Tomorrow, we’ll get back to hoops … but today, Feb. 15, I want to remember a great loss in sports history. It was on this day, 49 years ago, that the United States figure skating team, their coaches, some members of their families and U.S. skating officials were killed in a plane crash on their way to the 1961 World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
The Sabena Airlines jet crashed while trying to land in Brussels, Belgium, where the team was to connect on its flight to Prague. All 72 on the plane and one man on the ground – a farmer struck by debris – died.
Figure skating is still a small world, and it was even smaller then. It was the year after the 1960 Olympics, so it was mostly the new, fresh faces of the sport who perished. That included women’s national singles champion Laurence Owen, who was 16 and appeared on the cover of “Sports Illustrated” the very week she died.
Laurence’s mother, a former Olympic skater turned world-class coach, and her sister, a pairs skater, also died. Nine families associated with skating lost at least two family members in the crash. There were five sets of siblings killed, and two sisters – Sherri and Steffi Westerfeld – were natives of Kansas City.
Being an Olympics fan, I had grown up hearing about the crash and the impact it had on the skating world. But it wasn’t until we approached the 40th anniversary – back in 2001 – that I started reading more about it and discovered the link to Kansas City. I ended up writing a lengthy story for the Kansas City Star about the sisters, which ended up being the most profoundly emotional experience of my journalism career.
Steffi was 17 and had been the runner-up to Laurence at the national championships that year to earn her spot in the World Championships, which was to have been her first trip abroad. Sherri, 25, had also been a competitive skater and went along to look out for her little sister.
They left behind their mother, Myra, who had moved with them to Colorado Springs, Colo., so both girls could train at the Broadmoor. The move had broken up Myra’s marriage, which resulted in a divorce. Her daughters were her entire world, and she lived nearly 24 years after their deaths not really accepting what happened.
As one of her friends told me about Myra’s life after the crash,”Myra said to me many times, ‘It’s as if the girls have gone on a long trip, and they just haven’t come back yet.’ ”
Because the three main principles of my story _ Steffi, Sherri and Myra (who died in 1984) _ were gone, I had to rely on relatives and friends who knew them to recreate their lives and personalities. This is how it is, of course, when you write about people who’ve passed away. As a sports writer, I really had not done very much of that. And certainly not in depth the way I did with this story.
And so I experienced something I am sure many, many other writers have experienced: In “bringing to life” people who are dead, you end up with an inevitable sadness. Because you can’t change the end of the story. You can’t make the plane not crash.
In talking to their remaining loved ones, in reading old newspapers stories and even in touching some of the things one of their cousins still had – medals, pins, cards; items that had belonged to Steffi – they became more than just characters in a story. They became real to me, and so did the tragedy of their loss.
My story ran in March 2001, and that was an especially big month for women’s hoops in these parts, too, as Jackie Stiles broke the NCAA scoring record and led Missouri State to the Final Four. So I had a great deal of work and a lot to occupy my time that month.
But when the women’s hoops season ended and I had a little “downtime” in April, I realized something that at the time I found hard to explain or talk about. I was grief-stricken. I realized that in making these people come alive for my skating story, I now actually had to deal with their deaths. It seemed bizarre, but it was the truth. The accident had happened, in reality, four decades earlier when I wasn’t even born yet. But it emotionally, having gotten to “know” them by reporting and writing about them, it was as if the plane had just crashed.
And, of course, 2001 was an awful year for plane crashes that really were current. Oklahoma State lost members of its men’s basketball team and staff in a crash returning from a game in Colorado. Then came Sept. 11.
So I remember that whole year, being pre-occupied with thoughts of sudden, tragic losses. Of how we all take air travel for granted, how perfunctory it has become for us. How amazingly fortunate we are not to have lost even more people in this way.
Now, there is an upbeat side to all of this, actually. The Memorial Fund that was established in the memory of those lost from the 1961 skating team ended up having a lasting impact on the sport. Virtually all American skaters who’ve come since have been aided in some way by the Fund. So the team that never got to compete in the World Championships has actually impacted every American team that’s competed in every international event since.
This may be the first year since 1964 that the Americans won’t have a women’s singles medalist at the Olympics. Those ’64 Innsbruck Games came too soon after the crash for enough competitive U.S. skaters to have developed on the women’s side. Peggy Fleming was still really just a kid when she skated for the U.S. team in ’64. Four years later, though, she would be a young woman winning gold. And she has talked often about how the Fund helped her.
If the U.S. women don’t medal in singles this year, it won’t be because of a tragedy … it will be due to evolution in the sport, including different countries putting resources into it and the changes in the judging system. But it’s still pretty astonishing to me that, in part thanks to the Fund, the “handoff” that started in 1952 with U.S. women’s singles Olympic medal winners _ from Tenley Albright to Carol Heiss/Barbara Roles to Peggy Fleming to Janet Lynn to Dorothy Hamill to Linda Fratianne to Rosalynn Sumners to Debi Thomas to Kristi Yamaguchi to Nancy Kerrigan to Tara Lipinski/Michelle Kwan to Sarah Hughes to Sasha Cohen _ has previously only had that one interruption.
As with any tragedy, it’s impossible to measure how much was lost on Feb. 15, 1961. But it’s almost impossible to measure how much has been gained from the reaction to that loss.