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    Retrospective: The 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Team & the Sabena Flight 548 air disaster

    This Retrospective looks back at the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Team which died in the Sabena Flight 548 air disaster, when their plane crashed on its approach to Zaventem Airport in Brussels, Belgium, on the 15th February 1961. The crash killed all 72 on board, including the entire U.S. figure skating team (18 skaters, 16 family members, coaches, and officials) which was on its way to Prague, Czechoslovakia, for the 1961 World Championships.

    Prior to the air disaster, the United States had dominated singles skating. This period of dominance began with the great Dick Button, who won the Olympic title in 1948, retaining it in 1952. He also won the World title on 5 consecutive occasions between 1948-52. After the retirement of Button, the United States would go on retain the Olympic title in 1956 (Hayes Alan Jenkins - also World champion on 4 consecutive occasions between 1953-56) and in 1960 (Hayes brother, David Jenkins - also World champion on 3 consecutive occasions between 1957-59). Hence, between 1948-60, the United States won the Olympic Men's singles title on 4 consecutive occasions and the World title on 12 consecutive occasions. Success, however, was not just confined to the Men. Tenley Albright won the Olympic title in 1956 (she also won the World title in 1953 and 1955) and Carol Heiss won it in 1960 (also winning the World title on 5 consecutive occasions between 1956-60). Accordingly, during the period 1948-60, the United won the Olympic Ladies singles title on 2 occasions and the World title on 7 occasions. Hence, 1948-60 was very much regarded as a 'golden age' for American figure skating. Moreover, success was not just confined to the singles events. Karol Kennedy & Peter Kennedy also took the 1950 World title in the pairs event, and later won a Silver medal at the 1952 Olympics.

    The problem for the American figure skating program following the Sabena Flight 548 air disaster, was that the crash did not just kill all of the skaters who had been selected for its 1961 World championships team. It also killed many of America's top class coaches as well - Maribel Vinson-Owen, Edi Scholdan, etc. This created an enormous problem in terms of training the next generation of skaters. For example, Peggy Fleming, who was just 12 years old at the time of crash, lost her coach, Bill Kipp (he was on the plane as he was also the coach to Dona Lee Carrier and Roger Campbell, and Rhode Lee Michelson). Hence, following the Crash, many foreign coaches were brought in to fill the vacuum. For example, Carlo Fassi ultimately became Peggy Fleming's coach. John Nicks was another foreign coach who moved to the United States to coach following the crash. He was coaching in Canada at the time of the accident, but following it, he received 4 offers to coach in the United States, ultimately accepting a position at a rink in Paramount, California, owned by Frank Zamboni.

    To help finance the recovery of American figure skating, a memorial fund was set up

    Barbara Roles, Bronze medalist from the 1960 Olympics, had retired after the 1960 World Championships. Nevertheless, she was asked to make a comeback specifically for the 1962 World Championships, due to the sheer depletion of the U.S. team by the crash and the need to retain spots. By the time of her comeback, she had married, had had a child, and she ultimately finished a creditable 5th at the 1962 World Championships. Tina Noyes, in a 2001 interview with the Boston Globe, recalled that during her early years as a novice and junior skater, due to the need to get US figure skating back on its feet, "there was a lot of publicity given to the junior and novice skaters...There were a lot of high expectations, a tremendous amount of pressure. [Barbara Roles] coming back was really huge....I remember when she came into the Skating Club to practice. Everything just stopped. It was almost like looking at a ghost.''

    By the time of the 1964 Olympics, American figure skating was starting to show signs of recovery. Scott Allen even managed to win a surprise Bronze medal at those Olympics, and Vivian Joseph & Ronald Joseph finished 4th in the pairs event. In the Ladies event, Peggy Fleming finished 6th, and could have finished even higher if she had not been suffering with a high fever.

    It was the 1968 Olympics, however, which highlighted that American figure skating had finally fully recovered from the Sabena Flight 548 air disaster, with Peggy Fleming winning America's first Olympic figure skating title since the crash. As Nikki Nichols recounted in her book, Frozen in Time: "As the 1964 Nationals approached, the field still looked thin....Then, out of the shadows....Peggy Fleming....burst onto the scene, winning her first national championship at age fifteen. The title of national champion would belong to her for five more years." After finishing 6th at the 1964 Olympics, she moved from California to Colorado Springs to train with her new coach, Carlo Fassi. He helped her to improve her school figures. She then won bronze at 1965 Worlds and a year later, in 1966, she became the world champion (a title she retained in both 1967 and 1968). In 1994, Sports Illustrated said of her 1968 Olympic gold medal winning performance: "She launched figure skating's modern era, Pretty and balletic, elegant and stylish, Fleming took a staid sport that was shackled by its inscrutable compulsory figures and arcane scoring system and, with television as her ally, made it marvelously glamorous." The same year, the magazine also named her one of its 40 individuals who had had the greatest impact on sport during the previous 40 years. Nikki Nichols concluded in Frozen in Time, that Fleming's victory "[I]signalled that the [United States's] recovery [from the 1961 air disaster] was now complete.

