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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Peggy Fleming

Figure Skating at the White House

On February 10, 1968, nineteen-year-old American figure skater Peggy Fleming stepped out onto the ice at the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. She impressed the judges with her free skate routine, winning the gold medal in Ladies’ Figure Skating singles. In addition to clinching the only gold medal win for the United States at Grenoble, her victory marked a rebirth for the sport of American figure skating.1

In this photograph, taken by Yoichi R. Okamoto on March 27, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson pins a saucer magnolia to the lapel of figure skating champion Peggy Fleming in the Oval Office.

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Peggy Fleming was born in San Jose, California, on July 27, 1948. She began skating at the age of nine, but soon faced a challenging hurdle to her career. On February 15, 1961, a plane crashed near Brussels, Belgium, killing the entire United States figure skating team as they flew to the World Figure Skating Championship in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The flight had no survivors, including other passengers and crew members. In addition to the team, many family members, officials, and coaches affiliated with the Olympic team died, including Fleming’s coach, William Kipp.2 The tragic crash shocked Americans. President John F. Kennedy issued a statement the following day:

"I was distressed and saddened to learn of the airliner crash in Brussels this morning. This disaster has brought tragedy to many American families and is a painful loss to the international community of sport as well. Our country has sustained a great loss of talent and grace which had brought pleasure to people all over the world."3

Following the crash, a memorial fund was established to rebuild the United States’ Figure Skating Program. Fleming benefited from the fund, using money to purchase new skates, and soon established herself as a force in the sport.4 In 1964, she placed fourth at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and went on to win three consecutive World Championships between 1966 and 1968. Following her impressive gold medal win in February 1968, Fleming brought hope to the future of the sport, marking the modern era of women’s figure skating, and transformed it into “the marquee sport of the Winter Games.” Sports Illustrated featured her on the cover in 1968 and Americans praised her performance.5

In this photograph, taken by Yoichi R. Okamoto on March 27, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson plucks a flower from a blossoming saucer magnolia tree in the Rose Garden as a gift for Olympic figure skating champion Peggy Fleming.

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Nearly two months after her gold medal victory in France, President Lyndon B. Johnson invited Peggy to the White House. On March 27, 1968, Fleming and her mother, Dorothy, joined President Johnson in the Oval Office. After a brief meeting, they stepped out into the Rose Garden to meet with awaiting press and photographers, where President Johnson paused, plucked a flower from a blossoming saucer magnolia tree, and later pinned it to Fleming’s lapel. Addressing reporters, President Johnson commented on her win: “she helped us with the gold drain by bringing back a gold medal.” Johnson and Fleming then returned to the West Wing. On the way, President Johnson stopped to introduce Fleming to White House staff members before returning to the Oval Office. President Johnson also gifted Fleming with a gold charm bracelet in celebration of her achievements.6

Following her gold medal win, Fleming participated in worldwide skating show tours and headlined five NBC television specials, establishing an impressive professional career. On the afternoon of December 22, 1980, Fleming returned to the White House to participate in White House Christmas receptions for the United States Secret Service, White House Military Aides, and White House staff hosted by President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. The elaborate event featured artificial snow, eggnog, hot cocoa, and sleigh rides, and it allowed the president and first lady to show their appreciation to their staff as they prepared to leave the White House in January 1981. President Carter delivered remarks at the reception thanking the Secret Service, Military Aides, and staff for their dedication and hard work during his term in office. To close out his remarks he welcomed Peggy Fleming:

"You have performed like true Olympians, and this afternoon to entertain you, I would like to introduce a real Olympic star, someone who’s soon to show you that she’s poetry on ice, a young woman who is a gold medal winner in the winter Olympics, who comes here as part of the only cabaret ice show this side of Las Vegas, the Urban Hilton on Ice. And now I’d like to introduce to you, Peggy Fleming and a wonderful show for your entertainment. We’re grateful to you."7

U.S. Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming performs on an ice stage set up on the South Lawn of the White House for the Carters and their guests at a holiday party on December 22, 1980.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Following his remarks, Carter watched the performance with Rosalynn and Fleming’s husband, Greg Jenkins, who held their three-year-old son, Andrew, on his lap. Fleming skated three times for the audience throughout the afternoon. For her first performance she wore a beige leotard with purple fringe and later donned a white leotard costume. In addition to performing at the afternoon event for Secret Service and Military Aides, she also performed later that evening for a White House staff Christmas party.

Peggy Fleming has continued to represent the United States on the world stage in the years since her 1980 White House performance. She served as a figure skating commentator for ABC Sports and ESPN for twenty-eight years. Fleming has also contributed to numerous charitable causes over the years.8 In 2010, she accompanied Vice President Joseph R. Biden to Vancouver, Canada, as part of the United States Olympic Games delegation.9