Chapter One: Confidence
If you had seen me in my early years, you would have had a hard time picking out the graceful skater that I worked very hard to become. If you first met me as an Olympic athlete or on a television special in a wispy costume gliding along ice as polished as a diamond, you probably think that I glide through life with my own personal symphony playing Mozart or Haydn, as I go to the supermarket or have the oil changed on my four-wheel drive.
The real me, the me before Peggy the Skater, was a scrawny, shy tomboy afraid to look in the mirror. It took many years for me even to recognize myself in the Peggy Fleming that the rest of the world sees. No matter how far any of us go in life, inside each of us is the kid we started out as.
If you had dropped into my fourth-grade class, you would have had a hard time picking out the future Olympic champion. In fact, you would have had a hard time picking me out at all. I was so shy that I usually scrunched myself into my chair in the back row hoping not to attract any attention at all. I was the kid who prayed the teacher never called on her, the one who never raised her hand.
I was desperately in need of confidence, especially in social situations. Like many other awkward children, it was only in the physical side of life that I began to find that confidence. Skating was the thing that eventually made everything else fall into place, but I was ready for skating when I discovered it only because I had spent years being physically active.
When I got outdoors, I felt free. When I got outdoors, I didn't mind attracting attention. If I were playing on the monkey bars, I would try the scariest, hardest tricks. It didn't matter that I had a permanent case of blisters on my hands or that my knees required a daily application of Band-Aids. That was the price I was willing to pay for showing off physically. The same thing was true when I began to play baseball. I was proud of how fast I ran the bases, how far I hit the hall, and how I could field and throw as well as the boys.
My Mom and dad were both physically active, and they both loved the out-of-doors. Lucky for them: Fresh air and sunshine are free and abundant in California, and they couldn't have afforded much more. They always had to scramble to make ends meet, but I never knew about that. Kids rarely, do.
My mom, Doris Deal, met my dad, Al Fleming, while she was waitressing at a restaurant in the Bay Area. The restaurant was a cutesy thing built inside a windmill. One afternoon she was serving a group of marines who were having a high old time. Among them was a powerfully built man with Irish good looks who had just been discharged from the corps.
My dad remembers that his eyes took in what my mom would later refer to as her "assets," and he told his buddies, I am going to marry that girl." He did, and my three sisters and I are the results.
A lot has been written about how my mother shaped my career, but it was my dad who first got me into skating. He was not a simple man: He could be loving, full of high spirits, and always ready for a good time, but at other times his face could darken and he could get angry in a scary way. His background -- strict Catholic upbringing followed by marine corps training -- tells the story of one side of his character: a lot of repression.
Having five women around our house was more than he knew how to handle. His response, when it wasn't just to have fun, was to be strict. For example, when we were teenagers just starting to think about looking womanly, he was totally against makeup or even a hint of glamour in his daughters. I would spend hours putting on makeup that I thought would look discreet enough that Dad would never notice. But I would make it only to the bottom of the stairs and Dad would take one look and send me back up to the bathroom to take it off. Of course, I'd stash all my makeup in my bag, and on the way to whatever party I was going to, I'd put lipstick and eyeliner on in the car. As my husband, Greg, will be the first to tell you, the big difference in me as a grownup is that now I openly put my makeup on in the bathroom, then I still work on it in the car.
The war experience marked my dad, which affected all of us in the family. A Japanese grenade landed on his tank and killed most of his friends. It smashed his leg up and he had to have a metal plate put in. He also came down with malaria, and I remember his screams when the fever came on strong. Mom would close the door so we wouldn't hear, but closing doors in houses rarely accomplishes much: Everybody knows what's going on.
My dad's way of dealing with this was to be as happy-go-lucky as possible -- with plenty of help from his buddies and the bottle. Drinking was also an occupational hazard in his line of work: He was a pressman in the newspaper business. You see, you'd run a loud press all day and you'd pretty much need to blow off steam at the end of the shift with your friends. You'd drink and you'd smoke, and my dad did both -- which is probably why he had three heart attacks before his final and fatal one at the age of forty one.
But in the beginning he and Mom were two young lovers starting out life in the golden sun of California. They built themselves a family pretty rapidly. First, my sister Janice was born in 1947, and then I came along in '48. They named me Peggy partly because the doctor in the labor and delivery room was singing "Peg 0' My Heart" during my mom's labor. After me, Maxine showed up in '51 and Cathy in '54. Cathy was born on my birthday, and I always said I didn't get a party for my birthday, I got a sister instead.
They didn't have hippies then, but in a way my folks were early hippies. My mom quit college, to the great disapproval of her mother. In 1946, Doris and Al Fleming bought ten acres of land in Morgan Hill and built our house with their own hands. Dad had a job then at the San Jose Mercury News, one of many jobs that he would hold as we moved from town to town and from home to home. I am so glad that I have those early memories of that little farm. Those memories are a safe haven that I can return to in my mind when I need to put my life in perspective.
