Rhode: ‘You’d have to smile back at her’

(Note from MV: I wrote on Feb. 14 about the anniversary of the 1961 plane crash that killed the U.S. figure skating team on its way to the World Championships in Prague, and how that event had prompted some essays I’d written over the last decade. Sorry for the delay in posting, but here is the first.)

If she went into a room that was dark, she’d be the light bulb.”

_ Mike Michelson on his sister, Rhode

The coastline in Wilmington, Calif., is quite different than the beautiful, languid beaches just to the north or south in greater Los Angeles. This is an industrial area, one of refineries, docks, cargo and backaches. This is business, not pleasure.

When Phineus Banning helped settled the area in the mid-1800s, he named it after his hometown in Delaware and helped develop one of the largest and busiest seaports in the world.

Nearby are his family home _ a small oasis _ and a high school named after him. A few miles east in Long Beach is McHelen Avenue, from where you can’t see the ugly, endless jungle of pipes, tanks and gigantic crates that clog the shore.

On McHelen, you’re in a neatly kept, working-class Southern California neighborhood with stucco-finished homes dating back to the ’30s and ’40s and painted a variety of colors.

The home at 21808 McHelen is tan, and you can imagine that once, there was an energetic little girl running around inside this house, getting into everything, exhausting her mother.

Or, at least I can imagine this because of what I’d been told about Rhode Lee Michelson from the people who knew her, all of whom seem to have exceptionally vivid memories of her. She would grow up to go to Banning High School, but she wouldn’t finish there. Her life would end during her senior year.

With any tragic accident, there are always levels of improbability for various victims. There were several reasons why Rhode might not have been on Flight 548 headed to Prague in February 1961. But she was, indeed, aboard.

In retrospect, it was almost like “Fate” – if such an entity existed – had first cleared a path for her to make the trip, then changed its mind and threw out some roadblocks that she still motored past.

Rhode – her name was pronounced “Roe-dee” _ had suffered injuries around the time of both the nationals and then the North American championships. Others had doubts, even if she didn’t, about her readiness to compete in the World Championships. She convinced everyone she would be able to do it. There was no way she was missing that trip.

Rhode had earned her ticket by placing third at the ’61 nationals, a result that would have seemed somewhat improbable a year earlier. Fellow Californian Barbara Roles, who had won a bronze medal in the 1960 Olympics, appeared to be a favorite as the next women’s national champion. But marriage and pregnancy intervened, and Roles didn’t skate in 1961.

If she had, the odds were that Rhode may not have cracked the top three in the ‘61 U.S. championships. Not because she wasn’t a very good skater. In fact, if you watch the black-and-white televised performances from the ’61 Nationals, you would see Rhode was the most athletically-talented free skater among the women.

But the hierarchy of skating was pretty rigid. Had one additional older, established skater such as Roles still been in the mix, it may not have been deemed Rhode’s “turn” yet. Plus, as was the case with many great free skaters for the decades when compulsaries were 60 percent of the final score, Rhode’s best abilities were far undervalued then in a way they wouldn’t be now. She represented skating’s athletic future.

Rhode wasn’t as graceful as 1961 nationals winner Laurence Owen or runner-up Steffi Westerfeld – either on or off the ice – but her speed, jumps and air of fearlessness set her apart. Rhode, born in 1943, had grown into a young adult in the 1950s, but she seemed far less bound by restraints on how girls “should act” than most of her peers. She was regarded as the aggressive, brassy, often-hilarious Californian by many skaters in the rest of the country, the girl who said things others wouldn’t and did things that other didn’t dare.

Rhode had dark hair and green eyes, and an obviously mischievous grin evident in photographs. She walked with an impatient stride, always in a hurry. She skated hard and very fast, without hesitation or uncertainty. There was a “Could you please get the hell out of my way … thank you,” quality to Rhode.

The boys who trained at the same rink in greater LA were fascinated _ and motivated _ by this girl whom they saw wasn’t afraid of anything. Many of them started trying to attack the ice the way she did.

Unlike Laurence and Steffi, Rhode had an everyday father. Laurence’s parents had divorced when she was very young, and then her father had died. Steffi had moved with her mother and sister to Colorado Springs from Kansas City when she was just 5; she saw her father on visits, but he wasn’t in her life for long stretches of time. And then Steffi’s parents, when she was in her teens, divorced, too.

Rhode got a lot of her personality, humor and independence from her dad, Arthur. No one in her family had ever been into competitive figure skating, so Rhode created her own path starting around age 7. This was another way she was very different than Laurence and Steffi, who both had older sisters who skated and mothers who were the driving forces in their lives and careers.

