A practice patch of ice at 4 or 5 in the morning, to those who are not figure skaters on a competitive level, looks like the ninth circle of Hell. Dante reserved it for traitors, but in Boston the frozen circle is reserved for the likes of pretty 16-year-old Laurence Owen, if she is lucky. It isn't easy to find ice on which to put in hours of solitary practice, and if there is ice available at 5 a.m. in the bleak old Boston Arena—what good fortune! Laurence's mother Maribel Vinson Owen thought so years ago, when she practiced there from 5 until 9 and won her nine national championships. The whole family presumably thinks so today. On January 27, in Colorado Springs, Laurence (pronounced Lo-rahns) and her sister Maribel, with partner Dudley Richards, took the national singles and pairs titles like apples from a low-hanging branch, executing programs far removed in kind and execution from the usual tedious but to-be-respected arrangements of jumps and spins.
Laurence and young Maribel (now 20) have been reaching for these apples for a long time. They were bundled onto the ice at about 2, Laurence on the Cambridge Rink, attended by her mother and father—himself a top-ranked skater—and the future world and Olympic champion, Tenley Albright. Tenley recalls that Laurence's suit for the occasion was a bright yellow. Instructed by big Maribel, who had retired from competition to become one of this country's top coaches, both young Maribel and Laurence started well and kept coming. Young Maribel, a slender, fair girl and a crisp and arrowy skater, proved to be a natural at pairs skating. Her partner is 28-year-old Boston bachelor Dudley Richards, a first-rank singles competitor before he took up pairs skating. Now in his 20th year of competition, Dudley is given to pointing out with mingled pride and gloom that he was competing before many of the present skaters—including Laurence—were born.
While Dudley and Maribel moved steadily up to the pairs title, Laurence has moved up to the singles. And the competition has moved up, too. "In my day," says Laurence disconcertingly, "if you did an Axel, that was something. Now the little girls do every double jump in the book." It is not clear exactly when she considers her day to have been—perhaps when she was about 8. "The years when I was 6 and 7 I really worked hard, all the time," she says. "Then when I was about 8 I didn't work at all. I just thought I knew everything. I didn't compete at all that year, except in pairs, with a boy who was the national champion the next year. I wasn't a very good pairs skater, to say the very least. Everybody was older. Anyway, the only thing that got me back to work was that Mummy said I couldn't go to camp, so I really got going."
She kept going, and the world began to notice. Last year she placed third in the nationals, and then took sixth in the Olympics with a routine so avant-garde that it left the spectators—and not a few judges—agape. If baffled by the style, none could deny the talent. And this year it looked as though Laurence would win the nationals. Carol Heiss, the champion, had turned professional; and Barbara Roles, who finished between Carol and Laurence in 1960, gave up skating to marry. This clearing of the path to the championship was not without its negative aspects. As Tenley observed, losing to a champion involves little loss of face. To suddenly be expected to win, and perhaps be considered one down if you don't makes for a different competitive climate. "Less competition but more pressure," Tenley said. Also, there was the fact that her chief competitor, Stephanie Westerfeld, skated out of the Broadmoor Club, where the nationals were to be held, and would be accustomed to the altitude and the ice.
A feeling for music
Laurence worked. She skated from 5 in the morning until one in the afternoon on days when she had midyear examinations. She traced her figures over until the gray ice with its whole width of superimposed circles looked like the notebook of a child giant practicing the Palmer method.
Laurence works hard and steadily, but not rapaciously. She moves through her figures conscientiously but does not appear drawn or driven. Her free skating has an air, a style, an individuality which sets it apart from all the work done in free skating in recent years. The majority of skaters are dictated to by their medium, and tend at best to master—though brilliantly—what are essentially cliéhes of the ice. They put a given number of jumps and spins between the beginning and the end of a piece of music, and the skating is not much more related to the music than that. Laurence's great gift is a feeling for her music. She has the good dancer's over-all sense of her own body, and at no time will the line of, say, one arm be at odds with the whole. She skates cleanly—no tricks, no maneuvered presentations. And when she is going well, she is able to translate precisely what she feels and intends as a dancer into terms of ice and skates—which is a rarer ability than one might suppose. It was rare, indeed, at the nationals this year; and it won her the championship after she had fallen behind Stephanie Westerfeld in the restrictive school figures.
Laurence also has great presence. When she is on the ice it is Laurence one watches, however little she may be doing. Her smile alone is worth the 5 a.m. trip to the rink. "The greatest natural smile I've ever seen," said a photographer. "I've spent hours trying to coax a laughing smile like that from a girl."
