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Central Press, Getty Images
Central Press, Getty Images

13 Gold Medal-Worthy Olympic Stories

Central Press, Getty Images
Central Press, Getty Images

In our book, it takes more than athleticism to become a true Olympic hero. Whether they were saving lives on the way to the podium or somersaulting with one leg, these athletes deserve infinite points for style. Some of them lost big-time, but all of them won our hearts.

1. THE WEIGHTLIFTER WHO BEEFED UP AT A JAPANESE INTERNMENT CAMP


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A scrawny, asthmatic child, Tamio "Tommy" Kono developed his weightlifting physique in the most unlikely of places—a Japanese internment camp. During World War II, he and his family were forced from their home in San Francisco and moved to a detention center in the California desert. For three and a half years, they endured brutal conditions along with other Japanese immigrants. Although the situation was terrible, the climate wasn't. The desert air agreed with Kono's lungs, and he started lifting weights to pass the time.

After the war, Kono kept training, and within a decade, he was the linchpin of the U.S. national weightlifting team. Despite his family's detention, he proudly lifted for the Americans. Using his freakish ability to raise and lower his weight quickly, Kono helped the team fill gaps in its roster. During his career, Kono lifted competitively at weights ranging from 149 to 198 pounds. To bulk up, he'd devour six or seven meals a day; to slim down, he'd "starve" himself with three meals a day. He won his first gold medal as a lightweight during his Olympic debut in 1952, his second as a light heavyweight in 1956, and then a silver as a middleweight in 1960. All in all, he set seven Olympic records and 26 world records. Plus, he went on to become Mister Universe three times. Not bad for a boy who'd once been a 105-pound weakling.

2. RIDING TO GLORY WITHOUT THE USE OF HER LEGS


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In 1944, Danish horseback rider Lis Hartel contracted polio while pregnant. Although the illness left her almost totally paralyzed, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She also kept training for her event—equestrian dressage. By 1947, she was riding again, even though she couldn't use the muscles below her knees. Despite needing help mounting and dismounting her horse, she competed for Denmark at the 1952 Games, winning a silver medal in a sport that was almost entirely dominated by men. In an indelible image of Olympic sportsmanship, Swedish gold medalist Henri Saint Cyr helped Hartel onto the platform at the awards ceremony. In the following years, Hartel kept on riding and won another silver at the 1956 Games.

Honorable Mentions:
The One-Handed Gunner: Hungarian rapid-fire pistol champ Károly Takács was known for his steady right hand. But while he was serving in the Army in 1938, a grenade accident destroyed it. Undeterred, he taught himself to shoot with his left hand and won gold medals at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.

The One-Legged Gymnast: At the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, American gymnast George Eyser grabbed one bronze, two silvers, and three gold medals—all while competing with a wooden leg.

3. THE BOXER WHO TURNED DOWN MILLIONS FOR COMMUNISM


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Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson burst onto the heavyweight scene at the 1972 Munich Games by knocking down his first opponent in just 30 seconds. He was a force in the ring, and commentators often joked that the "honor" of facing him should go to the loser—not the winner—of previous matches.

After Stevenson cakewalked his way to the gold in 1972, boxing promoters clamored for the Cuban to go pro, but he resisted. He believed passionately in the Cuban Revolution and preferred to fight on behalf of his country. After he nabbed another gold at the 1976 Montreal Games, promoters became even pushier. Stevenson passed up millions of dollars and was hailed as a national hero for his convictions. Then he picked up his third straight gold in 1980, at age 28. After retiring, Stevenson worked as a boxing consultant in Cuba, earning about $400 a month. When asked about all the money he turned down, he often replied, "What is $1 million against eight million Cubans who love me?"

4. THE HUMAN TORPEDO GETS TO KEEP HIS DAY JOB


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Although professional athletes can compete in certain Olympic events today, the modern Games were founded on the purity of amateurs competing solely for the glory. However, this often forced star athletes out of the competition just for taking money to make ends meet. Legendary track-and-field champion Jim Thorpe, for example, lost his amateur status for earning $35 a week in minor-league baseball games.

Italian gymnast Alberto Braglia's "professional" adventures were even more pitiable. After winning the all-around gymnastics gold at the 1908 Games, Braglia hit upon hard financial times. So, he turned to the place best-suited for small, athletic fellows—the circus. Performing as the Human Torpedo, Braglia delighted audiences across Europe with his daredevil stunts. In the process, he broke his shoulder and several ribs.

Irked by his stint in the circus, Italy's governing body for gymnastics declared that Braglia had forfeited his amateur status. Just like that, his Olympic days were over. Fortunately, cooler heads realized that being a human torpedo wasn't quite the same as being a professional gymnast, and Braglia regained his amateur status in time for the 1912 Games in Stockholm. There, the Italian wonder picked up two more gold medals. After the Games, he returned to the circus, where he enjoyed a long and successful career.