Rhode didn’t have a sister, she had a younger brother. And she didn’t skate because anyone else had ever pushed or guided her, even a little. She pushed plenty hard all by herself.

If told there were things she shouldn’t or couldn’t do on the ice, she’d all the more relish doing them. By 1960, she was working on triple jumps in practice, something no woman then had ever tried in competition. Her daredevil athleticism made some say her skating wasn’t “feminine” enough, that judges wanted “the girls to be girls.”

But her father told her to skate the way she wanted to. He assured her it really was less important what others, even judges, thought of her than what she thought of herself. Cream always rises to the top, he’d say.

Besides, he knew she would do it her way no matter what he said.

***

I’ve covered sports my whole career, and the athletes I’m always most drawn to write about are “Rhode types.” They can be misunderstood, because their independent nature doesn’t intend to cause trouble. But if it does, so be it. They just simply must follow the voice in their own heads.

They are the kids who passionately want to master what they do and be great at it; they have this inner reserve of unbreakable confidence. Even today, I find that’s a pretty rare quality in girls: To be that sure of themselves, deep in their souls.

They may come across as rebellious, but they are not undisciplined; they usually work harder than anybody else at what they love to do. They are kids who can drive coaches crazy, because they always need to know “why,” they sometimes will roll their eyes, and they will not do things just to please somebody if they don’t believe there’s really a point to doing them.

As an observer, I absolutely love all of that. Of course, I don’t have to coach them.

Yet another way Rhode’s story differed from Steffi’s and Laurence’s was that four decades after the crash, there was still a surviving immediate family member for Rhode: her brother.

Wayne “Mike” Michelson had been a speed skater, aged 14, when his 17-year-old sister was killed. One evening in the spring of 2001, I called Mike to ask him if he’d mind talking about Rhode. I wasn’t sure exactly what I might do with what he’d tell me if he wanted to discuss it. Would I write a book someday, or a magazine article, or a story on-line, or would it just be something I’d keep to myself?

I was prepared for him to say “no,” that it was too painful or too distant or he didn’t have time … but that wasn’t his reaction at all.

“I love to talk about my sister,” Mike said. “But nobody ever asks me.”

He later acknowledged he just didn’t open up to his true emotions about it – not really _ to his wife, son or daughter, even when they did inquire.

“I’ve just separated myself from that for so many years,” he said, “because it was such a bad memory.”

Yet both on the phone and then later in person, we talked for hours. It is something reporters experience at times. It can be because someone has built up a relationship with you, or because they seem to sense right away that you care. In Mike’s case, I guessed that a good outlet for him was talking to an interested, sympathetic outsider.

“She’d smile at you and you’d have to smile back at her, no matter what she did or what kind of trouble she created,” he told me of Rhode. “She was a hell-raiser, too, in her own way.”

Listening to Mike really made Rhode come alive in my mind. He explained that at Paramount’s Iceland, where he and Rhode spent so much time growing up, the “battle lines” were clear.

Figure skaters were supposed to be on the inner portion of the rink, speed skaters on the outside. Except for Rhode, who went wherever she wanted.

“My sister was the only one who would challenge it. Sometime she’d deliberately time a jump so it would be in our way,” Mike said, laughing at the memory. “And I was the only one who would challenge back. She pretty much dominated everybody but her little brother. And I knew my mother would take care of me.”

In reflecting on his sister’s personality, Mike said, “I think she would have gotten more tactful with age _ still been as strong-willed and much like she was, but probably more tactful. She didn’t fit into any category; there wasn’t one formed yet to describe her.

“I often tell my son _ he competed in running and soccer _ that if you held your fingers a quarter of an inch apart, that’s the difference between people who really want to be No. 1 and people who don’t. That’s all it is. I didn’t have that, and a lot of people I knew didn’t. My sister did. She had more desire to do it than anybody I knew.”

***

After spending a few days in LA in the summer of 2001, seeing where Rhode had lived her short life and was buried, I drove up to Fresno, Calif., to see Mike.

He and his wife, Linda, had lived in Fresno many years; their two children were grown. Mike and I sat at a large table throughout the morning and afternoon, looking at all the items that had belonged to or concerned his sister.

He still had the hope chest she’d left behind. “Now, it houses all her memories,” he said.

I sometimes asked Mike questions as we looked at things, and sometimes stayed quiet, waiting for him to process what he was thinking and tell me.

Among the things were Rhode’s baby book, one of her first-grade report cards, articles on her skating success, a jewelry box, an address book (which contained contact info for a young California skater named Peggy Fleming), congratulatory telegrams she’d received before going to the World Championships, and letters that had come from various officials after the accident.

