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Archive for February, 2011

(Note from MV: I wrote on Feb. 14 about the anniversary of the 1961 plane crash that killed the U.S. figure skating team on its way to the World Championships in Prague, and how that event had prompted some essays I’d written over the last decade. Sorry for the delay in posting, but here is the first.)

If she went into a room that was dark, she’d be the light bulb.”

_ Mike Michelson on his sister, Rhode

The coastline in Wilmington, Calif., is quite different than the beautiful, languid beaches just to the north or south in greater Los Angeles. This is an industrial area, one of refineries, docks, cargo and backaches. This is business, not pleasure.

When Phineus Banning helped settled the area in the mid-1800s, he named it after his hometown in Delaware and helped develop one of the largest and busiest seaports in the world.

Nearby are his family home _ a small oasis _ and a high school named after him. A few miles east in Long Beach is McHelen Avenue, from where you can’t see the ugly, endless jungle of pipes, tanks and gigantic crates that clog the shore.

On McHelen, you’re in a neatly kept, working-class Southern California neighborhood with stucco-finished homes dating back to the ’30s and ’40s and painted a variety of colors.

The home at 21808 McHelen is tan, and you can imagine that once, there was an energetic little girl running around inside this house, getting into everything, exhausting her mother.

Or, at least I can imagine this because of what I’d been told about Rhode Lee Michelson from the people who knew her, all of whom seem to have exceptionally vivid memories of her. She would grow up to go to Banning High School, but she wouldn’t finish there. Her life would end during her senior year.
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It was January in Greensboro, N.C. _ and a mecca of figure skating this is not. The most important sport in this city is ACC basketball, and that’s what often has filled the Greensboro Coliseum.

Still, a decent-sized crowd came to stay late on a school night, a Thursday, to see the women’s short program of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Three young women later sat at a podium, having placed 1-2-3 that evening, setting themselves up for a showdown in the long program two nights later. One of them earlier had been asked about her very active Twitter account, and she responded, “I do that so you guys can quote me.”

Later, as I walked to my car while appreciating weather that felt comparatively warm, my mind traveled back in time. It was quite cold in Colorado Springs that January night 50 years ago when a group of talented people unknowingly sealed their tragic fate by performing well in competition.

The skaters who competed at figure skating’s national championships back then had no notion of a “short” program – it didn’t exist as part of competition until 1973 – and, of course, wouldn’t have been able to conceive of Twitter.

How about professional skaters being eligible for the Olympics? Women skaters routinely doing triple-triple combinations? A complex, points-accumulating scoring system no longer based on 6.0s? All would be in the future _ something the top skaters at the 1961 nationals didn’t have much of left.

No other U.S. sport has been so irrevocably changed by a few horrifying, heartbreaking minutes. That’s how long it took for the plane’s loss of control while attempting to land, its subsequent plunge, the impact and the explosion.

At 10:05 a.m. on Feb. 15, 1961, the 18 members of the U.S. figure skating team _ en route to the World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia _ died when a Sabena 707 jet crashed in a field near the airport in Brussels, Belgium. Also killed were 16 relatives, officials and coaches accompanying them.
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