The 1961 U.S. figure skating world team lives on 60 years later, in memories and through the Memorial Fund

On Feb. 15, 1961, Sabena Flight 548, traveling from New York City to Brussels under clear skies, crashed on approach to Zaventem Airport. The 72 people on board and one person on the ground were killed.

Among the dead were all 18 members of the U.S. world figure skating team, along with 16 coaches, officials and family members on their way to the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

Sixty years later, skaters and fans are still haunted by poignant reminders of the tragic flight.

A heartbreaking photo of the skaters gathered on the steps of the Boeing 707, on the tarmac before take-off at Idlewild Airport. Faded black and white film of the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, broadcast from the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs. A charred copy of Sports Illustrated, with a smiling Laurence Owen gracing the cover alongside the Mad Men-era caption, “America’s most exciting girl skater.”

“Most of us at the time, we really felt numb,” Tenley Albright, the 1956 Olympic champion, said. “We could not believe it. It didn’t seem real. We didn’t want to believe it. The idea we can talk about it now helps us heal, at least a little bit.”

Last Saturday, the Skating Club of Boston hosted an online panel discussion to commemorate the lives lost and the rebuilding of the U.S. figure skating program.

In addition to Albright, participants included revered coach Frank Carroll, whose own mentor, Maribel Vinson Owen, was lost in the crash; 1960 Olympic bronze medalist Barbara Roles Williams; two-time Olympian Albertina Noyes (1964, 1968); 2014 Olympic team event bronze medalists Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir; Paul George, another student of Vinson Owen who won the 1962 U.S. junior pairs title and is president of the U.S. Figure Skating Foundation; and others, including several SC of Boston coaches and current competitors.

The 85-year-old Albright, who went on to a career as a surgeon and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, represented SC Club of Boston during her competitive days. Three of the 1961 U.S. champions – Laurence Owen; her older sister, Maribel Jr., and her pairs partner, Dudley Richards; and Bradley Lord – competed for SC of Boston. The 1961 U.S. ice dance champions, Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce, hailed from Los Angeles and Indianapolis, respectively.

Much of the discussion revolved around Maribel Vinson Owen, the nine-time U.S. women’s champion and four-time U.S. pairs champion who coached Albright, and her daughters Laurence and Maribel Jr. (“Little Maribel”), to their titles.

“She taught me great discipline, about being on time, always showing up, never backing out, not saying, ‘Oh, I don’t feel well today,’” Carroll, coach of Linda Fratianne, Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek, among others, said. “You go to the rink and you never complain about the ice.”

For Carroll, George and others of their generation, the memories burn as brightly as flashbulbs: Christmas Eve caroling on Boston’s Beacon Hill. Parties at the Vinson family home, a Federal-style house in Winchester, Massachusetts, built in 1803 that still stands today. Studying while riding in Maribel’s car, a broken-down station wagon with fungi growing in the back seat.

“Maribel drove with her skates and skate guards on, 70 miles an hour on Route 128,” Carroll drily recalled.

“My father finally bought Maribel a new station wagon,” Ronna Goldblatt Gladstone, a Maribel student who now coaches at SC of Boston, said. “He was afraid we were going to crash.”

Not all of the panel participants were from the Boston area. Roles Williams, a Californian, competed for Arctic Blades Figure Skating Club. Following the 1960 Olympics, she married and had a daughter, Shelley, in June 1961. Nevertheless, U.S. figure skating officials asked her to resume training, in hopes she would represent the U.S. at the 1962 world championships.

“I was asked if I would come back and try to back the top five ladies at worlds, which was the ruling then, in order to have three people in the world competition the following year,” Roles Williams said. “I said yes without hesitation. I thought it was the least I could do for all of these people who had given their lives.”

Those lost on Feb. 15, 1961 live on in more than memories. Just one month after the crash, a group of U.S. Figure Skating trustees, including the association’s president F. Ritter Shumway, established the Memorial Fund as a tribute to the team.

“The underlying thought was to create a living and continuing memorial that would be of assistance to aspiring skaters, rather than to erect memorials built of marble to their memory,” said George, who as president of the U.S. Figure Skating Foundation manages the fund.

Noyes, just 12 in 1961 and the newly crowned U.S. novice champion, remembers raising funds at an exhibition at the old Boston Garden soon after the crash.

“After we skated, they gave us pins and badges, and we were asked to go up in the stands with a tin can,” she said. “We were going to be selling [the pins] in the stands to raise money for the Memorial Fund. This was the beginning.”

According to Barbara Reichert, senior director, external relations at U.S. Figure Skating, the Memorial Fund has grown to $20 million in assets, and has distributed $500,000 in skating and educational scholarships in both 2019 and 2020.

“Peggy Fleming was one of the first people to receive support, and she used some of that money to buy her first pair of competitive skates,” Reichert said. “I think she was 12 or 13 at the time. Imagine if she had not been able to get the equipment she needed; would she have been able to go on to become the (1968) Olympic champion?”

Current stars, including five-time U.S. champion Nathan Chen, receive Memorial Fund grants to assist with the enormous expense of international competition, including choreography, costumes, off-ice training and more.

“The majority of our top athletes receive money from the Memorial Fund; however, so many thousands of names that people don’t know, and may never know, or perhaps will know, also receive funds to help support their journey on the ice and their education off the ice,” Reichert said.

During the past several months, close to $75,000 has been raised from COVID-related efforts.

“When you see those cutouts of fans at Skate America or the U.S. Championships, all of the proceeds go to the Memorial Fund,” Reichert said. “When people and clubs buy the U.S. Figure Skating face masks, those proceeds go to the Memorial Fund.”

U.S. Figure Skating is also launching the inaugural Get Up Virtual 5K, presented by Guaranteed Rate. In this virtual event, participants will have the opportunity to skate, run, bike, walk, roll or complete the 5K distance any way they choose. Net proceeds will benefit the Memorial Fund. For more information, see the Get Up Virtual 5K registration site.

“All participants will have the same number on their bibs, 1961, which they will post on social media once they complete their version of the 5K,” Reichert said.

Current SC of Boston competitors, including Maxim Naumov, Alex Krasnozhon, Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov, and Hanna Harrell, listened to the panel discussion, then joined to share their thoughts about the 1961 world team.

“Hearing the story again from all of these people, to see how everyone shared their heart… it just shows how strong skating connections can be, and how we create an extended family with other skaters and coaches,” Krasnozhon said.

“They set an example for our generation, and we want to set an example for the future generations to come,” Lu said. “The Memorial Fund has benefited us, helping us move to Boston, be a part of the SC of Boston, train at the amazing facility, have more ice time. We’re so grateful to the Memorial Fund.”