Peggy Fleming poses for pictures at the Women's Sports Foundation's Annual Gala in New York in 2002. File Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/UPI | License Photo
May 7 (UPI) -- America's first ladies figure skating star, Peggy Fleming, applauds the evolution of the sport in the 50 years since she became an Olympic champion.
Not only do today's skaters have more economic opportunities, they have also raised the athleticism of the sport, Fleming told UPI in an interview ahead of her appearance Monday in the DECADES Network's 1968: The Game Changer.
Fleming, the only American to win a gold medal at the Grenoble Olympic Games in 1968, said, "Back when I was competing, it was a total amateur competition and now it is professionals who can compete and they can make money. When I was competing, my parents could barely afford to do what I did."
Figure skating remains one of the most expensive sports in the world, but today's skaters can compete for corporate sponsorships, performance tours and endorsement opportunities.
"Today is a lot more open," Fleming said. "I feel like when you have to struggle maybe you learn more and struggle more and fight more."
The biggest change in the sport has been the evolving athletic demands. The 2018 Olympic champion, 15-year-old Russian Alina Zagitova, won by placing all of her jump elements in the second half of her program -- when fatigue is highest.
"The Russian women were absolutely perfection," Fleming said of the team at Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February. "They were balletic, they were athletic, they had all the elements. It's a different territory for athletes in America than in Russia."
Since Fleming's years in competition, skaters like Michelle Kwan and Nancy Kerrigan have been popular with American fans. And while some American women made headlines in Pyeongchang -- with Mirai Nagasu becoming the first American woman to land the triple axel on Olympic ice -- none placed close to the podium.
Fleming's rise to fame came under dark circumstance.
"It was a tough era that I came into," said Fleming, recalling the 1961 plane crash that killed the United States' world figure skating team. "It really was a gap in America that was so deep, having lost all our top skaters and coaches."
Fleming was 12 at the time of the crash.
"Because I didn't have those role models, I grew up with my own style," Fleming said. "I had to create how I wanted to skate."
At 15, she was exposed to the Olympics.
"The winner was like a freight train, big jumps. I looked at her and I went, oh my gosh that's not my vision of skating, I'm gonna go back and I want to be powerful, but I also had that exposure of music and dance. I wanted that combination."
The marriage between athleticism and artistry has remained a topic of debate since Fleming's time. While many used to argue that athleticism was undervalued if a skater's artistry was lacking, the issue now lies in the high value placed on risk-taking and athletic ability in the modern scoring system.
"What I would love to have happen in figure skating is that it's a sport and it's an art. That combo is the most unusual sport in the Olympics," said Fleming, 70, who was inducted into the Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1981.
Watching the Pyeongchang Olympics, 50 years after her own victory, Fleming was happy to see Team USA's Nathan Chen embodying that idea.
"I hope that our ladies figure skaters can have that depth of what Nathan had and I would love to be able to have our athletes in America have the depth to understand ballet, the music, not just the athletic side. It's more than that," she said. "He had the background of character and the background of training and ballet."
The DECADES Network's one-hour special also features championship boxer Muhammad Ali, tennis icon Arthur Ashe, and Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith -- athletes of the era who helped to transform the world of sports through their achievement, activism and accomplishments. The special airs at 9 p.m. ET Monday. Find where to watch at DECADES.com.