating's modern era. Pretty and balletic, elegant and stylish, Fleming took a staid sport that was shackled by its inscrutable compulsory figures and arcane scoring system and, with television as her ally, made it marvelously glamorous. Ever since, certainly to North Americans, figure skating has been the marquee sport of the Winter Games and an increasingly popular staple of prime-time television.
Seven years before Fleming captured the hearts of her American audience, the entire U.S. national figure skating team, including six coaches, was killed in a plane crash on its way to the 1961 world championships in Prague. Fleming—whose coach, Will Kipp, was on the flight—was 12 at the time. Three years later, her path unblocked by more experienced skaters and the political clout they often wielded, Fleming became the youngest U.S. women's champion ever. It was her first of five straight national titles. In 1966, at 17, she also won the first of her three consecutive world championships. By the time the world tuned in to Grenoble, Fleming was already the darling of the international press. Referred to by scribes as "doe-eyed," "fragile," "the leggy wisp" and "America's shy Bambi," Fleming built up such a huge lead in the compulsories, which then accounted for 60% of the scoring, that everyone else was skating for second. Though she faltered in the free skating, she became the sole U.S. gold medalist at Grenoble. With the Olympics being televised live for the first time, Fleming was propelled to a level of popularity and fame unknown by any previous American figure skating champion—not Dick Button or Tenley Albright or Carol Heiss.
Fleming became the original American ice princess, incongruously so, since she was not, by nature, glamorous. Off the ice she was small-town America through and through: unpretentious, hardworking, middle-class, level-headed. But she carried herself like a star during performances. On the ice she was stylish in a manner more reminiscent of ballet dancing than figure skating, and she was inoffensively sexy, teeming with femininity and energy. All these charms translated beautifully over the picture tube. "With some skaters there's a lot of fuss and feathers, but nothing is happening," Dick Button once said. "With Peggy there's no fuss and feathers, and a great deal is happening."
Her skating appeared effortless, and therein lay its magic. She seemed to flow from one element to the next, seamlessly, weightlessly, like something blown about by the wind. No skater in any era could surpass Fleming's lyrical elegance on the ice. Twenty-six years later, she remains the sport's artistic bellwether.
Figure skating soared on the wings of its new star, something that had last happened in the '30s, when Norway's Sonja Henie took her three Olympic gold medals to Hollywood. Fleming was invited to the White House twice—before such invitations became routine. She appeared on magazine covers and made five TV specials, including widely acclaimed broadcast performances from the Soviet Union and China, and has remained in the public eye through occasional stints as a commentator for ABC, a lingering star who seems never to wear out her welcome.
Who knows how many girls worldwide got into figure skating after having first been exposed to the sport by Fleming? She pulled U.S. skating back to its feet after the 1961 tragedy, "jump-starting a program that for the next 26 years produced an unbroken string of U.S. women stars, from Janet Lynn to Dorothy Hamill to Linda Fratianne to Rosalynn Sumners to Elaine Zayak to Tiffany Chin to Debi Thomas to Jill Trenary to Kristi Yamaguchi to Nancy Kerrigan.
Women's Olympic figure skating now draws Super Bowl numbers on television. And even bruised as it was by the tawdry Tonya Harding sideshow of last winter, the sport continues to evolve as compelling competition, ideal for TV and captivating for its ever-growing audience. Why figure skating? What button is it pushing in the American public? Perhaps it's as simple as this: Everyone's hoping to catch a glimpse of the next Peggy Fleming.