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Skating world reflects on passing of 'The Greatest'

Even brief encounters with Muhammad Ali left indelible impressions
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Peggy Fleming and Bob Paul receive the Olympic torch from Muhammad Ali in December 2001 in Atlanta. -Getty Images

In the days since renowned boxing champion Muhammad Ali, a sports and cultural icon, died at the age of 74, people from around the world have shared memories of his accomplishments and global impact. Over the years, many people from the skating world crossed paths with the late fighter. A few of those individuals shared their memories with icenetwork.

Peggy Fleming

Footage of Ali lighting the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta is a part of sports history. Ali, a gold medalist at the 1960 Olympics, was also part of the Olympic torch's path to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

In December 2001, when the Olympic flame arrived on U.S. soil from Athens, Greece, Ali lit the torch and handed it off to Peggy Fleming. The 1968 Olympic gold medalist then ran the first leg of the torch relay with one of her coaches and choreographers, Bob Paul, the 1960 Olympic gold medalist in pairs.

"When we did that torch relay, his Parkinson's had really set in," Fleming recalled. "His manager said, 'Make sure he doesn't stumble.' I felt like I was taking care of someone that was ill. I respected him very much. I would do anything to make him be that strong image that everyone loved.

"I could tell in his eyes that there was no way he was going to mess up," she added. "His body wasn't doing everything that he was used to, but his mind and his eyes -- I could tell that strength was still there."

That torch ceremony in Atlanta was one of several occasions on which Fleming met Ali. They both took part in a TV special celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sports Illustrated in 1994, when they were among the 40 athletes honored. She also recalled the Sports Illustrated 20th Century Sports Awards in 1999, when Ali was crowned Sportsman of the Century and Fleming was recognized as one of the "Athletes Who Changed the Game."

"He always had a smile. He loved to talk to people," Fleming recalled of their early meetings. "He seemed like a really nice person, very enthusiastic about sports and people who did their sports very well. He respected that.

"I was really impressed every time I was around him and was honored to be included in [the SI honors] with him."

Scott Hamilton

Scott Hamilton encountered Ali several times at events, but the one that stands out the most was the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Ali was always being hounded for autographs and photos, so Hamilton didn't want to impose on him -- but at that event, Hamilton couldn't resist.

"There were iconic athletes there, like Pelé, Billie Jean King, Hank Aaron," Hamilton said. "I saw him and I got to talk to him for a little bit. I asked if we could take a picture. He said sure, of course. We got up and took a picture.

"The kindness in his eyes really struck me," he added. "He was a sweet guy. … Of course, you have an image of him, and basically he lived up to that image. You could talk about all the great athletes, but nobody did it like he did."

He said of all the celebrities he's met in his life, nobody seemed to understand fame better than Ali.

"The power of the moment," Hamilton said. "He allowed himself to be that iconic personality that brought people together."

Tai Babilonia

Tai Babilonia was also at that Statue of Liberty event. She remembers the sense of humor Ali showed while on the bus ride to the historic landmark.

"He would sneak up in back of one of us and quietly rub his fingers behind our ears so that it made a cricket sound. So funny, and we all got a kick out of it because he would just crack up -- yes, the legend would crack himself up!" Babilonia said. "It's the simple things in life and a memory that I will treasure forever."

Kitty Carruthers Conrad

Kitty Carruthers Conrad said meeting Ali was the highlight of a gala event she attended in 1981 celebrating the 20th anniversary of ABC's Wide World of Sports.

"I was such a fan always, and I was kind of awestruck," Carruthers Conrad said. "I remember not really even knowing what to say. He came up and started doing this magic trick -- like, pulling a quarter from my ear. I was thinking, 'Oh my God, he's sitting next to me.'

"He was so sweet and very gentle," she added. "Totally different sense of humor."

Carruthers Conrad encountered Ali again years later in Michigan in the late 1990s, at a fundraiser for a ballpark. He was grappling with Parkinson's disease by then but was still gracious to those in attendance, talking to people and posing for photo after photo.

"You would think when you met him -- at least I did -- I thought he was going to be quite arrogant and full of himself, and it was the complete opposite," Carruthers Conrad said. "He was so kind and sweet and very humble."