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The Devastating Impact of the 1961 Plane Crash That Wiped Out the Entire U.S. Figure Skating Team

On this day in 1961, the U.S. figure skating team was headed to the World Championships in Prague. They never made it.

Members of the U. S. Figure Skating Team pose before boarding Belgian Sabena airline plane at Idle Wild airport, Feb. 14, 1961, New York. The plane crashed Feb. 15 near the Brussels, Belgium Airport killing all on board. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
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Massachusetts native Laurence Owen was just 16 years old when she won the U.S. Figure Skating Championship in January of 1961. The following month, she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which called her the “most exciting U.S. skater.”

Owen, who had placed sixth in the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, was poised to make waves at the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships Prague, Czechoslovakia.

But Owen and her team never made it to the competition. On Feb. 15, 1961, the 18-member team was killed in a plane crash in Berg-Kampenhout, Belgium, on their way to Prague. The tragedy devastated the country and the world of figure skating.

For the U.S. figure skating team, the trip was supposed to jump start the new four-year Olympic cycle after the 1960 Olympic Games. This was their chance to demonstrate the dominance of U.S. teams in the post-war era, writes Bonnie D. Ford for ESPN.com.

Among those killed was 17-year-old Steffi Westerfeld, another one of America’s up-and-coming figure skaters. Westerfield had finished second at 1961 U.S National Championships, and the Kansas City, Missouri, native, had already drawn comparisons to three-time Norwegian Olympic Champion Sonja Henie.

As History.com notes, other members on the flight included Bradley Long, the 1961 U.S. men’s champion; Dudley Richards, the 1961 U.S. pairs champions; and Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce, the 1961 U.S. ice dancing champions.

No one on the plane survived. Sixteen coaches, officials and family members, including Owen’s sister, Maribel, and her mother, Maribel Vinson-Owen, a nine-time U.S. ladies’ champion and 1932 Olympic bronze medalist, also died in the accident, as did 38 passengers and crew members. All that was left were remanents of the things passengers had carried with them: airline tickets, jackets with USA patches on them and a copy of the Sports Illustrated issue where Owen had been celebrated.

According to the NY Daily News, investigators later said it was the jet's stabilizers that probably caused the crash; the plane landed in a field while trying to land at Brussels. It was considered to be the worst air disaster affecting a U.S. team until 1970, when 37 Marshall University football players died in a plane crash, according to History.com.

The day after the crash, newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy expressed his condolences in a statement, ESPN.com's Ford writes. The International Skating Union canceled the world championship.

The accident left many in the skating world wondering, what if? “An entire generation of athletes and teachers died, taking with them competitive promise and a huge reserve of institutional knowledge,” as Ford writes, adding, that "their influence on American figure skating still resonates."

In the weeks that followed the accident, the sport focused on regrouping. U.S. skating officials established a memorial fund to honor the team and support the sport.

It would take a while for U.S. figure skating as a whole to resemble its dominance pre-1961. To help the sport, one season later, U.S. figure skating leadership convinced older skaters like Barbara Roles (now Barbara Roles-Pursley), the 1960 Olympic bronze medalist, to come back to the sport. "In persuading Roles-Pursley to come out of retirement in '62," writes Kelli Lawrence in her history of media and figure skating, "U.S. Figure Skating did more than assure they could send as many skaters as possible to Worlds in '63—it offered comfort, confidence and assurance to the youngsters, the best of which were suddenly thrust into the spotlight far ahead of schedule."

Roles-Pursley went on to win the 1962 ladies' title. Scott Ethan Allen, only 12 at the time, won the U.S. men's silver medal in 1962. Two years later at the Innsbruck Olympics, he pulled out a bronze medal performance, buoying U.S. hopes and becoming the youngest American men's national champion in history at age 14. 

The 50th anniversary of the crash in 2011 brought renewed interest and coverage to the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Team. That year, its 18 members, along with the 16 people coaches and family members, were inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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