Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Remembering The 1961 US World Figure Skating Team

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the crash of Sabena Flight 548, which killed the entire US delegation en route to the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships.  The sudden deaths of an entire generation of figure skating coaches, skaters and officials remains one of the greatest tragedies in sport and changed the world of figure skating forever.

The story of the team will be featured in RISE, but it is important to remember them for their skating and not just how they influenced Evan Lysacek and provided a cosmic connection for Michelle Kwan.

Maribel Vinson Owen was the most known member of the delegation killed en route to the World Championships.  She was a nine-time US National Champion in singles and a six-time winner in pairs (with two different partners.)  She was the bronze medalist at the 1932 Olympic Games (behind Sonja Henie) and finished fifth in the world in pairs.  She was North American Champion in both singles and pairs.    She was the silver medalist at the 1928 World Championships in singles.  While competing in the 1930s, Maribel became the first female sportswriter for the New York Times.  A graduated of Radcliffe College, she published several books about figure skating and the art of learning the sport.  It is her stern influence that has led Frank Carroll to strive for excellence, as he knows she is always watching and judging his students and his teaching.  Frank has said that he hopes Maribel Vinson Owen approves of Michelle Kwan's skating.  Maribel coached Tenley Albright to Olympic Gold in 1956 and Frank Carroll finally coached an Olympic Champion last year.

By winning the 1961 US Nationals, Laurence Own was believed to be the successor to Tenley Albright and Carol heiss.  Coach by her mother Maribel, much was expected of Laurence.  Sports Illustrated even featured Laurence on its cover the week before the crash (perhaps a skatenastics curse given what happened to Kristie Phillips' career after being named 'The New Mary Lou' and Ivan Ivankov's Olympic woes after being painted gold on the cover of its Olympic Preview.)

Though she had a few jump errors, Laurence's overall skating skills and movement are superb.  Laurence went on to win the North American Figure Skating Championships two weeks later.  She was already expected to become the favorite for the 1964 Olympic Games.

Maribel Vinson Owen was a controlling mother who demanded that her children value her education.  Maribel was furious with Frank Carroll for entering Hollywood and not immediately entering Harvard.  Laurence Own planned to enroll in Radcliffe College and hoped to become a writer.  Following her death, Laurence's teachers read the closing lines of a poem she wrote short before her death at a memorial service:

Gloom is but a shadow of the night, long past;
Hope is the light,
The radiance.

Laurence's main domestic rival was Stephanie Westerfeld.

Maribel Owen and Dudley Richards were the 1961 US National Pairs Champions.  The first child of Maribel Vinson and Guy Owen, Maribel was known as 'Maribel Jr.'  Eight years Maribel's senior, Dudley was a childhood friend of the Kennedy family and a longtime friend and college roommate of Ted Kennedy.  Dudley once skated pairs with Tenley Albright (also coached by Maribel Vinson Owen) before teaming up with Maribel.

Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce were the 1961 US National Dance Championships.

Rhode Lee Michelson was third at the 1961 National Championships and landed double axels, which was in impressive fete for her day.

Donna Lee Carrier and Roger Campbell won silver in ice dance at the 1961 Nationals.

Clips from the 1961 North American Championships.  The second skater shown is Stephanie Westerfeld and the third is Laurence Owen.

CBS aired a fitting tribute to the 1961 Team at the 1992 Olympic Games:


  1. Thank you, AJ, for keeping this post almost entirely about the 1961 team. They deserve to be remembered not just as other skaters' inspiration but for what they accomplished on their own.

    If I'm not mistaken, Diane Sherbloom had teamed up with Larry Pierce just weeks before Nationals, because his partner had been injured.

    On a less serious note, SI cover curse is well known, not just for skaters and gymnasts.

  2. Does anyone else have the ridiculous book on the 1961 World Team with imaginary conversations among the passengers on the flight?

    I believe Maribel Owen and Dudley Richards were engaged, but I haven't been able to confirm that fact from any online sources. I'm not certain if it is fact or something believed by the author of 'Frozen In Time.'

  3. The Boston Globe ran a long story about the 1961 team back in 2000, which is well worth reading. It suggests that Owen and Richards were a couple and were going to announce their engagement after Worlds.


  4. do you have the fluff piece they did at nationals in 2001. you tube removed it.

  5. Wish you didn't mention that carroll coached a gold medalist because it brings to mind lysacek of course and that is a bad thing.

  6. Is Maribel the mother of Frank Carroll? Sorry if this is a naive question. I got that impression from this sentence and a couple other phrases in the piece. Thanks for a great post. Watching the old videos shows such a difference between skating then and today.

    "Maribel Vinson Owen was a controlling mother who demanded that her children value her education. Maribel was furious with Frank Carroll for entering Hollywood and not immediately entering Harvard."

  7. Maribel coached Frank, but was very controlling about his life.

  8. Wow. Had never heard of Michelson, and I had no idea any ladies were landing 2a at that time--though I suppose if Janet Lynn was landing 3ts in the early 70s the 2a must have become more common through the 60s?

  9. Carol Heiss was the first woman to land double axels in competition. She did it when she was a young teen playing understudy to Tenley Albright. Tenley eventually followed suit. Still Dick Button, the first skater to land the jump, has said in interviews that Barbara Ann Scott was landing them with regularity in practice and only left them out of her competitive routine at the '48 Olympics because it was not as high as her other jumps. They were both jumping pioneers at their time and in fact she could match him jump for jump in 1948.

    Peggy and Janet's double axels were huge compared to most of the girls skating today. Never any doubt about cheating with them.

    Speaking if jumping pioneers, check this out.

    It wasn't landed in actual competition until 20 years later (and with much lesser quality I might add).

  10. Thanks, AJ, for answering my question about Frank Carroll. Again, love this post and the videos and looking forward to watching "Rise" on Thursday.

  11. I have read on several sites that Dudley Richard's best friend said that Dudley told him he and Maribel were going to announce their engagement after Worlds. I believe I saw an old tribute video where Ron Ludington said 'Maribel was very much in love with Dudley, and Dudley was very much in love with Maribel'.