U.S. skating program rose from ashes of '61 crash

Feb 4 2012 - 5:22pm

Amid the twisted metal and smoldering rubble of Sabena Flight 548 was a copy of the latest edition of Sports Illustrated, its edges charred to tattered flakes.

Still clearly visible on the cover, though, was Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old with a pixie cut and a future as bright as her red skating dress. A year after finishing sixth at the 1960 Olympics, she had just won her first U.S. title and was a favorite for the upcoming world championships, causing SI to declare her "America's most exciting girl skater."

That promise was cut short on Feb. 15, 1961, when she and the rest of the U.S. team were killed in a plane crash while on their way to the world championships in Prague. Eighteen skaters, six coaches, and 10 judges, officials and family members died a few miles short of the Brussels airport, along with the other 27 passengers and crew of 11.

"Can you imagine what would happen to a sport when the entire team and coaches for that team and some of the officials all died at the same time?" said Patricia St. Peter, current president of U.S. Figure Skating. "Literally, this organization was starting over."

From the wreckage of that crash, however, came the seeds of renewal.

Whether it was a young Peggy Fleming getting money for a new pair of skates from the Memorial Fund, established in honor of those killed, or Evan Lysacek and Michelle Kwan absorbing the lessons Frank Carroll had been taught by his coach, Maribel Vinson Owen, every moment of glory U.S. figure skating has had in the last 50 years can be traced to that tragedy in Belgium.

"They were the springboard for everyone that came after them," 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton says in "Rise," a documentary honoring the crash victims that will be shown Thursday night at more than 500 theaters nationwide. "All of us who came after represent their promise, their dream."

To commemorate the anniversary of the crash, all 34 members of the U.S. delegation were inducted into U.S. Figure Skating's Hall of Fame at the national championships last month. U.S. Figure Skating also is hosting a red-carpet screening of "Rise" on Thursday night in New York City. Fleming, Hamilton and Lysacek will be joined by fellow Olympic champions Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano, and interviews and a special performance by Lysacek will be broadcast to the other theaters showing "Rise."

Money raised from ticket sales around the country will go to the Memorial Fund, as will a portion of the proceeds from "Indelible Tracings," Patty Bushman's book on the '61 team.

"I think it's great for kids to learn a little bit more of the history of some of the great people that went before them," Carroll said. "So much of people's lives were lost with (the crash). Not just the people that were killed, but I'm talking about the ones that were left behind. How much we missed them all, what was taken from us."

The years after World War II were a heady time for U.S. skating. American men won every world and Olympic title from 1948 through the Squaw Valley Games in 1960, and the U.S. swept the podium at the 1956 Olympics and the 1952, '55 and '56 world championships. Tenley Albright became the first American woman to win the world title in 1953, and she and Carol Heiss then won six straight world titles from 1955 to 1960. Albright won Olympic gold in 1956, followed by Heiss four years later.

Karol and Peter Kennedy gave the U.S. its first world title in pairs in 1950, and were Olympic silver medalists two years later. Nancy and Ron Ludington were bronze medalists at the 1959 worlds and 1960 Olympics. American ice dancers medaled at all but two world championships between 1952 and 1959.

Though Heiss, David Jenkins and the Ludingtons moved on after Squaw Valley, there was so much young talent behind them that the medals streak showed no signs of ending. In a picture taken shortly before takeoff, the members of the 1961 world team brimmed with confidence.

The team of teenagers and 20-somethings came from all over the U.S. Some were single, others married with small children. For some, the trip was a family affair. Owen and her older sister, Maribel Y., a pairs skater, were coached by their mother, Maribel Vinson Owen, who won nine U.S. titles to set a record matched only by Kwan. Pairs skaters Ila Ray and Ray Hadley Jr., were coached by their mother, Linda.

And some were on the plane sheerly by chance. Douglas Ramsay had finished fourth at nationals, but bronze medalist Tim Brown got sick and couldn't go to worlds. Sharon Westerfeld filled in as little sister Stephanie's chaperone because their mother didn't want to make Stephanie nervous.

The plane crashed into a marshy field on its approach to Zaventem Airport in Brussels. The exact cause of the crash was never determined.

"I was 12, and it's like watching a bad movie. It's not real," said Fleming, whose mother told her about the crash as she got ready for school. "It took a lot of time for it to sink in."

Added Carroll, "Of course it was such a shock and horrible. The sadness for me was not then. It was not at the moment of the crash. Or even that year. It was years later when I didn't have (Vinson Owen) to lean on. ... She was a mentor about what to do with your life, who you'd go and ask about decisions you're trying to make as you're growing up and becoming an adult. Somebody who's kind of a hero in your eyes, and then they're gone."

The impact of the crash was both immediate and far-reaching. Eight days after the crash, U.S. Figure Skating established the Memorial Fund. Over the last 50 years, it has given out more than $10 million in skating and academic scholarships to everyone from Fleming to reigning Olympic and world silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

The world championships were canceled that year in sympathy for the Americans. International coaches, including Carlo Fassi and John Nicks, moved to the United States to help rebuild the U.S. program.

Five years later, Fleming won the first of three straight world titles. She would win the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, while three-time U.S. men's champion Tim Wood claimed a silver medal.

"I think I achieved things faster than I would have if the crash hadn't happened because there was so much talent on that plane," Fleming said. "Who knows what would have happened? But my career wouldn't have happened so quickly."

For Carroll, it meant a different career entirely.

He was a successful junior skater under Vinson Owen, and her influence on him -- on and off the ice -- remains strong to this day.

"Through both of them, I became a world champion," Kwan says in "Rise." "I know the things that Maribel Vinson Owen taught Frank, he taught me."

But Vinson Owen had wanted Carroll to go to law school, and was furious when she learned he'd signed a contract with the Ice Follies. One year, she told him, and Carroll was to go back to school. He agreed, only to have Vinson Owen die a few months later.

Carroll never did make it to law school, becoming a coach in 1964. His emphasis on solid technique and eye for artistry have made him the pre-eminent coach in the United States, guiding Linda Fratianne, Tim Goebel, Kwan, Lysacek and others to seven world titles, four Olympic medals and more than a dozen U.S. titles.

When Lysacek won the gold medal in Vancouver last winter, Carroll finally had an Olympic champion.

"It was such a special moment for me to present Frank with the coach's medal," Lysacek said.

A moment that might not have happened if not for that crash in 1961.

"Hope rose out of the ashes of the crash," Carroll says in "Rise." "We all hoped we could renew or do something better. And I think we did."

------

Online:

www.rise1961.com

From Around the Web

  +