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?
Don’t Miss the next post!
Subscribe to Philip Yancey’s blog here:
Amazing story. I worry sometimes I’m not investing enough in others, but I do have a lot of teens in my life I’ve invested in, so perhaps someday I’ll see it made a difference. And your book Soul Survivor helped me deeply years ago, as I grasped for meaning in a tough time. I’m a writer too. Remembering that writing is investing in the reader is key. Otherwise why write? Thanks for this story and all your shared wisdom.
Very touching , challenging & rewarding.But many times we can invest in other people but do not see amazing results, it’s alright, it’s not the degree of achievement but the human, loving touch which counts.
I admire the persistence of Jim& his encouragement.Praying to continue& not give up.
I have written an essay on the problem with suffering that I would like to share with you. WHAT IS YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS?
Thank you for an inspiring story. Rest assured Philip, your investment in my life runs deep…
Who are you investing in? Was a question my dad often asked as my siblings and I were growing up. I am the last of five and the only one who never had an answer. As those precious teenage years approached I found my love for children and was finally able to give an answer. At the tender age of thirteen I told my father I would invest my time,patience and prayers into other children so they could one day know who GOD is. After completing high school I took the necessary steps to start my own business in daycare, which I ran over a decade. My primal goal was to teach the little children about our lord and savior Jesus Christ. Many wondered why I had not become a Sunday school teacher but doing that would only allow for me to teach what the church wanted taught. Doing it my way allowed me to teach the necessities as well as the Lord. I’ve gone on to teach hundreds of children on many different levels the fundamentals along with the love of Christ. They all differed in age but we’re like minded in spirit. As the good word says, “train up a child in the way they should go and when they are old they will not depart from it”. Investments are needed near and far, let us strive to meet the need.
Beautiful story and a challenge you leave us with “whom I am investing in?”
I met you in Nepal when you came to INF’s conference. Thank you again, Philip, for this story.
Inspiring story! Thank you!
Beautiful – investment is never easy, but man oh man is it beautiful. Brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing in your humble and winsome fashion.
I finally went to your blog Philip, and I am so glad to have read this story! It was so moving and timely as we have been caught up in the Olympics each evening. I had never heard of Jim Willem, but I certainly remember watching Peggy Fleming skate. To think of him being so giving and dedicated in helping her achieve her dream. That can be hard even for a parent, but for a teacher to so invested – it definitely brought tears. I won’t forget him now and also your fairly haunting words “Who am I investing in?”
I cried as well. Thank you so much for reminding me that there are good people who truly live their faith in this troubled world. Keep finding the words. We need them.
Thank you for sharing…..
Philip, you are one of three whose “words” have touched/influenced my life very deeply!!
What a sweet story, and when I finished reading it, I tried to recall the winsome source who posted it… Ahh yes, Philip Yancey.
Inspiring, encouraging, challenging… Thank you.
My husband and I had the privilege of investing in the life of a nursing student at our local university who was coming out of a semester at a domestic violence shelter. This was an answer to a prayer where I asked God to help me connect with people who struggle in life. I wouldn’t trade a moment of our journey with her–it has been priceless and eye opening. I hope she is the first of many people that I can impact for his glory!
Smile…. Silly Boy…. You have touched many people with your books, posts and writings. I’m thinking that counts as some kind of investment in people! But I think I understand what you mean by some, ONE individual. I guess waiting for God to bring that someone into your life will be fun to watch for.
What a beautiful story!
It was good to read a”happy ending”story. In South Africa there is much doom and gloom as a rule and where I live, Cape Town, we are experiencing the worst drought in the last 100 years. Lets hope and pray that our story has a happy ending!
Being a south Georgia man, I had never had much interest with the winter sports, but this story is a real inspriation! Thanks for sharing with your usual gift of clear and inspiring communication.
Thanks for this article. I too can look back and see how God brought various individuals into my life at some very crucial times. Their influence still lives on inb me, though at the time I did not see it.
Philip, I sat at my breakfast table in tears reading this post. Thank you for sharing this story. My parents were ice dancers, so one thing we ALWAYS watched when it was on TV as ice skating. I remember the crash that killed the US Ice Skating Team. And I most certainly remember Peggy Fleming…rooting her on from our family room in Denver. Knowing more of the background is a real blessing. As a former teacher, I was so touched by Jim Willems dedication to a special student, and to his students in general (I surmise from his huge heart for Peggy.) Although I had no Olympic medalists, I am beyond grateful to God for so many, many of my former students that still keep in touch with me, and use their talents and skills to the glory of God. I am grateful for teachers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends who continue to invest in the lives of our young people. Thanks for the reminder of what a little caring can accomplish. (And I continue praying for you and Janet while you serve in Japan during this trip. Bless you.)
Thank you for sharing this. I’m crying !
Thank you, Philip, I so appreciate your writing! Thank you for blogging and continuing to connect the human and divine
What an inspirational story and what a time in history to remind everyone, “Who am I investing in???????
Always hang on your every word. Might not be the weight of a nation, but your words cut through everything, and line an arrow straight through my heart. Bless you Philip, and all your family. We will always pray for you, for all too often, you hold us all up.
What a touching story. Thank you for finally telling it after all these years.
Typically stirring reflection … thanks so much. I would love to have you come to a remote island in Eastern Canada for a small fall retreat. (Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada)