A Tragic End For The Golden Age Of U.S. Figure Skating
On the morning of February 15, 1961, Sabena flight 548 was making its long approach into Zaventem Airport in Brussels, Belgium. Weather conditions were favorable, but a mechanical failure caused the Boeing 707 to lose control and nose-dive into an empty field. All 72 passengers and crew were killed, including the entire U.S. figure skating team.
Only 4 months earlier, 16 members of the Cal Poly Football squad were lost to a plane accident outside Toledo, Ohio. Once again, the country was mourning the loss of young athletes whose promising lives were abruptly and inexplicably cut short.
The team was on its way to the World Championships in Prague. Amid cheers and farewells at New York’s Idlewild Airport (former JFK), the ice virtuosos took off on Valentine’s Day. They were the cream of the crop of an elegant, graceful sport and their tragedy would effectively end the golden age of American figure skating.
On board were 18 skaters, 6 professional coaches, and 10 officials and family members. Laurence Owen, her older sister Maribel, and their mother Maribel Vinson Owen were among the notables. The Owens became overnight celebrities after winning the U.S. Figure Skating Championship, the first one to be broadcast nationwide by CBS.
After capturing gold in the Ladies’ singles, 16-year old Laurence became the public’s darling and was featured on the cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’ as “America’s most exciting girl skater”. The SI issue came out just two days before the ill-fated flight.
Her 20-year old sister, a sophomore at Radcliffe College in Boston, took gold and silver in the pairs with partner Dudley Richards. A victim of the crash as well, Richards was a close friend of the Kennedys from their Harvard days. Barely a month in office, President John Kennedy would issue an especially heartfelt condolence to the families of the doomed passengers.
Maribel Vinson, a venerable coach armed with scholarship and athleticism, was the author of three books on figure skating and also the first female sports journalist to join the ‘New York Times’. Her collection of medals dated back to the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid where she won bronze behind Sonja Henie and Fritzi Burger.
Americans dominated international figure skating in the 1950’s. Dick Button, the first to land a double-axel in competition, launched the golden era by topping the podium at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St Moritz. Four years later, he would complete the first triple jump and earn his second Olympic gold.
Brothers Alan and David Jenkins, Carol Heiss and Tenley Albright kept the medals brandished for the rest of the decade. They carried gold, silver or bronze each year at the Worlds and at the Olympics. The Jenkins brothers were coached by Vienna-born Edi Scholdan, a prominent skating trainer who perished in the crash.
It all ended with the 1961 air disaster. Besides the Owens, gone were skilled prospects like Stephanie Westerfeld who was the silver medalist behind Laurence, Bradley Lord, ice dancers Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce, and a roster of other gifted hopefuls.
The tournament in Prague was canceled and Americans were now faced with the challenge of reconstituting their team. Within days of the calamity, the U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund was set up to provide financial assistance for new talented skaters.
Experienced coaches were needed too. Italian skating luminary Carlo Fassi was one of the trainers hired from abroad to rekindle the spirit and rebuild the program. He coached 12-year old Peggy Fleming after her coach, William Kipp, was lost to Sabena 548. Years later, he would guide Dorothy Hamill in her international competitions.
In the meantime, older skaters were brought back and younger ones were thrust forward. Barbara Roles, bronze medalist at the 1960 Olympics and now wife and mother, came out of retirement to place 5th at the 1962 Worlds. Just shy of his 15th birthday, Scott Allen became the youngest male Olympian when he grabbed bronze at the 1964 Winter Games.
American standing was back after Peggy Fleming won gold at the 1968 Olympics. While she symbolized the rebirth of U.S. figure skating, it wouldn’t be until 1984 in Sarajevo when Scott Hamilton re-claimed the top prize for men.
In 2011, at the 50th anniversary of the tragic plane episode, the team and its coaches were all inducted into the U.S. Skating Hall of Fame.
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