We had chickens on the farm as well as cows and horses, including an old mare and a young stallion that hadn't been broken when we got him. We used to ride the mare, sometimes two girls at a time, and I thought Dad was a real swashbuckler when he broke that stallion all by himself. We had a pig too, which I thought of as mine.
Maybe you can look into this portrait of a childhood and see the outlines of my Olympic future, but when I remember those days -- especially the pig -- I see Peggy Fleming, future spokeswoman for the National Pork Producers Council (one of the jobs I would hold later in my career as an endorser and a star of commercials).
I loved that pig, but, our Doberman pinscher, whom I also loved, didn't.
One afternoon, for no apparent reason other than the basic nature of Dobermans, he jumped the barnyard fence and killed the pig. I cried as much as a little girl can cry, but that was just the beginning. Mom and Dad were afraid that the Doberman had become a danger; if it could attack the pig, it might attack one of us. Dad took his gun, went way out into a field so we wouldn't hear or see, and shot the dog. Not only had I lost my pet pig but we lost the family dog, too.
I didn't pine for too long. Mom and Dad liked sports and games as much as I did, or at least they pretended that they did, and they encouraged my sisters and me to go outside and enjoy ourselves. We were so into games that I remember the summer flying by one year in the late fifties, We were low on funds and the Fleming sisters camped by a lake with my mom while Dad went back to the Midwest to look for work.
We were kind of gypsies in that summer. My sisters and I spent the whole summer running, jumping, tree climbing, rope skipping, and singing around the campfire. These things seemed to be the perfect thing to do, and I enjoyed doing them with my family. I enjoyed doing them with my friends. I guess I just enjoyed being a tomboy, but they don't give out Olympic gold medals for being a tomboy.
One Saturday afternoon in December 1957, my mom saw an ad in the paper for a newly opened skating rink in the Bay Area that was offering a special introductory bargain price. I was nine years old, and my dad loved skating -- in mom's words, he was "a nut on the subject." When my folks were courting, he had even taken a job setting up bowling pins to earn extra cash to go skating. So when Mom showed Dad the ad, he packed us all in the car and I was on the way to the thing that would make a new me.
It was like that scene in City Slickers where Billy Crystal, who has just turned forty and has gone on a cattle drive out West to resolve his mid-life crisis, asks the Jack Palance character, Curly, what the secret to life is. Curly holds up his index finger, saying the secret is "one": All you have to do is find one thing that you love.
I had my "one" moment at the age of nine. From that day on, I was a different girl. I had found the thing that made everything else fall into place.
The little girl who liked to show off on the monkey bars finally had something beyond a playground game to excel at. That was it, I finally had a craft, an art, a calling. Not that after an hour flopping on the ice with my father I was able to see the plan for the rest of my life, but something deep inside me knew. I had discovered something that I loved, something that gave me great pleasure, something that made me feel free, and this was a first! -- something that made me feel pretty.
Pretty was not the word that came to mind when I looked at myself in the mirror. I had the little-girl silhouette of a string bean in a dry summer, and my hair was thin and scraggly. But when I started skating, I could feel prettier by the way I moved, by my posture, by the position of my arms and legs, even by the tilt of my head. But before I felt pretty, I had to feel free and in control -- that was the door that skating first opened. After that first time with my dad, I wanted to skate again...and again...and again. Being good at something -- and having that something be a thing I loved to do -- worked a change in me.
The timid tomboy who never cared how she looked finally started to blossom. For the first time I had a feeling of confidence, something I had never known before. It is something I have since come to believe in to the core of my soul: Confidence is the first and most important building block in becoming a fulfilled person. Confidence enables you to believe "I can do something that will make other people admire me. I can make my body stronger. I can compete and, if I don't win, I believe I have it in me to work harder and win the next time."
I was born a competitor. I always wanted to be best, not just better than the few girls who enjoyed sports the way I did, but better than the boys as well. It was a source of great pride to me when, years later, at a Little League game, I retrieved a foul ball and zipped it over to the first-base coach. "Wow, Mom," my son said with pride, "you don't throw like a girl." I was proud too -- although if anyone but my son made such a patronizing remark, I wouldn't feel quite so warm and proud about it.
I began to realize that if I could make things into a game, I wanted to win. Even in math class, back in the third grade, I recall only getting interested when my teacher turned the math assignment into a game. That was all I needed to hear. I had never given a hoot about math and my grades showed it, but after that I absolutely bad to win that competition.
