Sisters lives forever intertwined

(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. Here is another. The documentary “Rise” is replaying in theaters on March 7, and there also will be a subsequent DVD release.)

Whenever I get frustrated about sexism and “glass” ceilings these days in the United States, I always try to take a breath and think about how things were just 50 years ago.

That is the period chronicled in the documentary “Rise,” which looks at the lives of those who died in a 1961 plane crash that killed the entire United States Figure Skating team’s travelling party on its way to the World Championships in Prague.

The woman who was considered a matriarch of the sport at that time, Maribel Vinson Owen, perished in the accident along with her two national-champion daughters. The film does a very good job portraying that family’s dynamics, and the struggles that Vinson Owen had as a working woman with great ambition and drive at a time when those qualities were discouraged in females.

She was born in 1911, so she was a young adult in the 1930s, when the Great Depression still hovered over the nation, and into 1940s, when World War II’s demand for soldiers meant American women moved in unprecedented numbers into jobs that previously were almost always the domain of men.

By the 1950s, Vinson Owen’s against-the-grain personality was firmly established, and she had two children to support after her ex-husband’s death. The 1950s backlash against the gains women had made in all endeavors had somewhat less of an effect on Vinson Owen, I would theorize, because she was already who she was.

But what about women who were a generation younger than her and came of age in the 1950s and early ‘60s?

That’s one of the things I found myself thinking about a lot after I’d done a story in the Kansas City Star in 2001 – the 40th anniversary of the crash – about our local connection to the ’61 team. Steffi Westerfeld, 17, had been the runner-up at nationals to Laurence Owen; Sherri Westerfeld, 25, was accompanying her younger sister to the World Championships.

Steffi and Sherri died in the crash, leaving behind their mother, Myra, who grieved her enormous loss until her own death in 1984.

As I researched the Westerfelds’ story and then continued to get to “know” these young women through conversations with their surviving loved ones and friends, I wondered about what it must have been like to be a talented, educated young female in the 1950s-60s in the United States.

During the post-war years, the need to re-establish male primacy in the work force and a so-called sense of “normality” in home life didn’t just mean that opportunities for females stopped progressing. They actually regressed.

Many high schools that had team sports for girls disbanded the squads. Many universities and trade schools that previously had accepted women became more likely to turn them down. There was little in the public dialogue or popular culture in the 1950s that encouraged girls to aspire to anything more than becoming “model” housewives and mothers.

One woman who in 1948 was denied admission to every medical school to which she applied, despite her strong undergraduate performance, was Patsy Mink. Instead, she turned her focus to law school, which also wasn’t easy for a woman to get into. But she did, then eventually became a U.S. representative from Hawaii and authored Title IX, which was signed into law in 1972.

The 1950s had nationally celebrated athletic success stories for women in sports such as figure skating, tennis, diving, skiing and golf. The world championship for women’s basketball began in the 1950s, too, although few people outside the hoops world knew it existed.

The 1960 Olympics, both Winter and Summer, had produced female stars as well. But much of the limited coverage of the success of women athletes back then focused on their appearance. This was a time when editors didn’t even think twice about putting a headline such as this on a story: “Pretty girls can win!”

In the world at large, so many avenues seemed either shut down or severely restricted to girls and women. Betty Friedan’s novel “The Feminine Mystique” _ a cultural phenomenon that helped spark the subsequent women’s liberation movement – was still two years from publication in 1961. The tide was just barely starting to turn.

Steffi Westerfeld would have headed to college in the fall of ’61 had the crash not happened. Where might her life have gone after high school? She may have continued skating at least through the 1964 Olympics. She was an exceptionally talented pianist, too, and may have tried to find a career in music.

All her life, she had been drawn to anything that was painstakingly graceful, that required you to do it just right. She excelled at two intense, practice-heavy disciplines: skating and classical piano.

In my view years later, never getting the chance to meet Steffi, her short life seemed very regimented and suffocating. Yet she was always described as effervescent and energetic, a “breath of spring” as one of her friends put it. So she either hid her stress very well or she processed it in ways people didn’t necessarily see.

As pretty and talented as she was, Steffi displayed no sense of superiority. A native of Kansas City, she had a middle-class, Midwestern modesty. She was definitely on the quiet side _ one skater who saw her at infrequent intervals said, “You could never quite remember her voice” _ but was always approachable and friendly. She remained the same even as she kept piling up accomplishments.

In October 1960, Steffi won a statewide piano competition in Colorado and could have gone against many of the nation’s best young pianists in Philadelphia in February 1961 _ had she not trumped that in January by making the team to go to figure skating’s World Championships.

None of this struck her as even faintly remarkable; like many high achievers, she saw only what she hadn’t done yet.

Skater Barbara Roles, who won a bronze in the 1960 Olympics, once told me, “Steffi had a very quick smile and sparkling eyes, but she was quiet. Her sister was way more outgoing, more aggressive and fun and open. She was older, so she was probably more sure of herself, too.”

Sherri had a strong sense of accountability for her family, especially after her parents’ divorce radically changed their dynamic. But as responsible as she was, she also gave people the idea she was willing to do the unexpected.

