On a chilly Valentine’s Day evening, the 16-year-old newly crowned “queen of United States figure skating” boarded a flight in New York with the rest of the team, headed for the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships in Prague.
The day before, Laurence Owen had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, under the tagline “America’s most exciting girl skater.”
With a megawatt smile, unmatched style on the ice and an athletic pedigree from her Olympian mother, Maribel Vinson-Owen, Laurence (pronounced Lo-rahns) had just won the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and been dubbed the country’s new “queen” by the Associated Press.
Owen, a high school senior, was on the verge of becoming a breakout star in a country that had a storied history in the sport.
“Laurence also has great presence,” Sports Illustrated’s Barbara Heilman wrote in her cover story. “When she is on the ice it is Laurence one watches, however little she may be doing. Her smile alone is worth the 5 a.m. trip to the rink.”
But Owen and her teammates would not make it to the world championships. Their plane, Sabena Flight 548, was circling the runway in Brussels, where it was scheduled to make a stopover, when it suddenly crashed Feb. 15, killing 73 people. All 18 members of the U.S. figure skating team died.
Those on board included Owen’s mother, an accomplished coach; Owen’s older sister, Maribel, and Maribel’s pairs skating partner, Dudley Richards; 1961 U.S. Championship bronze medalist Rhode Lee Michelson; and coaches Edi Scholdan and Daniel Ryan.
The tragedy led the front pages of U.S. newspapers, and the athletes were mourned across the nation. International Skating Union officials would end up canceling that year’s world championships, which were set to begin the following week.
“Our country has sustained a great loss of talent and grace which had brought pleasure to people all over the world,” President John F. Kennedy said in a statement issued from the White House. “Mrs. Kennedy and I extend our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of all the passengers and crew who died in this crash.”
F. Ritter Shumway, then the vice president of U.S. Figure Skating, predicted that it would require “two to four years” for the United States to recover its international standing in the sport.
Fifty-seven years later, as the U.S. women get ready to compete at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the legacy of that crash will be present on the ice. A memorial fund was set up in honor of the victims, and it has distributed more than $15 million in financial help to thousands of skaters. Some of the biggest American names in the sport today have been beneficiaries, including Adam Rippon and Ashley Wagner.
Rippon was part of the bronze-medal-winning team in PyeongChang. Wagner won team bronze in Sochi four years ago.
“If it wasn’t for the memorial fund or people who contribute to it, I wouldn’t have been able to continue my training,” Rippon said in a U.S. Figure Skating video last year. “Through some really generous people I’m able to pay my coaches, able to continue my training and keep pursuing my dream.”
Americans dominated figure skating in the Olympics in the years after World War II. Dick Button won the men’s singles gold in 1948 and 1952, and Tenley Albright claimed the first U.S. women’s singles gold in 1956.
At the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., David Jenkins won the men’s singles gold. The American women took two of the three medals in the ladies’ singles competition, with Carol Heiss winning the gold and Barbara Roles Williams taking the bronze.
No American women medaled in the individual event at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
Williams was home in California when she learned about the crash from a reporter. She had roomed with Owen and Heiss at the 1960 Olympics, and many of her close friends and mentors were on the flight.
After winning bronze at World Championships in Vancouver later that year, Williams retired from the sport to have her first child. She believes she would have been on Sabena Flight 548 if she had not been pregnant.
“I was saved, and I felt like it was for a reason,” Williams, 76, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That’s one of the reasons I needed to give back for the competition and also, when I started coaching, to continue to coach at a high level.”
Her daughter, Shelley, was born on June 24, 1961. Williams had a son in 1962 and named him Ronald Dean in honor of her mentor, Deane McMinn, who died on the plane.
U.S. Figure Skating officials convinced Williams to come out of retirement to compete in the 1962 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which she ended up winning. She went on to place fifth at the World Championships, the highest of any American woman.
At that time, a skater had to place at least fifth at the World Championships for the country to send three skaters the following year, said Williams, who still gives private figure skating lessons in Las Vegas three days a week. (Disclosure: Although I’ve never met Williams, I am a friend of her granddaughter, Kirstie Boatright.)
In 1968, Peggy Fleming became the first American woman after the crash to win the Olympic ladies’ singles gold medal, but it wasn’t until Scott Hamilton in 1984 that an American man won the men’s singles gold.
Both skaters benefited from the memorial fund.
“These athletes, coaches, parents…never got to experience that [Olympic] dream come true, but they were a springboard for everyone that came after them,” Hamilton said in the 2011 documentary, “Rise,” that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1961 crash. “I wouldn’t skate in the Olympic Games in 1980 or 1984 without the memorial fund. My dream would not have come true. They made it possible. So all of us that came after represent their promise and their dream.”
Olympic silver medalist Michelle Kwan also credits those on the plane for her success. Frank Carroll, the famed figure skating coach, was in Kwan’s corner for much of her career.
Carroll grew up in Winchester, Mass., where his own coach was a nine-time U.S. figure skating champion. Her name? Maribel-Vinson Owen.
“The discipline, precision and technique she ingrained in him were in turn ingrained in me,” Kwan said in the 2011 documentary. “In a way it was through him that I became her student. And it is through both of them that I became world champion.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that Rhode Lee Michelson was the 1958 U.S. champion. She was the 1958 U.S. novice champion and won a bronze medal at the 1961 U.S. Championships.
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