    Tin Wood also won a Silver medal at the 1968 Olympics. Moreover, but for a judging error, he would have won the Olympic title. As Wood pointed out in this interview, "The Canadian judge wanted to put me in first, and it was his mark that would make the difference in whether I placed first or second. He put the wrong mark down by accident, and in those days, once the wrong mark was on paper, there was no way a mistake could be changed. I ended up with a silver medal in 1968 instead of gold due to that error." Nevertheless, Wood would go on to win both the 1969 and 1970 world titles.

    As pointed out in a previous Retrospective, one intriguing aspect is the great 'what if', in terms of who would have won the gold medal at the 1964 Olympics (won by Sjoukje Dijkstra) had Laurence Owen not been killed as a result of the crash. Owen finished 6th at the 1960 Olympics. One yardstick by which to gauge how things may have panned out is Wendy Griner. Owen had just beaten Griner into second place to win the 1961 North American Championships. Griner then went on to take the Silver medal at the 1962 World Championships, finishing second to Dijkstra. Hence, even as early as 1962, it would appear as though Owen would have been challenging Dijkstra for supremacy. Another yardstick is Regine Heitzer, who won the silver medal at the 1964 Olympics, and Nicole Hassler, who finished 4th at the same event. At the 1960 Olympics, Owen finished 6th, beating both Heitzer (7th) and Hassler (11th) in the process. Furthermore, Owen was not the only American lady who could have won the 1964 Olympic title. Stephanie Westerfeld also had a very good chance as well. Owen and Westerfeld were very closely matched in terms of ability overall. Whilst both were very good at compulsories and good free skaters, Westerfeld had the edge when it came to compulsories (which made up 60% of the marks at that time), and Owen was the better free skater. Indeed, at the 1961 U.S. National Championships, it was Westerfeld who led narrowly after the compulsories. Owen then narrowly beat Westerfeld in the free program, to take the national title by a very very tight margin (with one judge even placing Westerfeld 1st). Nevertheless, whenever, they competed together, it was Laurence Owen who always usually had the edge. Owen, for example, had finished ahead of Westerfeld at the 1960 U.S. Nationals (finishing 3rd to Westerfeld's 4th) in a tight race for the 3rd spot on the U.S. Team for the 1960 home Olympics at Squaw Valley (Carol Heiss and Barbara Roles being America's top 2 at that point). As at the 1961 U.S. Nationals, Westerfeld led Owen narrowly after the compulsories, but Owen beat her by small margin in the Free Program. The net result, Owen beat Westerfeld overall by just one sixteenth of a point! However, although they were closely matched in terms of ability and results, with Owen having the slight edge, the deciding factor invariably was that Westerfeld's nerves in her free program would often give way, with her making mistakes (e.g. under-rotating both her 2A's and popping a 2F and 2R at the 1961 U.S. Nationals). As Nikki Nichols points out in Frozen in Time, at the 1961 U.S. Nationals, "It can be said that Steffi lost the championship more than Laurence won it. Nerves...overpowered Steffi". Sometimes, Westerfeld would even suffer from nerves during her compulsories, such as at the 1961 North American Championships where she skated what Nichols describes as a "surprisingly tentative set" (consequently, Westerfeld finished 4th in the compulsories, having been the favourite to win that section, and 4th overall. Owen won the title). Nonetheless, had the crash not occurred, its not beyond the realms of possibility that Westerfeld would have learned to cope better with her nerves as time went by, and gained the ascendancy over Owen. As stated, Westerfeld's great advantage over Owen was her strength in compulsories, which made up 60% of the marks. Whilst Owen probably would have always remained the better free skater, had Westerfeld simply eliminated the errors in her free programs, that may well have been enough to neutralize Owen's free skating advantage in terms of the overall result, given that the free program only contributed 40% of the marks. Hence, both Westerfeld and Owen could well have put up a strong challenge for the 1964 Olympic title.

    Whilst the fact that Owen and Westerfeld were closely matched in terms of ability and results inevitably made them rivals, it did not make them enemies. In her book, Frozen in Time, Nikki Nichols recounts that after the 1961 U.S. Nationals, "rather than [dwell on] the loss, Steffi...saw the Owen party celebrating in the lobby and tapped on Laurence's shoulder. The two simultaneously clasped each other in a sincere embrace. While they may have established a rivalry on the ice, the two girls struggled to dislike each other. Both girls were so nice. Their hearts had no room for ugliness."