The closer you get to Laurence the less definite is the presence. Off the ice she is confiding, but essentially reserved, very gentle, and inclined to daydream. Her interests are widely but not shallowly scattered—at 16 she is a senior in Winchester High School and on the honor roll. "But she isn't always organized," says Dudley, who is. "The clock means nothing to Laurence," says big Maribel, who breathes by the clock. And young Maribel: "You can be talking to Laurence and see she isn't listening—she may just go off and look for some paper and write a poem."
Both girls social life and the range of their extracurricular activities at school (young Maribel is a senior at Boston University) are of course affected by their skating. They're away, or at practice, or in training, and any socializing in the 20- and 16-year-old sense of the term is limited. Laurence says typically, "I was invited to the junior prom, but it was the same week as the nationals", and, "Mr. Skerry [Laurence's Latin teacher] worries, and wants to know why I have to do so much, and why I don't get to know my peer group. So I said, 'But Mr. Skerry, think of all the other people I do get to know.' " "I saw Mr. Skerry at the Fathers' Club meeting," big Maribel said, "and I zeroed in and told him all about how ice skating develops concentration."
Laurence does get to some dances, the one, for instance, where "he was so short and he danced so close." She grimaced, and conjured up a vivid image of a young man whuffling around her collarbone like a wet-nosed puppy. She meets boys—thousands of boys—at competitions. "Maribel, remember that darling boy from Chile at the Olympics? He wanted to trade sweaters. He had a beautiful heavy blue sweater, with all that white work. I should have, but I couldn't. It seemed like such a rotten trade for him. Pancho—what was his last name? I thought I wouldn't ever forget it. And that boy from Iceland. Oh, Cortez. Pancho Cortez." Mr. Skerry can rest easy. Laurence has her peer group wrapped around her little finger.
A passion for work
In the gossipy circles of the figure skating world there are occasional whisperings to the effect that "Maribel drives the poor girls so." This is to some extent true. No sooner were the nationals over at Colorado Springs than Maribel bustled the girls back east to start practicing for the North American championships in Philadelphia on February 11 and 12. But professional and maternal pride apart, by the time a child reaches the national level of competition a great deal of money has been invested. Maribel's girls needn't compete; but if they choose to continue, Maribel prefers they try to skate well enough to justify the $1,000 it cost, for instance, to get to the championships in Colorado alone. Also Maribel is by nature a driver—of her students and above all of herself. She has to be. Her husband died in 1952; and to support her girls and her mother, who lives with them in the Boston suburb of Winchester in a large and beautiful old house, she works seven days a week, keeping to a schedule that would break the back of a Percheron. She is up at 5 or 6 every day, teaching her girls early in the morning, then leaping from class to class at rinks all over and around Boston. She frequently has no lunch, and several nights a week has perhaps half an hour for dinner before leaving to teach until 11 or 12. She supervises ice shows and community projects, fusses over costumes and prepares her pupils music—splicing it for them in the relatively free hours between 2 and 4 in the morning.
Her friends marvel, and they fidget. It doesn't seem possible that she can keep it up. On the other hand, it is manifestly impossible that she not keep it up. She is besides everything else an extremely intelligent woman of many interests, entire honesty and humor, and she has a childlike quality, wildly at variance with her stern and businesslike struggles to keep everybody's head above water, which is hopelessly endearing.
The latter probably explains the warmth of the basically insane Owen plan of existence, which is a most complex web of comings and goings, interchangeable responsibilities and emotional checks and balances. Granny, Maribel, young Maribel and Laurence appear to take turns mothering one another and doing the shopping, with an assist from the enduring Dudley when the schedule cannot possibly be stretched to include one more errand. It is some time before an outsider can be convinced that the menage will make it through to another dawn.
But they do—although some dawns are quieter than others. After all, it is not a simple business for a woman—even a woman like big Maribel—to be father, mother, breadwinner and coach to her daughters, and daughter to her own mother at the same time. Any four women living together are not going to constitute a hotbed of tranquillity, even without such additional complications. In the Owen home there are small upheavals and noises, but no more than are appropriate. If there is a lot of skating talk, basically it is understood all around that most important are the girls' special interests and ultimate pursuits—young Maribel's college and desire to teach, Laurence's interest in writing and travel and acting, or whatever a 16-year-old may later decide to do instead. The measure of the grace with which Maribel has managed a very difficult job is of course the girls themselves, and anyone who has met them can see that a lot more has been won around Winchester than all that silver on the mantelpiece.