5. LOSING A RACE TO SAVE A LIFE

At the 1988 Games in Seoul, Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux was moving along at a quick clip, even though the seas were exceptionally rough. About halfway through the race, he seemed to have a firm grip on the silver medal when disaster struck.

Lemieux heard the cries of two Singaporean sailors competing in a different event nearby. One of them was clinging desperately to his boat, which had capsized under the six-foot waves. The other had drifted 50 feet away, swept off by the currents. Instead of staying in his race, Lemieux set course for the sailors and pulled them out of the water. His hope for a medal all but dashed, Lemieux waited for rescue boats to arrive. By the time they did, he'd fallen to 23rd place. But Lemieux's bravery did not go unrewarded. The Olympic committee gave him the Pierre de Coubertin medal, a special award for sportsmanship.

6. BEARING THE WEIGHT OF A NATION ON A BROKEN KNEECAP

The Japanese men's gymnastics team won gold at every Olympic Games from 1960 to 1972. So when the 1976 Games began, capturing a fifth straight gold was a matter of national pride.

Things started to come apart, however, when gymnast Shun Fujimoto felt something pop in his leg during the floor exercise. He knew he'd broken his kneecap, but hesitated to tell his coaches for fear of being pulled from competition. Knowing that his team needed every tenth of a point to win, Fujimoto decided to downplay the injury. He dusted himself off and hopped on the pommel horse, scoring a 9.5 despite the searing pain in his knee. Fujimoto later credited his injury with helping him to focus, because he knew the slightest error could have caused permanent damage. "I was completely occupied by the thought that I could not afford to make any mistakes," he said.

Following the pommel horse was Fujimoto's strongest event—the rings. For his dismount, he flew through the air in a triple-somersault and made a near-perfect landing with clenched teeth and tears in his eyes. The judges awarded him a 9.7, a personal best. After sticking the landing, Fujimoto collapsed in pain. Even then, he only withdrew from the competition after doctors told him he would risk permanent disability by continuing. Fujimoto's teammates rallied around their friend's gutsy performance and edged out the Soviets for the gold.

7. CASSIUS CLAY TOSSES HIS MEDAL INTO THE OHIO RIVER


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Before Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, he was a cocky 18-year-old boxer at the 1960 Games in Rome. His masterful performance in the ring won him the gold, but his friendliness and chatty demeanor won him the hearts of journalists. Hoping to capitalize on Clay's loose tongue, the Soviet press tried to bait him into talking trash about America. One Soviet reporter asked him how he felt about being barred from certain restaurants back home, and Clay quickly responded, "Russian, we got qualified men working on that problem. We got the biggest and the prettiest cars. We get all the food we can eat. America is the greatest country in the world."

After Clay returned home to Kentucky, he proudly wore his gold medal around his neck. But his American pride didn't last long. In Louisville, a whites-only restaurant refused to serve him, and a white gang made the mistake of trying to attack him. After the incidents, the medal lost its luster for Clay. According to popular legend, he reacted by abruptly chucking it into the Ohio River. Four decades and one Civil Rights movement later, the Olympic committee gave Ali a replacement medal during the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

8. SLOW AND STEADY, WITH A BREAK FOR WINE

While planning the first modern Games in Athens in 1896, French historian Michel Bréal wanted to come up with an event that linked the competition to its ancient roots. He suggested a footrace that was the distance from Athens to Marathon, because a messenger had once supposedly sprinted between the two cities to spread news of a Greek military victory. The Greek people were captivated by the notion of a race with such strong ties to their country's history, and they become obsessed with dominating the event.

While the other nations barely prepared for the competition, the marathon-crazed Greeks held two qualifying trials to choose their entrants. Except for the Greek runners, only one other contestant had run a full marathon before the Olympic Games. On the day of the race, the lack of proper training quickly took its toll. By the halfway point, runners started dropping like flies.

After nearly three hours, fans at the finish line learned that a Greek runner named Spyridon Louis had taken the lead, despite stopping along the way for a glass of wine. Greece's Prince George and Crown Prince Constantine got so excited that they joined Louis for his last surge to the finish line. Louis, a peasant farmer, quickly became a national hero, and his name even entered the Greek vernacular. The term egine Louis, which translates as "become Louis," is still used to mean "run quickly."

9. THE HURDLER WHO MADE HISTORY FOR MUSLIMS, AFRICANS, AND WOMEN


Tony Duffy, Getty Images

Talk about Cinderella stories. After spending her childhood running through the streets of Casablanca, Morocco's Nawal El Moutawakel used her speed to earn a track scholarship to Iowa State University, where she won four individual Big Eight titles. In 1984, she became the only woman on the Moroccan team at the Los Angeles Olympics.