That will to win didn't leave me when I grew up. One of my first paychecks was for appearing in my first NBC special, "Here's Peggy Fleming." It was for $35,000 -- which was a dazzling amount of money when you think that in his best year my dad probably brought home $10,000. Like the good red-blooded American girl that I was, I took that paycheck and used part of it to buy a fast car, not just any fast car, but a Porsche, a maroon Porsche. It was a real kick driving it, but the thing about fast cars is you never really get to see what they can do under normal driving conditions. Why spend all that money on a great machine just to look cool?
Our neighbors, the Melis, were members of the local Porsche club, and they invited us to come to an event one afternoon. Barbara Meli, who enjoyed speed the way I did, was the Ladies Champion race driver in our division. She asked me to join her for the race. We strapped ourselves in, put on our helmets, and she hit the accelerator. "This is terrific," I said.
"Want to give it a try?"
I got in the driver's seat of our Porsche and drove the track. You get one test lap and then the last two are timed. All by myself in the car, I had the same sense that I used to feel when I was doing school figures in skating. On a racecourse, as on the ice, if you want to win, you have to follow the course exactly. As I drove the course, I could feel the adrenaline kick in. I was having fun, so much fun in fact that I won and became the Ladies Champion on that first day. I even beat my husband, Greg. Yeah!
All through my life, understanding the rules of the game made me want to win. That was certainly the case when I was the most determined nine-year-old on ice in the whole state of California.
Every time I stepped onto the ice, it was important that I was the best one out there. People who know something about my life know the enormous role that my mother played in making me a champion. In the beginning Dad was there too, stroking the competitive fires. The same streak of toughness that made him such a strict disciplinarian showed itself in his determination to get me started in skating and to back me as far as my competitive drive would take me.
"We moved to Pasadena when I was eleven, and I became friendly with another young girl, Susie Berens, who was into skating as much as I was. Years later we would skate in the ice shows, and when both of us had our young children on tour with us, we would share the same baby-sitter. Our parents arranged it so that we could practice from five to seven each morning, when we could have the ice all to ourselves. The only problem was that the ice wasn't in very good shape, still rough from the public session the night before with a few hours of late-night speed skating practice thrown in. The speed skaters left a smooth ring on the outside but the rest of the ice was all dinged up from the public free-for-all.
My dad was on the night shift at that time, working to get out the morning edition of the paper. One morning, after watching my frustration with the crummy ice surface, he said, "If they would teach me how to run the Zamboni" -- the big machine they use to make the surface smooth -- "I could make the ice ready for you and Susie."
Dad had to be there anyway, so it gave him something to do. We would arrive at the arena in pitch-blackness, and Dad would make his way across the building to the light switch. It was big and empty, dark and scary in there for the first few moments, waiting alone until Dad turned on the lights. He would resurface the ice and I would start skating on the first ice of the day.
Here's where the competition part comes in. I figured that if we got to the rink fifteen minutes earlier, I would get that much more time ahead of Susie. "That'll really get her," I thought, and it did. But Susie was also competitive. She started showing up earlier, which only made me come earlier still. Eventually we reached a point where it was ridiculously early, so we both started showing up at five again. It was important to me, even for a little while, to find a competitive edge.
I liked being first and still do.
Even if it meant getting up at an ungodly hour, skating was magic to me. Our family was financially and emotionally stressed all the time, like many families. Skating took me away from that and gave me a way to focus away from my family's problems onto me, on gliding and feeling free. There was nothing I could have loved more.
While I was having the time of my life, my mother was getting a different but no less deep satisfaction out of it. Part of the reason, of course, was what any mother would feel: "If it brings out something good in my daughter and helps her develop, then I want her to do it and I will do whatever I need to do."
But human beings are never that uncomplicated. My mother was somebody 's daughter too, and by helping me to reach a dream -- a dream that, frankly, I didn't even know I had at the beginning -- she was also letting her mother live out the dreams that she had once had for my mom, her daughter.
I wouldn't have started skating if it weren't for my Dad, but I became a skater because of my mom. It is not stretching the point to say, "We became a skater," two people, one pair of skates. We each had a job to do to make me a champion skater, and I certainly didn't do it on my own. Hardly anybody achieves great things completely solo, even in the solitary sport of skating. I had my personal reasons for working hard, not the least of which was that skating made me feel special. My mom had reasons that were no less compelling and strong. These days television commentators always seem to talk about Olympic athletes "pursuing their dreams," and it's true -- you don't get to the top of the medal stand without powerful dreams. But I didn't start out with something as big as an Olympic dream. My mom had a whole lot of big dreams she had never lived out for her mother.
My grandma, Erma May Deal, was a proper lady, always completely put together. Her hair was always done, her makeup always perfectly applied, her clothes always spiffy and coordinated. I get my concern with appearance from her and from Grandpa, too. I remember countless winter mornings, getting up to go to practice, and there was my grandpa in the kitchen already in his suit and tie. I would tease him about it.