    In the Men's event at 1961 Nationals, Gregory Kelley led after the compulsories. However, Bradley Lord took the title by a very narrow margin over Kelley after a strong free program. Tim Brown won the Bronze medal, thereby earning the third spot on the team for the 1961 World Championships. Doug Ramsey finished 4th, although he was the only skater at 1961 Nationals to perform a triple jump. His flair as a free skater mean't that he also always had the greatest support from the crowd. Moreover, in a huge twist of fate, Tim Brown was diagnosed with heart trouble (which ended his figure skating career) just before the 1961 World Championships were scheduled to take place. Consequently, as the alternate, Doug Ramsey took Brown's place on the U.S. team for 1961 Worlds. Ironically, therefore, Brown's health problems ultimately saved his life. What would Lord, Kelley, and Ramsey have gone on to achieve in future years? One yardstick is Tim Brown. Brown had finished 2nd at the 1957 & 1958 World Championships, 3rd at the 1959 World Championships, and 5th at the 1960 Olympics. In doing so, he consistently beat both Manfred Schnelldorfer (gold medalist at the 1964 Olympics) and Alain Calmat (silver medalist at the 1964 Olympics). Hence, the fact that Lord and Kelley were able to beat Brown at 1961 Nationals (with Ramsey not far behind), would suggest that they would have likely put up a very strong challenge at the 1964 Olympics and that one of them may even have won the title.

    It is more difficult to assess whether Maribel Owen & Dudley Richards could have made the podium at the 1964 Olympics in the pairs competition. European pairs skating was extremely strong at the time. Nevertheless, they finished a close enough 2nd to Maria Jelinek & Otto Jelinek at the 1961 North American Championships to suggest that they stood an outside chance of making the podium at the 1964 Olympics, with Jelinek & Jelinek going on to win the 1962 World title before retiring.

    Here are some videos relating to those that died in the air crash, plus of Tim Brown whose illness saved his life.

    MEN

    Bradley Lord

    1961 U.S. Nationals - Free Skate, 1961 North American Championships Warm-Up

    Gregory Kelley

    1961 U.S. Nationals - Free Skate

    Douglas Ramsey

    1961 U.S. Nationals - Free Skate

    Tim Brown

    1961 U.S. Nationals - Free Skate



    LADIES

    Laurence Owen

    1961 U.S. Nationals - Free Skate, 1961 North American Championships - Free Skate, Footage from the 1960 Olympics

    Stephanie Westerfeld

    1961 U.S. Nationals - Free Skate, 1961 North American Championships - Free Skate

    Rhode Lee Michelson

    1961 U.S. Nationals - Free Skate



    PAIRS

    Maribel Owen & Dudley Richards

    1961 U.S. Nationals - Free Skate, 1961 North American Championships - Free Skate

    Ila Ray Hadley & Ray Hadley Jnr

    1961 U.S. Nationals - Free Skate, 1961 North American Championships - Free Skate

    Laurie Hickox and William Hickox

    Clip



    ICE DANCE

    Diane Sherbloom & Larry Pierce

    1961 U.S. Nationals - Free Dance

    Dona Lee Carrier & Roger Campbell

    1961 U.S. Nationals - Free Dance

    Patricia Major Dineen & Robert Dineen

    Clip



    GENERAL

    Documentary: The 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Team & the Sabena Flight 548 Air Disaster

    Documentary: Enduring Legacy

    Documentary: The 1961 US Figure Skating Team

    Documentary: Sabena Flight 548

    Newsreel



    As usual, many thanks to Floskate for uploading many of the videos
    Last edited by Maofan7; 03-31-2013 at 08:47 PM.

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    Last edited by skatesindreams; 03-31-2013 at 11:18 PM.

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    I know it's a tragedy, and I totally wish these people would be still alive / the crash to had been avoid, but yet again another topic about it ?
    It's like people here like to hurt themselves again and again.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nours View Post
    I know it's a tragedy, and I totally wish these people would be still alive / the crash to had been avoid, but yet again another topic about it ?
    It's like people here like to hurt themselves again and again.
    Nobody held a gun to your head and forced you to read it. There is a simple solution. Don't open threads your don't want to read. Have some consideration too for younger people who will not have come across the topic before.

    I always thought the north american champs somehow evolved into the 4 continents but it seems the north american finished sometime in the 70s. anybody know why?
    Last edited by Judge Dred; 04-01-2013 at 02:49 PM.

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    Thanks for posting Maofan7 and skatesindreams!