Sherri may have had a sense of longing for something beyond the perfectly ironed and coiffed world every 1950s girl was supposed to want to live in. It wasn’t that Sherri didn’t do fine in that world, though, because she did.

She learned how to cook and joined a sorority and entered beauty pageants. She seemed an excellent candidate for marriage and motherhood promptly after getting her college degree in psychology, something she wasn’t expected to actually need or use.

She appeared headed down such a predictable path for the 1950s, but ended up on a different route, perhaps as much by chance as choice. Which maybe isn’t so surprising.

What you sometimes see in Sherri’s eyes in photographs at all different times in her life appears to be wistfulness, even when she’s smiling. As if she’s waiting for something to happen, but isn’t at all sure it ever will.

What did happen, what impacted her life more than anything, was the birth of her sister. Sherri had been an only child for eight and half years when parents had another baby relatively late in life.

Steffi came when her father, Otto, was 43 and Myra 39. She was as close to flawless as a child can be: adorable, even-tempered, talented and _ defying logic, considering the amount of attention she got _ not at all self-centered.

Steffi wanted to please people, especially her parents, and most especially her mother. She didn’t talk back; she didn’t disagree. She was meticulous in appearance and action.

“She had to be; Myra wouldn’t allow for anything else,” said Eileen Honnen, a 1948 Olympian who was one of Steffi’s early coaches and became a friend of the family.

But the consensus among those who regularly saw interaction between mother and daughter was that Steffi really didn’t mind, because to a large degree her personality was suited to meet Myra’s expectations.

Steffi spent most of her life within a small radius of the center of her world: the Broadmoor skating rink. School was a half-mile from there; home just a mile further.

But what a beautiful little world it was. Cheyenne Mountain stood behind the Broadmoor, part of the section of the Rockies that is the majestic western border of Colorado Springs.

You can look at it now _ or 50 years from now _ and know it’s much the same as it was when Steffi might have glanced up at it.

Cheyenne Mountain High School isn’t the same; it moved just down the road not long after the senior year Steffi didn’t get to finish there. The junior high is in its old place now.

The Broadmoor isn’t the same; they tore down the rink in the early ’90s and built a new arena a few miles away. A section of guest rooms is now where the old rink stood. But they kept the trees that were next to it. Especially at shadowy dusk, you can stare at the mountains and imagine the way things used to look there.

Sherri, who’d been a teen-ager when she and her mother and sister moved to Colorado, loved living there. She’d been a skater, too, but never had really enjoyed competition. She was just as happy to have Myra’s focus go toward Steffi’s blossoming career, and there was never the slightest sense of rivalry between the sisters.

But it did seem that Sherri to a degree put her life on a hold a bit as she continued to live with her mother and sister into her mid-20s. She kept one big secret from her mother, however, which wasn’t revealed until after her death.

In 1959, she had married a friend from another country in order to help him stay in the United States. There was no actual relationship component to the marriage; he was involved with someone whom he couldn’t marry.

When I researched my story, I talked to this man, who still maintained the façade that he’d been in a real marriage and had grieved the loss of his “wife” for 40 years. His tale didn’t add up for several reasons, and it took only a minimal amount of research and a couple of phone calls to others to figure out the truth.

What I never could know, though, was how Sherri had planned to deal with it had she lived. Was there a pre-arranged agreement for when they would divorce? What would she have done if she’d met someone who she really did want to marry during this time? Was she prepared for the legal issues that she may have had to face?

Even the survivors who’d been closest to her that I’d talked to didn’t know the answers. They were left wondering by the crash.

Ultimately, there were questions I had about both sisters that simply never could be answered, because they were the only ones who knew what the answers were.

Steffi was on the verge of adulthood, and that would have freed Sherri to perhaps pursue things that she hadn’t while she served as sort of the second “parent” in the home.

I never got a sense that Sherri had minded that, but soon enough, she wasn’t going to be needed in that role. Would the conventionality of the 1950s continue to have shaped her choices? Or would she have really pushed against that and become more the person she may always have wanted to be?

Steffi would have reached her early 20s right in the middle of the 1960s. Would she have aggressively pursued a career? How would her approach to that have been different than her older sister’s was?

The crash took away their opportunities to make these decisions. It’s only natural to speculate, to try to fill in the blanks.

But they really can’t be filled.

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 Sisters lives forever intertwined

  1. Ellen says:

    Thanks for posting this. You should make it easier for people to share your posts via Twitter and FB. It would be great to add a share button to your posts.

    Keep up the good work.

    (and for the record, in their story about the NCAA WBB championship game (which Texas A&M) won the San Francisco Chronicle chose to include 3 photos of Skyler Diggins adjacent to the article (online) and not one photo of A&M or Danielle Adams. Yep, some things never change.

  2. Diane says:

    This was a really good read; thanks.

    “This was a time when editors didn’t even think twice about putting a headline such as this on a story: ‘Pretty girls can win!'”

    They are still doing that, in so many words, and sometimes, quite bluntly.

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