Everyman's Favorite Ice Queen

The years have not been kind to Peggy Fleming. The years have been great to Peggy Fleming. She might have been cute as a button--if her current television partner will excuse the expression--20 years ago, when she won her Olympic gold medal, but today she rates 6.0 for artistic impression, 6.0 for presentation, and 9.9 for any sexist judges in the audience who still use the old rating system.

At the moment, backstage at ABC headquarters, preparing for this morning's start of the women's figure skating warfare, Fleming, 39, cuts quite a figure in a black top, charcoal slacks, and long, leaf-shaped aluminum earrings that she came across in Kenya, from native jewelry made from melted pots. Beside her is bearded, cowboy-booted Dick Button, 40 years removed from the first of his two gold medals, but not looking too shabby himself.

Figure skaters learn early to work at their looks. "It's just part of the aura, part of who you are," Fleming says. "They judge us on our music, on our clothes, on the way we wear our hair, on the way we keep our bodies slim."

"Or don't," Button interjects.

"Or don't," Fleming says. "They judge you on your makeup, on the way you smile, on the way you don't smile. It's very personal."

When Katarina Witt, Debi Thomas, Jill Trenary and the others go out in their powdered cheeks and sequined teddies, the judges theoretically will concentrate on their loops and flips, but the TV cameras will be sure to catch every arched eyebrow, every meaningful expression, every arrogant or anxious smile.

Things were not all that different for the teen-aged Peggy Fleming when she skated at Innsbruck, Austria, and Grenoble, France, in the considerably less flashy outfits that her mother had designed and sewn.

She was 15 at her first Olympics, and the Austrians housed her in a claustrophobic room with a cot and a straw pillow. Peggy didn't mind, though. "At that age, everything's an adventure. Put a bunch of young girls together in a room and they'll camp out on the floor," Fleming says.

Nowadays, even a Gidget-aged figure skater might have first-class accommodations and a personal entourage larger than Leon Spinks ever had. Rosalyn Sumners four years ago had a nutritionist and a hypnotist. Brian Orser this year had a publicist, a psychologist, everything but an apologist. Peggy Fleming had a coach, Carlo Fassi, and her mom.

"In my time, one coach did it all," she says.

The new wave does not disturb her, though, because Fleming, as well as Button, believes that what a skater should use is anything that works. For every argument that an entourage failed to help Sumners or Orser win a gold medal, a rebuttal can be made that without such help, neither skater might have won a silver.

Same with music. If Witt and Thomas want to perform to the same piece of music, it shouldn't matter. If Paul Wylie wants to skate to Randy Newman's arrangements from the movie "The Natural" while Christopher Bowman skates to Hungarian rhapsodies, big deal. The performance is what counts.

"You can skate the telephone book," Button says.

In her triumphant evening of 1968, when she gave the United States its only gold medal of those Games, Fleming spun and sparkled to Tchaikovsky. From there, she went on to the proverbial fame and fortune. She gave command performances at the White House and in China, lent her name to a line of fashions, raced Porsches and Ferraris for fun, ran in the L.A. Marathon, became a commentator for ABC and a spokesperson for the National Pork Council and for California raisins, and settled down in her native San Jose. She has been married to dermatologist Greg Jenkins for 18 years, and has a son, Andrew, 11, who's already running fast miles and racing remote-control cars.

As for skates, she hasn't laced on a pair in a year. Recreational skating can be nice, in Rockefeller Center or such, but Fleming says she doesn't think about it or miss it much. She does, however, have great affection for "our sport," and enjoys watching it change and grow. Axels that she or Dorothy Hamill never had to do are now routine parts of the routine. Technology is improving, as is physiological development, and the competition is so stiff, no woman has repeated as Olympic champion in 52 years, since Sonja Henie.

Katarina Witt can change that. Debi Thomas can keep it going.

"Who's going to win?" Fleming is asked.

"It should be very interesting," she says. "Both of them are exceptional skaters, and anytime you get to the Olympics, anything's possible."

Button very theatrically places his palm beneath his jaw, and moves his eyes to within inches of Fleming's.

"He asked you who's going to win," he says, double-daring her.

Fleming never did slip under pressure.

"I think Katarina has the obvious edge, because she's the Olympic champion. But, it's not in cement that Debi's going to walk away from this with the silver," Fleming says. "She can definitely rally for this."

Too bad they do not have a Masters event. Too bad Peggy Fleming cannot get out there one more time and show her stuff; here we go loop de loop. Alas, she is retired now, just another pretty face and voice of experience on television, a skater who rarely even gets out her skates anymore.

"Hey," Fleming says, "I still have a few good years left."

The judges agree.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°