50 years ago today, United States figure skating was dealt a fatal blow, when the entire team was killed in a plane crash in Belgium.
The flight, Sabena Airlines flight 548 was on it’s way to Prague, Czechoslovakia and was schedule to stop in Brussels for re-fuel. There was no indication of trouble on board the Boeing 707, until it approached the airport. The pilot had to circle the airport while waiting for a small plane to clear the runway. Then, according to eyewitness reports, the plane began to climb and swerve erratically and then crashed in a field just short of the runway. The plane then burst into flames.
18 athletes of the 1961 U.S. figure skating team and 16 family members, coaches, and officials were among the fatalities. In all, 72 people on board were killed, as well as one person on the ground, who was struck by debris from the plane.
The dead included, 9-time U.S. ladies’ champion Maribel Vinson-Owen and her two daughters, reigning U.S. ladies’ champion Laurence Owen, reigning U.S. pairs champions Maribel Y. Owen and her partner Dudley Richards, reigning U.S. men’s champion Bradley Lord, U.S. men’s silver medalist Gregory Kelley, U.S. ladies’ silver medalist Stephanie Westerfeld, U.S. ladies’ bronze medalist Rhode Lee Michelson and U.S. ice dancing champions Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce.
The exact cause of the crash was never determined, but investigators suspected that the aircraft may have been brought down by mechanical failure. The loss of the U.S. team was so catastrophic for the sport that the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships were cancelled.
After the tragedy, the USFS Memorial Fund was created in honor of the crash victims. The Fund is used to support the training of promising young figure skaters throughout the country. The fund can be directly related to getting U.S. figure skating back to world prominence, including Olympic Gold medalist Peggy Fleming and Michelle Kwan, who would equal Maribel Vinson-Owen’s 9 U.S. championships. Both skaters, as well as others have benefited from the memorial fund assistance.
Tonight, the film, RISE will be shown in theaters nationwide for one day only. According to the website, the film “Commissioned by U.S. Figure Skating, the film RISE will celebrate American figure skating while commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1961 U.S. World Figure Skating Team that perished in a plane crash on its way to the World Championships in Prague.”