There were also some items that had been collected from the crash scene and sent back to the grieving family – after they paid for postage. A charred crucifix necklace puzzled her parents; they had never seen her wear anything like that. Rhode’s mother, Marty, was Jewish and her father was Lutheran, and Mike said he didn’t recall Rhode ever going to church or synagogue.

Mike wondered if someone Rhode knew – she was very outgoing – had given her the crucifix after a conversation about religion. Rhode was interested in everything. She’d wanted to learn more about Judaism and Christianity, about communism, about medicine, about the whole world around her.

A cloth pouch that held the record needed for her free-skating performance came back without the record. The pouch, a bit water-damaged from the fire hoses used on the crash site, was white, with the initials “RLM” sewn on it.

“Did she make this herself?” I asked. Mike’s answer was one of the many times that day he made me laugh even though we were both feeling rather sad.

“Well, she could sew a little,” he said. “But she was good at telling my mother to sew.”

There was her plane ticket, charred around the edges. There was a black luggage tag, with Rhode’s name and address easily readable. Decades later, it was still caked with mud from the Belgian field into which the plane had crashed.

To touch such items _ knowing they had been on that plane as it plummeted and disintegrated, that they had been scattered amidst the wreckage and bodies _ produced an eerie and yet intimate feeling of connection to the past and to the dead.

Mike explained how they found out about the crash, early on Feb. 15. There was one phone in the house, in the kitchen, and it rang around 3 a.m. Pacific time, waking up Mike and his parents. One of the members of the skating club Rhode and Mike belonged to was calling to see if they’d heard the news.

“My dad said, ‘Have I heard what?’ My mother was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, and then my dad said to her, ‘We lost our daughter.’ ”

For weeks afterward, Mike said, “My parents spent most of the time at the kitchen table just sobbing. I’m sure every family went through the same thing. We got a lot of support from family and friends, but there was nobody trained to help you.”

No one in his family went to counseling for their grief, which Mike later regretted. But in the early ‘60s, mental-health counseling just wasn’t something that was commonplace, even after such a trauma.

“All three of us needed help; it would have made a difference in each one of our lives,” Mike said. “How I dealt with it was shutting it off and talking about it just briefly. The one I feel sorry for is my mother, though. She was totally devastated. It was like a fog hanging over the house to me … my mother never really got out of it.”

Mike left speed skating for a while – even driving him to the rink, he knew, was now emotionally difficult for his parents – then went back to it for a few years. But he knew he’d irrevocably lost some of his desire. His hope had been to compete in the ’64 Winter Games with Rhode, to be brother-and-sister Olympians.

“One of my awards is a pair of silver skates,” he said. “And even today when I walk by that, I think of us.”

Mike and I went to a restaurant that evening, and the conversation somehow alternated effortlessly between the heavy and the light. He very much loved his own family, and it seemed serendipitous that he and Linda first had a daughter and then a son, born about three years apart. Just like Rhode and him.

“The crash deprived my kids and my wife of knowing her,” he said. “I know they would have loved her. If she went into a room that was dark, she’d be the light bulb.”

***

I’ve often wondered, in the past 10 years since I first really got to know about the people on Sabena Flight 548, why their stories meant so much to me. After all, there are tragedies every single day in which people who are filled with promise die young, and mourning loved ones are left behind to get through the rest of their lives.

But in particular, Rhode’s story mattered to me. Like the other teen-aged girls on the ’61 team, she was reaching the pinnacle of her athletic career more than a decade before Title IX. Had she been born 20 or 30 years later, maybe she still would have been a figure skater … or maybe she’d have ended up in another sport because there would have been so many more options.

Her relationship with her brother was very compelling to me, too. Over the years, I’ve found that I’m drawn again and again to certain themes with female athletes, important things they share in common. Those who have brothers – often older ones, but sometimes younger ones, too – frequently talk about their influence.

A boy who willingly or grudgingly lets his sister tag along to the playground _ or who tags along after her _ would never think of it as socially significant. Yet when you consider the barriers set up between the genders historically _ which remain just as rigid in some cultures today – the idea of a brother and a sister interacting through athletics is a special thing.

And a brother who respects his sister as an athlete, who sees her accomplishments similar to how he sees his own, who really does not view what she does through the prism of “she’s just a girl” … that boy may not realize he is casting aside so much sad, frustrating history of females being undervalued or not valued at all. But he is.

“I paid attention to how good she was at skating,” Mike said of Rhode. “She loved performing; what athlete doesn’t? When she didn’t do well, she took it hard at the moment and came back fighting. She was a real fighter.

