Winter Olympics events get major coverage in Colorado, for my state sends more athletes to the games than any other. I left for Japan halfway through this year’s events, which means I missed many thrills of victory and agonies of defeat. Over here, however, Japan’s victorious male figure skaters made the front page of every newspaper in the country.
Watching the figure skating finals, with an excited Japanese commentator in the background, took me back to a conversation with a man I met at a book exposition some years ago. Jim Willems owned a Christian bookstore in California, and when he learned of my interest in writing he told me a story from his earlier days as a teacher. I mentally filed away his account, hoping to write it up some day, but never got around to it. I remember it now, as clearly as the day he told it.
“We teachers were always looking for kids who needed a little extra attention,” he began, “and one gangly, freckle-faced student caught my eye. I taught sixth grade that year, and this shy girl named Peggy always sat on the back row. Often I caught her nodding off, or even openly napping, with her head resting on the desk. So I stopped her one day after class and asked why she always seemed so tired. She explained that she got up at four a.m. each day to practice figure skating at a rink more than an hour away.”
I interrupted him. “You’re sure about that? A twelve year old getting up at four a.m.?”
Jim insisted, “Yes, she did. I got to know the family well. Her parents were humble folk who sacrificed to keep Peggy in what was known as ‘a rich man’s sport.’ Something attracted me to a kid with that kind of grit and determination, and I took her on as a kind of project.”
I steered Jim to a café in the convention center, where he filled in more details. His own father, a missionary to China, had died of cancer before Jim’s tenth birthday, and only the care and generosity of an uncle made it possible for Jim’s family of nine children to stay together. Now he saw a chance to return the favor for a promising student. Besides offering to tutor Peggy after school, he also adjusted her homework assignments around her schedule of skating tournaments.
When Peggy graduated to the junior high school across the street, Jim argued her case before skeptical teachers, who saw skating as a distraction from Peggy’s studies. “I know ice skating seems a bit odd in southern California,” he said, “but this girl has real talent, and she works harder than any student I’ve had. With that persistence, she can go places someday.” In the end they, too, agreed to adapt schoolwork to her grueling schedule.
That very year, 1961, a plane carrying the U.S. Figure Skating team crashed in Belgium en route to the World Championships, killing all eighteen skaters along with their coaches and families. The U.S., which had dominated the sport, found itself bereft.
When he heard the news, Jim crossed the street to the junior high school. He knew Peggy had lost her skating heroes and role models, as well as her personal coach. “I found her alone, head down, sitting at a table in the far corner of the cafeteria. She was devastated. I groped for words that could keep her from giving up the sport entirely.
“I told her the mantle of U.S. skating had fallen, and she was one of the few who could pick it up. Almost as an afterthought, I added, ‘Peggy, when you win a gold medal at the Olympics, I’ll be there to see you.’ She forced a smile through her tears. ‘Thanks, I’ll remember that,’ she said.”
From that dark day forward Peggy had one goal: to win Olympic gold. She spent six to eight hours a day on ice, leaping, twirling, and perfecting the delicate choreography of every move. Off the rink she felt like an awkward adolescent. Perched on thin skate blades, she was a ballerina, poetry in motion. At a time when figure skaters emphasized flamboyance and athleticism, she preferred a fluid, classical style.
At the age of 15 she placed sixth at the Innsbruck Olympics, and from there went on a tour of Russia to great applause. Once more, disaster struck. Back in California, her father, 41, died of a heart attack. In the midst of her grief, she wondered again if her skating days had ended. Her mother would need to find a job to support the family. And each week mother and daughter drove in a beat-up compact car 425 miles to San Francisco for skating lessons. How could they maintain such a schedule?
Again, Jim Willems stepped in. At first he helped with the driving, sitting rinkside for hours with a book to read as the plucky teenager practiced her routines. Finally, he arranged a skating scholarship and a move to Colorado’s exclusive Broadmoor Club, which allowed Peggy to juggle time between the classroom and the rink. There she began working with the renowned coach Carlo Fassi.
In 1966, 16-year-old Peggy won the first of three consecutive world championships, reviving the spirit of an Olympic team that had been reeling from the loss of its best skaters. At the 1968 Winter Olympics, in Grenoble, France, she felt the weight of a nation’s expectations. Deeply divided by the Vietnam War, Americans were looking to the games as a hopeful diversion. The mantle had indeed fallen to Jim Willems’ former student.
The ladies’ figure skating finals came toward the end of the games, by which time the U.S. had not won a single gold medal. Peggy represented the last chance.
True to his promise, Jim Willems had booked a ticket to Grenoble. He sat in the stands, waiting for Peggy’s performance, reliving those long drives and long hours at the rink. He remembers, “Here was this 109-pound teenager in a chartreuse outfit, with five minutes to impress judges who all too often let their politics sway their scoring. Would they stonewall us with Cold War bias?
“I reached over for my wife’s hand and whispered that I hoped Peggy would go conservative, not risking a fall. The first notes of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony sounded, and right away I saw that she was going for broke. She used every foot of ice in the rink, bringing the crowd to their feet with her axels and toe loops. I could hardly hear the music she was skating to, for all the shouts and applause.”
Every judge but one ranked Peggy Fleming first among the competitors with a nearly perfect score, earning her the gold medal. For the first and only time in those Olympic Games, the band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” And a sixth-grade teacher went home convinced he had made a good investment.
Eventually Sports Illustrated would name Peggy Fleming, along with Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Richard Petty, Pelé, Bill Russell, and Arnold Palmer, as one of seven athletes who forever changed their sport.
Jim Willems had no idea what difference his gestures would make to a young skater’s dreams. As I reflect on his story several decades later, I think of the adults who once showed an interest in me during my shy, awkward teenage days. And then, like a boomerang, a question comes spinning back to me: Who am I investing in?
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