RISE! – In Memory & Honor of the Sport I Love

February 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

In my high school years I joined the US Figure Skating Association (USFSA) and the local skate club in Louisville, KY. I didn’t compete – hadn’t begun training early enough – but I loved to skate … and dream.

One of my idols in the sport was a girl just my age – Laurence Owen, 1961 National Champion and touted as the next World Gold Medalist. She was great! Spins, jumps, musical artistry – everything needed to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Mirabel Vinson-Owen had been US Ladies Singles Champion nine times.

Although we had never met, my skating buddies and I all felt like we knew Laurence. The Nationals had been televised the first time, and we had watched and cheered. Laurence and her teammates represented the US and us!

On February 15, 1961, Laurence Owen, her coach and mom Mirabel Vinson-Owen, her sister Mirabel “Jr.” and her partner as National Pairs Champions, boarded Sabena Air Flight 548 with the others of the US Team, heading for the World Championships in Prague.  

1961 US Figure Skating World Team

On Feb 15, 1961, their 707 Boeing jet crashed on takeoff from Brussels, Belgium – all 73 souls lost. Among the dead were 34 members of the US Figure Skating Team-18 athletes, six coaches, four judges and officials, and six family members. I cried then as I cry every year at this time – remembering the promise of greatness lost.

Last night Tom and my sister and I drove to Orlando to attend the live broadcast of the premier of Rise – a movie tribute to those who died, those who remained, and the history of the new beginning of the US Figure Skating program.

The personal losses were far reaching. Mirabel Vinson-Owen, Laurence, and Mirabel “Jr” were gone. One coach left behind a wife and 5 children. Another family lost both daughters. A Men’s Singles Bronze medalist became ill and another went in his stead – he lives today with guilt because … he lives. And a coach who couldn’t make the flight, and survived, started collecting money to help young skaters learn the sport he loved. With his efforts the US Figure Skating Memorial Fund was born.

The loss of the US Figure Skating’s top officials and coaches left huge holes in skating programs around the country. Who would guide the young skaters? If the sport in the US could even be rebuilt, who would do it and how long would it take? The speculation of three generations staggered our hopes in 1961.

Looking back over the fifty years since the crash, though, the reality of the determination to rebuild has reached almost miracle status! In 1968, Peggy Fleming won Gold in the Olympics – not even one generation after the crash. And although it would take 28 years before Scott Hamilton won a Gold in Olympic Men’s Singles, the program grew strong and thrives today.

We all know the names of those who came after, winning gold, silver, and bronze medals in both World competitions and the Olympic Winter Games. Last night all 13 US Olympic Gold Medalists living today were present, from Dick Button to Evan Lysacek, from Tinley Albright to Sarah Hughes.

But the brightest and best are yet to come, for the future of US Figure Skating is assured through the US Figure Skating Memorial Fund-paying for ice time, buying skates for those whose parents must work 2 jobs to pay for the most expensive sport to master.

On March 7th Fathom In-Theatre Events and US Figure Skating will present an encore performance of Rise. Check with your local movie theaters to see if there is a presentation in your area. Take tissues!

The US Figure Skating team will compete in the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo March 21-27.  When you watch it on TV, remember those who came before. They are with us in spirit, every time we glide across the ice.

And keep your tissues handy. I will!


§ 3 Responses to RISE! – In Memory & Honor of the Sport I Love

  • I have always loved figure skating. It is ballet with glide! It may be a girl thing-I’ve yet to meet a guy who likes watching figure skating, but while beautiful, it has to be one of the most athletic sports there is. Ironically, if done correctly,it seems to involve no effort at all.

    Is there anything you haven’t done ML?

    Adrian Fogelin

  • Beautiful piece, Mary Lois. Another talent of yours revealed: skating. Who knew?

  • Donna Beard says:

    Mary Lois, Another hidden talent of yours!! Gracious ML, what is next, bareback riding?
    Like you, I love figure skating and seldom miss watching the olympics. I don’t always agree with the judging especially this past winter olympics where the wonderful U.S.ice dancing couple clearly should have won.

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