“We would argue an awful lot, maybe more so than most brothers and sisters. But nobody else could say anything about me, I’ll tell you that. She wouldn’t stand for it. She looked out for me.

“We didn’t have the opportunity to become adults together. I think we would have had a great relationship, been great friends. I got the feeling from talking to her that when she got done skating, we would spend a lot more time together.”

One of the things that had been in the hope chest was a card that Rhode mailed to her family just before she left for Czechoslovakia, then under Communist rule. She was a constant prankster and jokester, and so of course she sent a funny card.

The front had a cartoon drawing of a man who appeared to be Russian staring with alarm at guns pointed at him. Inside was the punch line, a play on words: “I hope you miss me, comrade.”

Rhode wrote: “I thought maybe you would like something like this before I leave for the Iron Curtain. Hope to see you again!”

It was about 1:30 in the morning when I left Mike’s house. We’d finished our marathon conversation while in his garage looking over the cars he was restoring. It was as if talking about other things, and interspersing thoughts about his sister as they came to him, was helping him realize how he’d balanced the rest of his life with his painful loss.

There was something still bothering Mike. There’d been a dispute when his sister died between her grandfather, who had wanted her buried in Jewish custom, and her father, who didn’t. She was interred in a plot that her aunt owned, but no marker was put on Rhode’s grave. And there still wasn’t one 40 years later.

Mike felt bad about that, saying he needed to give his sister a grave marker. But every time he’d thought of it, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Because that would be permanent.

“I’ve had dreams that she wasn’t on the plane,” Mike said. “That she just appeared, that she was walking home, she didn’t make the flight. I think you carry that into your everyday life. You always think that she’s gone, but it’s only temporary.”

I thanked Mike for all his time, but then he thanked me.

“That stuff we went through today is the first time I’ve really gone through it,” he said. “It’s getting closer to closure. But maybe I don’t want closure, down deep.”

I drove away, but I kept thinking of that card Rhode had sent.

“I hope you miss me, comrade.”

Yes, her brother still did.

***

Rhode was not Mike’s only loss. Their father died about five years after the crash of heart failure at age 49. Their mother lived until the 1980s, dying of a stroke.

I didn’t know if I’d ever see Mike again, but I thought of him several times, and how he was the same kind of “tough guy” with a soft heart and wry sense of humor that my own dad had been. I thought about how so many boys and men feel compelled to internalize emotional things that they are afraid or even embarrassed to talk about … but that once they do, they find some weight they’ve long carried is lifted off them.

Years went by, and I wrote a lot of the essay that you’ve just read in different pieces at different times. The term “Rhode types” became part of my internal vocabulary for story subjects; I wrote about one not long ago.

The 1961 team was honored at the national championships last month in Greensboro, N.C. Not long after I arrived there, talking to some other relatives of crash victims, I found out that Mike had passed away suddenly, in November 2006, at age 60. But that his wife and son, Jeff, were there to see the induction of the team into the U.S Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

Even though I’d talked to Mike’s wife for only a few minutes 10 years earlier when I’d visited their home – she’d left that morning for a trip – I recognized her right away when I walked into the room where the ceremony was held. She remembered me, too, and introduced me to Jeff, who is in his early 30s.

We talked about how Mike would have loved this recognition for Rhode, and I thought how proud he would be that his wife and son had traveled from California to North Carolina to honor the sister-in-law/aunt they had never met. They told me that Rhode now has a grave marker. It reads: “Beloved daughter & sister.”

Family members present were called forward to accept silver cups commemorating those with the 1961 U.S. figure skating traveling party who’d perished on Flight 548. As Rhode’s name and accomplishments were read, Linda squeezed Jeff’s hand, and then he went to get the cup. I could tell that as Jeff looked at it, he was missing his father.

So maybe the best way to think about it when people leave us really is this: They’re gone, but it’s only temporary.

About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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3 Responses to Rhode: ‘You’d have to smile back at her’

  1. Linda says:

    Thank you for your poignant essay about Rhode Michelsen. Most of the stories about this horrible crash have focused on the Owen family thus I knew nothing of the third place Rhode. I too am looking forward to reading more about the other skaters who died too young.

  2. Howard says:

    What a wonderfully compelling story, woven from the threads of this tragedy….very richly written. Looking forward to any future installments in this collection.

  3. Diane Robins says:

    Another winner – although I heard you tell this story aloud a few years ago, I was fascinated to read and refresh my memory.

    I’ll repeat, you have a way with words and your own style of telling stories that makes them interesting all the way through.