Friday, February 8, 2013

Peggy Fleming's Triumph

I'm not precisely sure when my family got a television set for the first time.

But I'm pretty sure we had one 45 years ago this month.

I say that because I can remember my mother gathering my younger brother and me in front of the TV to watch Peggy Fleming skate in the 1968 Winter Olympics, which began in Grenoble, France, on Feb. 6. We were both very young at the time. I'm reasonably sure I had no idea who Peggy Fleming was — nor, for that matter, did I know what the Olympics were — and I am almost positive that my brother knew nothing about either as well.

But Mom definitely knew who Fleming was, and what I remember most of that occasion was Mom watching our tiny (by modern standards) black–and–white TV in rapt silence. Whenever I started to ask her anything, she would hold up one hand to quiet me, her eyes never leaving the screen.

I have fleeting memories of watching Fleming skate that night. I have since watched film of her performance, and each viewing serves to confirm what I remember. She was brilliant, and she, probably more than anyone, was responsible for the explosion in popularity of the Olympics in America.

Well, ABC's coverage of those Games — including extensive reports on Fleming and French skier Jean–Claude Killy — had a lot to do with it, too.

As far as American audiences were concerned, though, Fleming was the clear star. She was the only American to win a gold medal in the Grenoble Olympics.

Other American women achieved stardom as Olympic figure skaters in the years to come, but Fleming, while not the first, blazed the modern–day trail. It was Fleming who truly made it possible for Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes to claim Olympic gold.

She overcame the loss of her coach in an airplane crash in Belgium almost exactly seven years earlier. That plane crash decimated the American skating program, and it must have been devastating for Fleming, who was 12 at the time. Nevertheless, Fleming rose to Olympic prominence from the ashes of that crash, in large part because of her unusual style.

Even though Christine Brennan writes in USA Today that there is no dominant American woman in figure skating today, it seems to me that modern American observers, being as provincial as they are, long ago grew accustomed to the idea that an American woman will be among the favorites at the Winter Olympics. It's taken for granted by some.

But that is a relatively recent phenomenon.

By 1968, only five American women had ever won medals for figure skating since the Winter Olympics began six decades earlier — and only two won gold. Four U.S. women have won gold since, and none of them really carried the national burden that Fleming did.

(Perhaps the 1980 U.S. hockey team did, but no single individual has — at least not in the Winter Games.)

When she ascended the podium to receive her gold medal, Fleming was joined by silver medalist Gabriele Seyfert of East Germany and bronze medalist Hana Mašková of Czechoslovakia. It was, as I say, the United States' only gold medal of the Winter Olympics.

That made her the darling of the Olympics as far as Americans were concerned.

I didn't fully understand the significance of Fleming's triumph at the time. I was just too young.

But, as young as I was, I could see that it had a great impact on my mother. I always felt that Mom looked at Fleming as a role model, a symbol of what a woman could achieve.

Mom seldom spoke of it, but she always made a point of watching Fleming when she was on TV; sometimes I watched with her.

And sometimes she asked me if I remembered watching Fleming win her gold medal.

I always told her I did, but the truth was that my memory was spotty.

The truth also was that I clearly saw a lot of pride in Mom's eyes — and I heard a lot of pride in her voice — when she spoke of Fleming.

It made me realize how symbolic these triumphs were to young women in America.

Such symbolic victories, though, are accomplished through a lot of hard work and dedication. That was the thing I didn't appreciate at the time.

But I do appreciate it now.

1 comment:

Siasconset said...

Thanks for thoughtful essay, and for telling the story through your youngster's eyes at the time.

I also did not know who Peggy Fleming was in 1968, and probably never heard of her until a photo of her in a mid-air spin was on the cover of some sort of television guide, probably a local one for Cleveland, Ohio. I have searched for that cover but never found it.

I never became a very informed fan of competitive skating but did see a few interviews and heard commentary by Ms. Fleming over the years. For some reason, she always stuck with me as a model of quiet grace, athleticism and beauty. She probably became some part of my later ideas of romantic perfection, and I always felt warm satisfaction that she found joy in her family life and a long and happy marriage after her competitive skating days.

R. Blake Kessler
Clifton Park, NY