    Quote Originally Posted by Nours View Post
    I know it's a tragedy, and I totally wish these people would be still alive / the crash to had been avoid, but yet again another topic about it ?
    It's like people here like to hurt themselves again and again.
    If you tragically died, wouldn't you want your friends and loved ones to remember the life you lived and to honor that memory? Tragic stuff happens every day endlessly. Understanding and remembering what happened to the human beings on Sabena Flight 548 and marking the anniversary should be a way of finding uplift in the miracle of those people's lives and what they accomplished and meant and still mean to others in however short a time they had here on earth. Pain of tragic death never goes away, neither is it ever erased by purposefully trying to ignore it and forget the cause and the circumstances.

    In fact the sport of figure skating and the people of that era tried to forget for many years because the pain was so raw. As time has passed, more and more efforts are being made to never forget and that's a great and honorable thing. Do not wallow in the pain ... try to transcend it by getting to know who the people were who died. In that way, they will live forever in our hearts because their lives will continue to resonate with meaning as their spirits touch ours.

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    Whether one chooses to acknowledge it or not; the loss of the team, and the events that followed, forever changed the history of the sport, worldwide.
    If you read some of archived threads here; surrounding the release of the documentary RISE, you will discover that some of the friends, family and fellow skaters who survived the tragedy attempted to "forget" or minimize the loss - to their regret.

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    I have recently been re-reading the book 'Frozen in Time' which is quoted in the original post. I really like it, except for the chapter about what the passengers may have been saying/thinking on the plane, which doesn't quite work IMO. I think it would be better left to each reader's imagination. Otherwise the book is excellent and seems to have been very well researched. It really makes you feel heartbroken for those family members left behind
    “What’s on the revengenda this evening?” – Nolan Ross

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    "Indelible Tracings" and "Indelible Images" are much better accounts of the event.

    http://www.1961team.com/

    Also available through Amazon.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Judge Dred View Post
    I always thought the north american champs somehow evolved into the 4 continents but it seems the north american finished sometime in the 70s. anybody know why?
    The biennial North American Championships were last held in 1971. A championships were planned for 1973, but Canada cancelled, with skaters often reluctant to participate due to its close proximity to the World Championships (it would often be held just 2 weeks prior to Worlds). Moreover, both countries at that time were developing their own international competitions. These would ultimately evolve into Skate Canada and Skate America.

    4CC did not begin until 1999. It was established to provide skaters from non-European countries with an equivalent competition to the European Championships

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    Promotional video containing excerpts from the film RISE

    A DVD of the full film can be acquired here.
    Last edited by Maofan7; 04-02-2013 at 03:36 PM.

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    Copies of RISE are readily available on eBay, as well.

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    It was amazing the U.S picked right back up and had the success they did the very next quadrennial. It is a shame though as they were a group of great skaters and people.

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    Quote Originally Posted by judgejudy27 View Post
    It was amazing the U.S picked right back up and had the success they did the very next quadrennial. It is a shame though as they were a group of great skaters and people.
    To me that's an overstatement, judgejudy. Surely if you ask anyone in the U.S. skating community who lived through that time, you will realize the full extent of how that loss affected and impacted skating in the U.S. and globally, not just then but ever since. U.S. skating did not "pick right back up."

    A number of international coaches came to the United States to help pick up the slack in regard to top level coaching. Plus we will never know now whether or not Laurence Owen would have been the Peggy Fleming of the 1964 Olympics, and whether or not Owen and Fleming would have been the next great U.S. ladies' rivalry for that era following the generation of Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss.

    There have been so many other repercussions and impacts. Again, listen to Frank Carroll and to the reminisces of many others on record discussing the difficulty of that period in U.S. skating immediately following the crash and the impact that has been felt ever since.


    ETA:
    The loss of Maribel Vinson Owen alone, is incalculable. In one of the above links, Frank Carroll points out that of the 12 members of the 1960 U.S. Olympic figure skating team, 6 of them were coached by MVO. Everyone should own a copy of her book: Primer of Figure Skating (written under her maiden name, Maribel Y. Vinson).

    It's also particularly enlightening as Dick Button notes in one of the clips, that U.S. skating's golden years (1940 - 1960) came about after the devastation of European countries during WWII. IMO, in terms of prominence in figure skating, many European countries never recovered post-WWII.
    Last edited by aftershocks; 04-06-2013 at 02:34 AM.

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    Frank Carroll lived in the Vinson Owen household before the tragedy. (He was coached by MVO).
    The segments of RISE where he shares his thoughts; which he has rarely done, are amazing.

    He had stopped skating; and begun law school after the 1960 season, because he could not afford to continue.
    Last edited by skatesindreams; 04-06-2013 at 11:53 PM.

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    I still remember where I was when I heard and I still get the tears today as I did then. There was such a sense of loss and disbelief. I can't imagine how those who lost loved ones, coaches and friends felt.

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    deleted. sorry.
    Last edited by lala; 04-08-2013 at 06:45 AM.

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