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Figure Skating Friday: 1961

1961 world teamWhen you look at a list of medalists at the World Figure Skating Championships, you will notice three gaps, when the event was not held — World War I, World War II, and 1961.

On February 14, 1961, the entire US figure skating team, along with coaches, family members, and officials boarded Sabina Flight 548 bound for Brussels, on their way to Prague for the competition.  They never made it.  The next morning, the plane crashed during an aborted landing attempt near the Brussels airport.  No one survived.

On board were many famous and talented skaters and coaches.  The legendary coach and Olympic medalist, Maribel Vinson-Owen, was accompanying her daughters as their coach.  She had also coached Tenley Albright, the first American to win the Olympics in Ladies figure skating in 1956.  Vinson-Owen is tied with Michelle Kwan for the record number of US National titles (nine) in the Ladies event — but Maribel holds the record for total number of US gold medals when you factor in her four US National wins in Pairs.

Maribel’s daughter, Laurence Owen, age 16, was the champion of the Ladies’ event at Nationals and showed much promise for the 1964 Olympics. She had just been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, morbidly gracing the newsstands at the time of the crash. Her sister, Maribel, age 20, was National Champion in Pairs, with her partner Dudley Richards.  Men’s champion Bradley Lord and Ice Dance champions Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce were also lost in the crash, alongside other medalists like Stephanie Westerfield.  A full list can be found here.

The impact on the sport was felt immediately and for years into the future.  Out of respect for the dead (and due to the reality of a lack of judges and other officials), the competition was canceled.  Many foreign coaches, including John Nicks (from England) and Carlo Fassi (from Italy) came to fill in the void left by the victims of the crash.  Even so, the loss was deep and wide.  In the 1980’s, when Maribel Vinson’s former student Frank Carroll was coaching at the Olympic level for the first time, he found himself wishing that he could call Maribel and ask for advice.

In the 1964 Olympics, young skaters tried to bridge the gap, competing ahead of their time.  The US won only one medal in figure skating.  Scott Allen, age 14, brought home bronze in the Men’s event becoming one of the youngest medalists in history (he is still the youngest male and youngest individual medalist in the history of the sport).  Also at that games, a young star emerged in the Ladies event — Peggy Fleming, age 15, placed sixth but showed remarkable talent for the future.  She won the gold medal in 1968, re-establishing the US as a world-class power in figure skating.

The memory of the 1961 World Team has not been forgotten. US Figure Skating created the Memorial Fund, in their honor, to provide financial support to up-and-coming US skaters. In 2011, for the 50th anniversary of the crash, US Figure Skating made a documentary, entitled Rise 1961, about the team, the crash, and the Memorial Fund.  And, in Massachusetts, an elementary school was christened Vinson-Owen after the famous family.


US Figure Skating Memorial Fund

Rise 1961

Frozen in Time by Nikki Nichols

Vinson-Owen Elementary School