The worst tragedy in American sports history occurred on Feb. 15, 1961 when the entire U.S. Figure Skating contingent perished in a plane crash in Belgium. All 72 people aboard Sabena Airlines Flight 548 were killed, including 34 that were on their way to the World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia. All eighteen athletes, as well as coaches and family members, made up the U.S. team. On Thursday evening the documentary film RISE debuted, to packed audiences in over 500 theatres across America. The film chronicled members of that U.S. team, and also told the story of how figure skating in the United States rebounded after that horrible incident.
Sisters Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters directed the film, which was part of a 50th anniversary commemmorative event from New York City that was hosted by “Today” host Matt Lauer. The night started with an opening by Peter Carruthers, former U.S. champion pairs skater. After the film aired, Lauer had a sit-down chat with former U.S. champion single skaters Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, and Michelle Kwan. All five of those skaters also served as story-tellers in the film, describing how they came to learn of the accident and how it impacted their lives and their skating. Two special skating performances were also part of the evening, one that included and was choreographed by reigning Olympic Champion Evan Lysacek. It all made for a wonderful evening.
The film touched on various aspects of those who died. Most prominently featured was the Owens family. Maribel Vinson was a 9-time U.S. champion who later turned to coaching. As Maribel Vinson Owen, she coached five members of the 1960 Olympic team, and a number of the 1961 World Team, including daughters Maribel and Laurence (pronounced law-RONS). Laurence was the ’61 ladies singles champion, and had just been on the cover of that week’s Sports Illustrated. Maribel was on the team as a pairs skater.
There was a segment on the Broadmoor and skater Steffi Westerfeld. She, her sister Sherri, and six others from the Broadmoor Skating Club were also killed. Also featured was Dan Ryan, one of the coaches who left behind a wife and five children.
There were some that were on the plane because of unusual circumstances. One was young singles skater Doug Ramsay, who made the team because of the illness of Tim Brown. Another was Diane Sherbloom, who just five months earlier paired up with Larry Pierce, after his regular partner Marilyn Meeker was injured.
All these stories and others were told by family members and other friends of the figure skating community. Of those, one of note is John Carroll, who was coached by Maribel Vinson Owen. Carroll, of course, has become of renowned coach himself, and last winter Lysacek became his first Olympic champion. It all made for a wonderful evening, and perhaps educated viewers that had forgotten, or were unaware, of exactly how that tragedy impacted the sporting landscape.
Eight days after the accident, the U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund was established. The Memorial Fund helps skaters to achieve their goals in various ways. Fleming, Hamilton, and thousands of others have benefitted from it. Proceeds from ticket sales of RISE go to the Fund. If you missed the film, there will be an encore showing on Monday, Mar. 7, at 7:30 pm. In the Pikes Peak region, all theatres except for Castle Rock will host the presentation. For information, and to purchase tickets, go to www.rise1961.com. The film is both heart-wrenching and marvelous at the same time. You won’t be sorry after you’ve attended.