A journey that will forever continue

It was January in Greensboro, N.C. _ and a mecca of figure skating this is not. The most important sport in this city is ACC basketball, and that’s what often has filled the Greensboro Coliseum.

Still, a decent-sized crowd came to stay late on a school night, a Thursday, to see the women’s short program of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Three young women later sat at a podium, having placed 1-2-3 that evening, setting themselves up for a showdown in the long program two nights later. One of them earlier had been asked about her very active Twitter account, and she responded, “I do that so you guys can quote me.”

Later, as I walked to my car while appreciating weather that felt comparatively warm, my mind traveled back in time. It was quite cold in Colorado Springs that January night 50 years ago when a group of talented people unknowingly sealed their tragic fate by performing well in competition.

The skaters who competed at figure skating’s national championships back then had no notion of a “short” program – it didn’t exist as part of competition until 1973 – and, of course, wouldn’t have been able to conceive of Twitter.

How about professional skaters being eligible for the Olympics? Women skaters routinely doing triple-triple combinations? A complex, points-accumulating scoring system no longer based on 6.0s? All would be in the future _ something the top skaters at the 1961 nationals didn’t have much of left.

No other U.S. sport has been so irrevocably changed by a few horrifying, heartbreaking minutes. That’s how long it took for the plane’s loss of control while attempting to land, its subsequent plunge, the impact and the explosion.

At 10:05 a.m. on Feb. 15, 1961, the 18 members of the U.S. figure skating team _ en route to the World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia _ died when a Sabena 707 jet crashed in a field near the airport in Brussels, Belgium. Also killed were 16 relatives, officials and coaches accompanying them.

Weather was a non-factor; the skies were blue. There was no distress call made from the pilots to the tower. Mechanical failure or malfunction, perhaps with the plane’s stabilizers, has long been suspected as a culprit. But no definitive cause has been assigned to why the plane went down, killing all 72 aboard and a man on the ground.

Ten figure skating families lost two or more members in the crash, including five sets of siblings. Children were orphaned. The ’61 World Championships were cancelled. But U.S. figure skating had to move on despite the weight of grief and the large-scale loss of so much talent in both performance and coaching.

People across the country were touched by the tragedy, and they wanted to do something. Some loved figure skating, others knew nothing about it. But they all saw that picture that ran in newspapers nationwide: Those smiling young people, on the brink of an exciting trip, posing before they got on a plane that never reached its destination.

Thus, U.S. Figure Skating started a fund in their memory. Tragedy has a way of sparking interest and change. Dominoes fell everywhere. Some folks who’d never paid attention to skating before began to care about it. More kids wanted to skate, and new rinks were built around the country.

Much knowledge and talent had been lost, so the pace of skaters and coaches climbing in the elite levels was accelerated. Television responded, choosing to air more skating.

The U.S. Figure Skating Association made structural and philosophical changes. And the money from what’s still known as the Memorial Fund has helped virtually every serious U.S. figure skating competitor since. That, above all, is the legacy that continues to give comfort to those who knew the crash victims.

The horrible ending to Flight 548 was the beginning of the Memorial Fund. And it’s in that spirit of celebrating hope from tragedy that the USFSA commissioned a documentary called “Rise,” which will air in theaters in every state on Thursday, Feb. 17.

That comes two days after the 50th anniversary of the crash, and proceeds from the showing of the documentary will go to the Memorial Fund.

The documentary was done by twin sisters Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern, whose company, Lookalike Productions, also made ESPN’s “30 for 30” film “Unmatched” on the rivalry and friendship between tennis legends Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

“Rise” provides background about the 1961 team but also tells the story through the voices of a group of very famous American skaters: Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano and Michelle Kwan.

Fleming was 12 at the time of the crash, and a coach she worked with, Bill Kipp, was killed on the flight. Had the accident not happened, Fleming may not have gone to the 1964 Olympics, if the three women’s singles skaters lost in 1961 had still been alive and competing.

But she did go, and it was valuable experience for her. By the next Olympics, in 1968, she was the embodiment of the amazing recovery of U.S. Figure Skating, winning the only gold medal for the United States in the Grenoble Games. She has always credited the Memorial Fund for helping her by providing some skates, no small expense.

Over the years, much has been written in remembrance of the crash victims and how their loss ended up benefiting so many people. Among the best accounts were a series of stories by the Boston Globe in late December 2000 in anticipation of the accident’s 40th anniversary.

The Boston-area skating community had been hit very hard by the crash, and in January 2001, the national championships were held in that city. It was a perfect time to reflect on the lives lost but also the ground gained in the sport in the four decades since the accident – and the result was some magnificent journalism by the newspaper.

