This Day in History: 1961 USA figure skating tragedy
On this day in 1961, the United States figure skating team is killed in the crash of Sabena flight 548. The terrible tragedy shook the country to its core—and the sport would take decades to bounce back.
It was supposed to be a moment of triumph! The American figure skating team had performed well at the North American championships and was now headed to the World Championships in Prague. “They were going to be the stars,” one American coach later said, “this was their time. They all would have done well. It was a very talented team.”
Sabena 548 departed from New York on Valentine’s Day. The plane was scheduled to land in Brussels, then the team would continue on to Prague.
Things began to go awry as the pilots prepared to land. Several hundred feet off the ground, the pilots suddenly retracted the landing gear and began ascending again. Possibly, another plane hadn’t cleared the runway yet. Sabena 548 circled the airport, but the control tower had lost contact with the pilots.
Things got worse. Witnesses sensed that the pilots were attempting to land but were having trouble controlling the plane. Its nose shot vertically into the air, then turned straight down. The plane hit the ground, exploding on impact. It’s believed that those aboard died instantly. Rescue crews found most burned beyond recognition, although some passengers had apparently assumed a crash position as the plane went down.
Those aboard the plane included Laurence “Laurie” Owen, the so-called “queen of United States figure skating.” She was only 16 years old and had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated just two days earlier. Her mother, Maribel Vinson Owen, was an Olympian turned coach, and her sister (also Maribel) was a pairs champion.
Both “Big Maribel” and “Little Maribel” were aboard Sabena 548 that day.
Back in the States, one 10-year-old girl woke up to discover that her father and her brother were dead. “Some people never have a father or a brother,’” her mother tried to comfort her daughters. “You at least had a father and a brother, even if it was for a short time.” Another man aboard that plane was a father, too: His wife might have been on the trip, but they had a two-week-old baby at home.
There were other near misses that day.
Future U.S. champion Lorraine Hanlon was then just a junior skater, but she had been invited to skate in exhibitions at the championships. She wanted to go to Prague, but her school threatened to expel her if she went.
The decision saved her life.
Another skater had qualified for the championships, but a health issue forced him to give up his spot to another skater. The surviving skater was racked with guilt, even calling the other skater’s mother to apologize.
American figure skating had taken a huge blow. How could it bounce back?
Help came in many forms. Some older skaters decided to delay their retirements, helping the sport along in those first years. Some younger skaters jumped into the limelight faster than they might have otherwise. Coaches from other nations were hired to fill gaps. Importantly, a memorial fund was established to help young skaters with their athletic and educational expenses.
The fund has since provided more than $15 million in aid to up and coming skaters. Future champion Peggy Fleming was 12 years old at the time of the crash and was among the first beneficiaries of the fund. Others have followed in her footsteps.
Perhaps some degree of closure finally came on the 50th anniversary of the crash in 2011? During that year, the 1961 figure skating team was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
Barbara Heilman, Mother Set the Style: Pretty Laurence Owen is the most exciting U.S. skater but in her remarkable family she is just another champion (Sports Illustrated; Feb. 13, 1961) (reprinted HERE)
Bonnie D. Ford, Still Crystal Clear (ESPN.com; 2011)
Filip Bondy, Remembering the plane crash that rocked U.S. figure skating 50 years ago (NY Daily News; Jan. 29, 2011)
Kelyn Soong, The terrible plane crash that devastated U.S. figure skating — and still shapes it today (Wash. Post; Feb. 20, 2018)
Nikki Nichols, Frozen in Time: The Enduring Legacy of the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Team (2018)