THE TIMING WAS EERIE. THIRTY YEARS TO THE DAY AFTER figure skater Peggy Fleming won her gold medal in Grenoble, France, on Feb. 10, 1968, she lay on an operating table in Los Gatos, Calif., facing a challenge more daunting than any Olympics. A month earlier she had noticed a lump in her left breast. When testing showed it was malignant, she stiffened what friends call her steel-rod resolve and prepared herself for surgery. Then, on Feb. 12, her doctor gave her the good news: He had removed all the cancer. "He said I was going to be fine," says Fleming, 49, with a smile. Resting at her home in Los Gatos, outside San Jose, she cannot help but wonder if successful surgery on the anniversary of her historic win was more than coincidence. "I have no explanation for it. Something must be lining up right. Whatever the case," she adds softly, "I am very grateful."

So, too, are a nation of fans, including two who heard the news after finishing a practice session in Nagano last week. "Oh, no!" gasped Michelle Kwan, 17, when told of Fleming's cancer. "Is she okay?" She and Tara Lipinski, 15, were relieved to learn that the answer is yes. "Something like this," says Lipinski, "puts skating in perspective." In the tightly knit family of competitive skaters, Fleming has grown close to the younger generations—with whom she often skates in shows and covers in competitions—as both mentor and den mother. Kwan and Lipinski's Olympic teammate Nicole Bobek, 20, pictures Fleming playing the practical jokes she is known for, not battling cancer: "Here is someone so beautiful and so wonderful, who always keeps herself in shape. You wonder, 'How could this happen to her?' "

At first, Fleming was equally incredulous. As a commentator for ABC Sports at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Philadelphia last month, she was, she says, "[looking] in the mirror, thinking 'Gosh, I look really cute today,' " when she saw the lump. "I didn't get hysterical," says Fleming. After all, five months earlier a mammogram had shown her to be cancer-free, and she had found harmless cysts in her breasts before. After speaking to her husband, dermatologist Greg Jenkins, 52, she decided to have the lump checked after returning from covering the European Figure Skating Championships in Milan more than two weeks later.

Then, on Jan. 19, she saw a cancer specialist, and the tests, she says, "came back questionable." Three days later she had the lump removed—and had to wait more than a week to find out if it was cancerous. "I was thinking, 'This isn't going to happen to me,' " she says. "I was trying not to let myself get too scared." While awaiting the biopsy results, Fleming went to Boston to skate in the Skater's Tribute to Hollywood. Back home in Los Gatos on Jan. 30, Jenkins broke the bad news to Fleming: Her tumor was cancerous. But still Fleming refused to give in to fear. Says her assistant, Jean Hall: "She doesn't believe in falling apart."

Indeed, before her second surgery, on Feb. 10, Fleming carried on as usual. She flew to Michigan, where she spoke at Hillsdale College, and while there visited her close friend Martha Neumann. "We stayed up until 2:30 in the morning, laughing and talking," says Neumann. "I was shocked at how strong she was, until I realized this is the positive attitude and the determination that brought her to the gold medal."

Today, Fleming is preparing to undergo radiation therapy—and enjoying gold medal treatment from her husband and sons Andy, 21, a sophomore at the University of Denver, and Todd, 9. "Greg brings me coffee and all kinds of fun things to read," she says. "And Todd is drawing pictures of me getting well." Andy, meanwhile, is planning a trip home to be with his mother. He knows her prognosis is good. "Still," says Fleming, "he needs to give me hugs."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Gatos and LORENZO BENET in Nagano

  • Contributors:
  • Vicki Sheff-Cahan,
  • Lorenzo Benet.