My colleague at ESPN.com, Olympics writer Bonnie Ford, has an in-depth look at the crash on its 50th anniversary and the Memorial Fund’s continuing impact, as the deep emotions felt by those who loved the victims continue on a half-century later. During the national championships last month, the 1961 World Team was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, which brought so many feelings powerfully back to the forefront for the survivors.

ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap had a moving tribute to the team on “Outside the Lines” this past weekend.

Patricia Shelley Bushman, a former competitive skater, spent eight years researching and writing a very detailed account of the fallen skaters, the crash and the aftermath. Her definitive book, “Indelible Tracings: The Story of the 1961 U.S. World Figure Skating Team” gives great insight into all the competitors, officials, coaches and family members aboard the flight.

The title of her book is inspired. While tracings on ice eventually always melt away, the mark left by the lost skaters is, indeed, never-fading.

As I left Greensboro Coliseum that night last month, thinking of how puzzled those skaters of 1961 would have been about some things now, I also thought of it in reverse. Because there were also things that would have been very familiar to the competitors of 50 years ago, but rather alien to today’s skaters.

Compulsaries – also known as school figures – were the intricate tracings of variations of figure eights. That used to be a huge part of the sport _ 60 percent of the score through 1968 – along with free skating. They were arcane to everyone outside of skating, and useless for television purposes.

Especially because of that fact _ they were no good for TV _ they were abandoned as part of competition after 1990.

Skaters’ practice for compulsaries used to take up an enormous amount of their time. I imagined the skaters of today shaking their heads to hear of their predecessors spending so many hours on patches of ice _ going forward and backward, left foot and right foot, inside and outside edges _ learning and refining how to create the tracings that supposedly eagle-eyed judges would critique in competition.

Old-timers, though, will say that while today’s skaters obviously jump far higher and have raised the sport’s athleticism significantly, something was lost with the demise of school figures as an important, judged element of the sport. To them, that was a fundamental part of being a complete skater; the concentration and control of one’s body and skate edges that was needed for figures did help their free skating.

Alas, there is no going back. And even though the sport has changed so much, there are many things that are exactly the same. Most notably, the fearlessness and discipline a person has to possess to reach the top levels of the sport.

In that way, the skaters of 2011 and those of 1961 would have had a very strong bond, an shared understanding of what it is to spend so many morning, afternoons and nights mastering a craft on a cold, hard, unforgiving surface.

The 1956 gold medalist Tenley Albright once said, “If you don’t fall, you’re not learning anything.” She went on to become a surgeon, and one of the skaters who died in the crash might have followed her footsteps. Laurence Owen, the 1961 national champion in women’s singles, was on the cover of “Sports Illustrated” – she was called America’s most exciting girl skater – the week that she died.

Ten years ago, I wrote a story for The Kansas City Star about two of the crash victims who were KC natives. Steffi Westerfeld was the national runner-up in women’s singles in 1961, and was heading to her first international competition with her older sister, Sherri, along for support.

When I finished that story, I found I wasn’t emotionally “done” with it. I needed to know more about all three teen-aged girls who’d been the women’s singles skaters on that doomed 1961 World team: Laurence, Steffi and Rhode Michelson.

Having covered women’s sports as much as I have in my career, I have a keen interest in its overall history. Including that time period in the late 1950s and early ‘60s when there was such a backlash against the gains made by women during World War II. That mindset extended down to sports opportunities, which actually narrowed for girls and women in many places in the ’50s-early ’60s, rather than expanded.

These three girls, though, found their athletic destiny in a sport that was deemed “acceptable” then for females. But they were heading into an era of feminism and expanded opportunities. How would they have defined themselves in 1961, and how – had they lived – would they have adapted to the changes that followed?

These things are impossible to know, but I felt as if finding out more about them would somehow provide me some insight.

And so over the last decade, I’ve done research and kept up sort of randomly expanding “essays” about those three girls, who died as seniors in high school. I wrote them not sure if they’d ever be read by anyone but me. But throughout this month, as we’re at the 50th anniversary of the crash, I will post the essays here on the blog.

As I said, there already are and will continue to be many fine tributes to the 1961 team. There is something undeniably captivating about the skaters, which I’m sure has touched everyone who’s looked into their stories.

Because in an ethereal way, they remain forever poised to head out on a wonderful adventure.

About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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2 Responses to A journey that will forever continue

  1. Diane Robins says:

    As always, so very well done !

    Hoping for more !

  2. tlis says:

    Thanks, Mechelle. Looking forward to reading them.