Ron Agostini

Fleming's Fight Still Inspires

TURLOCK -- Four decades later, she's still America's princess.

Peggy Fleming, shy by nature, issues a humble "thank you" when she hears the praise that always follows her. She's 59 and more than seasoned by life's give-and-take, yet she's grown from each experience.

Olympic figure skating gold medalist. Mother. Grandmother. Cancer survivor. You name it, she's conquered it, and all with an easy grace and dignity that downplays the rawboned fighting spirit of a champion.

"When you're a competitor, you have to have that spirit, that positive attitude," Fleming said Tuesday night during her appearance at the 2007 Cancer Awareness Event at the new Emanuel Medical Plaza.

"If you go out and compete and you say, 'Oh, I hope I don't fall, I hope to do my best,' that's not enough. A competitor that goes out to win will stand up straight and say, 'Yes, I've done my training. I'm ready for this. I'm prepared.' "

Fleming's story crosses over all demographics, races, faiths and language barriers. Hers is a triumph of the human will, a timeless tribute. When she talks about being prepared and not backing away from tough fights, she's addressing both athletics and cancer.

Baby boomers remember the girl from San Jose in the plain chartreuse dress designed and sewn by her mother. In 1961, the entire U.S. Figure Skating team -- every role model Fleming had -- was killed in a plane crash. Seven years later in Grenoble, France, Fleming restored American pride with the gold-medal elegance that made her the national sweetheart.

But Generation Xers have seen a different Fleming, the one who was told she had breast cancer in January of 1998. She attacked her new foe with the same determination she brought to the ice and, better still, shared her fight with the public.

Not once did she say, "Why me?" Instead, she applied the lessons she learned in sports to whipping the disease inside her.

She won. Again.

"I feel very fortunate and that's my message," Fleming said. "Early detection can save your life, so don't procrastinate. Make your appointments and just do them. It gives you peace of mind. Cancer treatment is changing day by day and year by year and has more survivors. If you catch it early, it's not necessarily a death sentence."

In an era where stars are exposed as frauds every other week, Fleming remains the real thing. That's why more than 1,000 braved threatening weather to hear her words of inspiration Tuesday night. There were cancer patients, cancer survivors, patients in wheelchairs and many people just interested in how she slew her private dragon.

She won because she was an athlete, she insisted, but also because she wasn't afraid.

"I drew on those experiences in competition, when you say, 'OK, I'm scared,' " she said. "But then you go to the next step: Find out. Get the knowledge and understand what you need to do, and take one step at a time and do it because you don't become a champion overnight and you don't survive cancer overnight either. You have to do it in stages and you have to be patient."

Fleming lives in Los Gatos with her husband, Dr. Greg Jenkins, and does about 15 speaking appearances a year. In her case, just being Peggy Fleming is more than enough. Few athletes and personalities have waltzed across our stage with such style and substance. But if you look closer, you also recognize the either-or world of an athlete at work.

"If I didn't win the Olympics, I still had those wonderful years of participating in sports at a very high level. They really change you," she said. "You know yourself better than anyone and you've tested yourself physically and mentally. It's good to test yourself from all angles."

Fleming laughs about her trademark ageless beauty. She says she owes it all to a career "frozen in ice," and "never being out in the sun" or because "I married a dermatologist."

I think it's due to old-fashioned qualities like making smart choices, keeping fit and maintaining a personal balance. Fleming never has enjoyed her work as ABC figure-skating analyst but she never retreated because "I push myself. It's a challenge. I just try to be myself and know that I have a good story to tell."

And if you heed her advice, Fleming says, "Then I'm your cheerleader."

The princess-cheerleader.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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