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[ICE TIME] Exclusive: Legend Peggy Fleming Salutes Kaori Sakamoto's Success at the World Championships

"I'm honored to have set such a lasting benchmark and equally thrilled for Kaori's incredible accomplishment," three-time world champion Peggy Fleming said.

Kaori Sakamoto's recent triumph at the world championships in Montreal, marking her third consecutive victory in the competition, put her name alongside living legend Peggy Fleming in the record books. The timeless American icon appreciated what she saw on the ice from the Kobe native.

Fleming, who won the gold medal at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics and three straight world titles from 1966-68, remains a giant figure in the sport of skating. Her elegant performances resonate with fans to this day.

Ice Time contacted Fleming after Sakamoto's most recent success in March 2024 to get her thoughts on Kaori's skating, her memories of her wins at the world championships, and the current state of skating.

Fleming, who was traveling at the time of my initial inquiry, responded to a series of questions I submitted via email.

Peggy Fleming
Peggy Fleming

She skated professionally for years after retiring from amateur competition and was a skating analyst for ABC-TV for decades. Fleming praised the skill and determination she witnessed from Sakamoto in Canada.

"I had the pleasure of watching Kaori Sakamoto at the recent world championships," Fleming wrote. "Amidst immense pressure, she delivered a performance that was both powerful and poised, demonstrating a remarkable level of confidence and mastery over her performance."

Fleming, who won the only gold medal for the United States at the 1968 Winter Games, believes Sakamoto can go even farther with the interpretation of her programs moving forward.

"Kaori's performance at the world championships was a testament to her command over her program and her music," Fleming noted. "While she skates with remarkable precision and power, I believe there's an opportunity for her to deepen her connection with the audience, adding an even greater emotional layer to her already impressive routines."

Peggy Fleming Praises Sakamoto's Overall Brilliance on Ice

Fleming, who was born in San Jose, California, likened Sakamoto to elite skaters from years past, who relied on the totality of their abilities ― not just jumps ― to excel.

"Kaori Sakamoto represents a refreshing narrative in figure skating, emphasizing the artistry and completeness of the sport beyond the technical feats like quadruple jumps," Fleming observed. "Her approach underscores the importance of choreography, expression and storytelling, which are integral to the essence of figure skating."

Kaori Sakamoto
Kaori Sakamoto in action at the world championships. (KYODO)

Fleming Expresses Pride in Her Success and Sakamoto's Accomplishment

Ice Time asked Fleming if she was surprised that it had taken another female skater 56 years to equal her feat of capturing three straight golds at the worlds.

"It's indeed surprising that it took over five decades for another skater to match the record of three consecutive world titles," Fleming wrote. "I'm honored to have set such a lasting benchmark and equally thrilled for Kaori's incredible accomplishment, showcasing her resilience and growing confidence in the sport."

Peggy Fleming in a photo (circa 1971) from her illustrious skating career. (IMDB)

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Fleming Reflects on Her Rise to the Top and a Tragic Plane Crash

Fleming, who was a five-time US titlist (1964-68), looked back and reflected on what drove her to the top of the podium at worlds three years in a row.

"The cornerstone of my success was the focus on competing against myself, constantly striving for personal excellence while maintaining my nerve and composure," Fleming recalled. "This internal focus was pivotal in tuning out external pressures and staying grounded in my goals."

Fleming's incredible run came with significant challenges. In 1961, when she was 12, her coach William Kipp was killed in the tragic plane crash in Brussels that claimed the lives of the entire United States figure skating team as it traveled to the world championships in Prague. Fleming had to relocate from the Bay Area to the Rockies as a result.

Peggy Fleming
Peggy Fleming appeared on the cover of American sports magazine Sports Illustrated in February 1968.

"Reflecting on that period, changing coaches and moving from California to Colorado were significant decisions that catalyzed my growth in the sport," Fleming remembered. "Each victory at the world championships bolstered my confidence, yet also reminded me of the increasing expectations.

"My coach, Carlo Fassi's advice to surpass my previous bests rather than focusing on external competition was a guiding principle," Fleming wrote.

It is not unusual now for skaters who win the gold at the Olympics to skip the world championships which follow a month later. Fleming revealed that she never contemplated that prospect back in 1968.

"Following my Olympic victory, the thought of skipping the world championships never crossed my mind," Fleming pointed out. "Despite the heightened pressure, I was committed to showcasing my skills and continuing my journey, believing in my ability to thrive under the spotlight."

The Present-Day State of Skating

Fleming, who was part of the inaugural class of the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1976, provided her view on the state of skating in the present day.

"Figure skating continues to be a captivating blend of artistry and athleticism, a unique canvas where each skater paints their own story," Peggy Fleming assessed. "The recent emphasis on technical prowess and challenging jumps adds an exciting dimension to the sport, enriching the performances we see today.

"Yet, at its core, figure skating is about storytelling and emotional expression, elements that create a deep and resonant connection with the audience," Fleming continued.

"I believe that this artistic essence is what truly elevates the sport, making each performance not just a display of physical skill, but a shared, heartfelt experience."

Added Fleming, "I am optimistic about the sport's future, knowing that as we marvel at the technical feats, the enduring beauty of skating's artistry continues to touch hearts and inspire generations."

Kaori Sakamoto competes in the Skate Canada women's short program on October 27, 2023, in Vancouver, Canada. (Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY SPORTS)

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Author: Jack Gallagher

The author is a veteran sports journalist and one of the world's foremost figure skating experts. Find articles and podcasts by Jack on his author page, and find him on X (formerly Twitter) @sportsjapan.

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