As the world settled in to watch this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, held Feb. 7-25, it witnessed a pivotal moment when both Koreas entered the opening ceremony under a unified flag.
America sent 242 athletes to Pyeongchang, where we came in fourth overall with nine gold, eight silver and six bronze medals. The percentage wasn’t impressive compared to the tiny country of Liechtenstein, which earned one medal, but only had three team members competing.
Traditionally, the U.S. does better at the Summer Olympics than the Winter Olympics. We seem to excel more at gymnastics, track and field, and swimming than figure skating, skiing or luge.To illustrate just how much better, the U.S. won 41 gold, 32 silver and 30 bronze medals at the 1932 Summer Games in L.A. At the Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, the same year, it won only six gold, four silver and two bronze medals. And, it’s continued like that ever since.
The most medals the U.S. earned at the Winter Games was in Salt Lake City in 2002, when it took 10 gold, 13 silver, and 11 bronze medals. But back in 1968, at the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, the U.S. only earned one gold medal, thanks to 19-year-old figure skater Peggy Fleming.
The Olympics were live and in color for the first time. The TV captured Fleming, with her doe eyes and porcelain skin, in her chartreuse outfit as she executed the era’s most difficult double jumps like a graceful ballerina. Her ethereal style impressed young girls who wanted to be like her and boys who wanted to date her.
Fleming’s gold medal was a symbol of hope and resilience for our country, devastated after a tragic accident claimed the lives of the 18-member U.S. figure skating team, plus 16 coaches, officials and family members. On their way to Prague, Czechoslovakia, for the World Figure Skating Championships, their Sabena Flight 548 crashed while landing at the Brussels airport on Feb. 15, 1961.
Twelve-year-old Fleming not only lost her skating heroes and role models, but her coach at the time, William Kipp. Within days, the U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund was established to honor the victims and help skaters like Fleming, whose mother Doris scrimped to pay for her daughter’s lessons and sewed her daughter’s costumes.
Through the years, the memorial fund has helped thousands of skaters, like Adam Rippon, who became the first openly gay U.S. male athlete to win an Olympic bronze medal this year as part of the U.S. figure skating team. Rippon’s performance was stunningly beautiful.
After losing her coach, Fleming’s family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to train with Italian champion Carlo Fassi, who led her to her first world title in Davos, Switzerland, in 1966. Three weeks later, her father died of a heart attack at 41.
Fassi helped Fleming win five U.S. titles, three world championships and an Olympic gold medal; and Sports Illustrated named her one of seven athletes, which included Billie Jean King, Jackie Robinson and Arnold Palmer, who changed their sport. Her elegance on the ice turned women’s figure skating from a staid sport into something glamorous that attracts as many viewers as the Super Bowl.
Fassi also coached Dorothy Hamill, who won the Olympic gold medal in 1976. Both women have something in common besides being champions on the ice; both are breast cancer survivors. Fleming was diagnosed in 1998, and Hamill in 2008.
When interviewing Peggy Fleming in 2010, she talked about the 2-acre chardonnay vineyard she and her husband, Greg Jenkins, planted on their ridge top property in Los Gatos, California, and how two dollars from every bottle of their Victories Rose went to breast cancer research.
Fleming also talked about how much she loved painting and how flattered she was to be on Alec Baldwin’s bucket list as the woman he wanted to kiss by the time he turned 50 on the hit TV comedy series “30 Rock.”
Fleming and Jenkins recently moved back to Colorado, where they met, to be near their grandchildren.
Another legendary skater, eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Anton Ohno — whom I also had the pleasure of interviewing — has won two gold, two silver and four bronze.
He earned the medals after competing in Salt Lake City in 2002; Turin, Italy, in 2006; and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 2010. In 2018, he went to Pyeongchang to cover speed skating for NBC.
But most people probably best know Apolo Anton Ohno from his appearance on “Dancing with the Stars.” His dance moves were as precise and focused as was his skating, and he took home the mirror ball trophy.
Ohno had a hard childhood, but he shared some wisdom that applies to all of us.
“A motto of the Olympics is ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ which means ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger.’
“I love that it doesn’t refer to winning or losing. Faster, higher, stronger can be applied to anything we do while we walk this earth.
“Those words encourage us to dig deep, come prepared, give our best and view that effort as a victory in itself. I can’t control whether I win or lose.
“But if I give 100 percent, then I can walk away with my head held high. Maybe it wasn’t my day. If it was, then I’ll celebrate. If it wasn’t, I can learn from that, and go on to the next thing.”
Spoken like a true champion. Something we all can strive to be.