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Entire U.S. Figure Skating Team Killed in 1961 Plane Crash

1960s | June 23, 2021

Family picture of the US figure skating team before boarding the Sabena Flight 548 on February 15, 1961 in New York that crashed near Brussels, Belgium. (STF/AFP via Getty Images)

In 1961, 18 members of the U.S. figure skating team, encompassing the nation's top figure skating talent, all died when their plane crashed en route to the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships in Prague. It was a world-shattering event in the sports universe, and figure skating in the United States was never the same.

We Are The Champions

The 1961 World Figure Skating Championships were held in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and naturally, the United States wanted to send its national team to show off its talented skaters to the rest of the world. It included 16-year-old Laurence Owen, who had just won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated; her 20-year-old sister, Maribel, a U.S. National Pairs Champion; their mother and coach, an Olympic bronze medalist; and Maribel's pairs partner, Dudley Richards. In addition to the Owen clan, Olympic medalists Gregory Kelley, Steffi Westerfeld, and Rhode Lee Michelson and champions Bradley Lord, Dee Dee Sherbloom, and Larry Pierce were also on board the flight to Prague.

Cover of Sports Illustrated featuring Laurence Owen just days before she was killed. (Sports Illustrated/Wikimedia Commons)

A Devastating Loss

On February 14, all 18 members of the U.S. national team, along with 16 companions—coaches, officials, friends, and family members—joined 38 additional passengers and crew members aboard Sabena Flight 548 in New York. The plane crossed the Atlantic without incident, heading to Brussels for a scheduled stopover at the Belgian National Airport, but as the plane neared Berg-Kampenhout, Belgium at about 10:00 A.M. on February 15, it crashed. All 72 people on board were killed. The cause of the crash was never determined, but since it occurred during clear weather, it's believed that the plane experienced a mechanical failure.

The plane crash and the loss of the entire U.S. national figure skating team was a blow to the sports world and the nation as a whole. This event, in fact, ranked as the single worst disastrous accident to befall a U.S. sports team until the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 members of the Marshall University football team.

Memorial at the location of the crash. (Paul Hermans/Wikimedia Commons)

The Rebuilding Process

Before their untimely deaths, the U.S. figure skating team was working toward the 1964 Winter Olympics, where they would defend their gold medals. All that changed in an instant. The devastating loss of the team forced the U.S. to scramble for athletes to fill their roster. Some recently retired skaters like Barbara Roles, who had won the bronze medal in the ladies singles at the 1960 Olympics, were asked to come out of retirement, while young up-and-comers found themselves pushed to the elite level.

One of these young skaters was Scott Ethan Allen, who was only 12 years old when he won the silver medal at the U.S. National Championships in 1962. As a member of the national team, he competed at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, taking the bronze medal at the tender age of 14. Peggy Fleming, also tapped to compete in 1964, was only 12 years old when the plane crash claimed the life of her coach. She went on to win the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, marking the comeback of U.S. figure skating dominance.

Tags: 1960s | disaster | Olympics

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.