Moutawakel blew away her competition in the 400-meter hurdles, handing Morocco its first gold medal. At the same time, she also became the first Muslim woman to win a gold medal. As she ran her victory lap with a large Moroccan flag in hand, her elated countrymen back home poured into the streets of Casablanca in the middle of the night.

As a national hero, Moutawakel has used her celebrity to help other women in sports. Although Morocco largely supported her career, she knew women in other Islamic countries weren't so lucky. One of her greatest triumphs has been organizing a women's 10K race in Casablanca, which now draws more than 27,000 participants. As Morocco's Minister for Youth and Sports and a major player in the International Olympic Committee, Moutawakel led the task force that chose London as the site for the 2012 Games. She has summed up her triumphs by saying, "My athletic race was the 400-meter hurdles, but it has been a metaphor for my life ... You have to get over the hurdles and keep running."

10. BRAZIL'S LONG AND WINDING PATH TO AN OLYMPIC EMBARRASSMENT

For the Brazilian team, getting to the 1932 Los Angeles Games was an Olympic trial all its own. The Brazilian government was bankrupt, and it couldn't afford to pay for the team's expenses. So the athletes traveled via coffee barge, stopping at ports between Brazil and Los Angeles to peddle roasted beans. All they needed was to sell the 50,000 bags on board.

Unfortunately, the team made only $24. At the time, the tax to enter the United States was $1 per person, meaning only 24 members of the squad were able to leave the ship. The other 45 teammates had to set sail for the Pacific Northwest to try to unload the rest of the coffee.

Sadly, the athletes who did make it to the Games didn't fare particularly well. After losing to Germany 7-3 in water polo, the Brazilian team jumped out of the pool and started pounding on the referee. The police pulled the Brazilians off the battered official, and the team was disqualified from the rest of the Olympics.

11. THE BABE WHO RAN CIRCLES AROUND THE COMPETITION WHILE PLAYING THE HARMONICA


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When the Los Angeles Olympics rolled around in 1932, a 19-year-old typist named Mildred "Babe" Didrikson faced an unusual problem. The rules dictated that an athlete could only enter three track-and-field events, and Didrikson had qualified for five. So, she simply picked the ones in which she already held world records—javelin, 80-meter hurdles, and the high jump.

Her first event didn't get off to an auspicious start. The javelin slipped from her hand and tore the cartilage in her right shoulder. For most athletes, that would have meant instant defeat, but Babe's compromised throw sailed more than 143 feet and set a new world record. Two days later, Babe set another world record in the 80-meter hurdles. She looked poised to sweep her events, but was disqualified in the high jump competition for diving headfirst over the bar, which was illegal at the time. She had to settle for silver.

Didrikson had an outsized personality to match her athletic prowess. Reportedly, she'd greet her opponents with the taunt "Yep, I'm gonna beat you." And during training sessions for the Los Angeles Games, she would irritate her teammates by literally running circles around them while playing her harmonica.

Babe's sports dominance didn't stop with track and field. In 1935, she picked up golf, and by 1950 she had won every available women's title in the game. She's still considered one of the greatest golfers of all time, male or female. Never humble, Didrikson wrote in her autobiography, "My goal was to be the greatest athlete who ever lived."

12. SOVIET SISTERS OR COMMUNIST BROTHERS?


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No one ever questioned the athletic prowess of Tamara and Irina Press, two Russian sisters who were unstoppable in track and field. People did question their gender, though.

At the 1960 Games in Rome, the Presses became the first sisters to win gold at the same Olympics. Tamara set an Olympic record in shot put, and Irina won the 80-meter hurdles. At Tokyo's 1964 Games, they were even more dominant. Tamara won the gold in both discus and shot put (beating her own record), while Irina won the first women's Olympic pentathlon.

Given their hulking stature and masculine features, rumors started to spread about their gender. Rivals derisively labeled them "the Press Brothers," but the whispers turned into shouts after the International Amateur Athletic Federation announced that it would begin gender testing at the 1966 European championships. Both sisters promptly withdrew from the event and disappeared from competitive track and field.

The Western media gleefully interpreted their retirement as a tacit confession. A Soviet spokesman dismissed the accusations as jealousy and claimed the sisters had stayed home to care for their ailing mother. The truth remains an Olympic mystery.

13. A HEARTWARMING MOMENT IN JAPANESE SPORTSMANSHIP 


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At the 1936 Berlin Games, Japanese pole vaulters Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Ōe tied for second place. The teammates were offered the opportunity to have a jump-off for the silver medal, but the two friends declined out of mutual respect for one another. For the purposes of Olympic records, Ōe agreed to the bronze while Nishida took the silver.

Upon their return to Japan, the teammates came up with a different solution. The pair had a jeweler cut their medals in half and fuse them back together, creating half-silver, half-bronze pendants. The "Medals of Friendship," as they're now known in Japan, are enduring symbols of friendship and teamwork.

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How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
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Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
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ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
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Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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