"Grandpa, all dressed up and nowhere to go? Why bother, when there's no one to impress?" He would tell me that he wasn't out to impress anyone. Feeling put together made him sit straighter, feel better and present himself better for the day. It made him confident.
Grandma was a woman of two eras. She was a very religious person in the old-fashioned way that strong Baptists are. She played the piano, sang with the family in the parlor, and played endless religious programs on the radio. But she had also been a bit of a groundbreaker, having packed up and left home on her own to go to college, which was a big deal for women in that day. She was someone who always gave the impression that she held herself to very high personal standards.
Those standards explain how she ended up in California. She was the daughter of a judge in Missouri, where she attended college. When she was a young woman, her mother died. Almost immediately, her father married her mother's younger sister. Obviously something strange had happened, something that she thought was horrible, something she never, ever talked about. She picked up and left for California by herself and never came back. On that train ride she met Grandpa, who was a young soldier, the son of a farmer, on his way to the First World War.
Grandma Erma had high hopes for her daughter, but my mom, who was the strongest willed person I have ever met, didn't follow the script. For one thing, my mom was physically the opposite of grandma. Where grandma was slim and ultrafeminine, my mom was a big-boned woman. Instead of indulging in grandma's girlish pastimes at the piano and dressing up, Mom was out playing with her four older brothers: surfing, playing tennis, hiking, swimming, rock climbing, It's not hard to see where I got my tomboy genes from...as well as my cheekbones. Mom had beautiful and delicate high cheekbones, and they made her a very striking woman. Erma May believed that those cheekbones would bring out the inner Katharine Hepburn in my mom, and Grandma enrolled Mom in ballet classes, tap classes, and singing lessons. Unfortunately, those were not things my mother excelled at. My mom was good in school and one heck of a writer, and she followed her mother's lead by going to college. "Maybe she isn't going to be the belle of the ball," Grandma thought, "but she is going to be a career woman."
When I started skating and wearing pretty costumes, paying attention to my looks, and moving beautifully to the kind of music that Grandma loved, my mother took great satisfaction in finally giving her mom the daughter she had always wanted. I felt the tremendous emotional power and I drew strength from it.
I enjoyed it -- I wasn't a little wind-up skating doll that my mom and my grandma exploited in order to play out their own unfulfilled dreams. But when you add my instant love affair with skating to my mother's natural instinct to help her daughter shed her shy self and take on the world and my grandmother's wish for an artistic and accomplished next generation, you have three determined women working toward one goal.
Three strong women working toward one thing is always a very powerful force.
With my family behind me, I was never alone out on the ice, which was a good thing because the world of ice skating back then was different than it is today. Serious ice skating was something that only well-off kids did. Lessons added up pretty quickly to a small fortune. Costumes did too. To put it into some perspective, it cost more for a one-hour lesson than my dad could earn in that same hour running the Mercury News presses. If I had thought I didn't fit in as the mousy little kid in the back row of fourth grade, I was really a fish out of water among all the affluent little girls doing their spins and jumps at the skating rink.
I was in my own world, and I didn't notice. I had found something that made me feel whole. I was lucky to make this discovery when I was nine years old. Some people go a whole lifetime before they discover it -- whether it's flyfishing, golf, cooking, or growing tomatoes. You know it when you find it: It's the thing that makes time pass differently so that you give all your hours to it and it still doesn't feel like too much.
Part of the reason I fell in love with skating and blossomed was I had a natural gift. Make that two natural gifts: an aptitude for skating and a deep (and largely untapped) reservoir of determination.
People often talk about how being a trained athlete requires a sense of goals, focus, and discipline. I think that makes the inner game sound a lot harder and more rigid than it really is. The first thing an athlete requires is joy. I loved skating. Not that I loved getting up at five in the morning, getting to the rink before school, going to school all day until heading back to the rink after school, staying there until just before dinner, then doing homework, before flopping into bed. It's just that I loved skating so much I was willing to pay the price. It must have offered something to my mom and dad as well. They were the ones who took me to the rink, sat in the stands, and paid for the lessons.
I was grateful then, and remain grateful, but I was also glad to get out of the house. Our unsettled finances led to our perpetually picking up and moving to new houses and new towns as Dad sought work. My dad's temper and uptightness around his daughters and my mom's uptightness around my dad -- these were all stresses that weighed on me. We were not an unhappy family, but we weren't the world's most stable one either. So while I often felt lost in the crowd at home, at the rink I felt that I had all the room in the world.
I wanted more of that freedom in my life, and I was bound and determined to work as hard as I could to make that happen.
Copyright © 1999 by Peggy Fleming, Inc.