Fifty years ago, a fiery plane crash destroyed an entire generation of U.S. figure skaters and some of the sport's most celebrated coaches, including a grande dame whose influence is still felt today
This is an article from the Feb. 21, 2011 issue
It was early on the morning of Feb. 15, 1961, when Paul George learned that Sabena Flight 548 had crashed in Belgium, killing 72 passengers, including all 18 members of the U.S. figure skating team. George, a lawyer and former vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, remembers it as if it were yesterday. He was a 19-year-old Harvard student and a junior pairs skater. His coach, the renowned Maribel Vinson Owen, had been on the flight, headed from New York City to the world championships in Prague. So were five skaters from George's training rink, the Skating Club of Boston, four of whom had just been crowned U.S. champions. The new titlists included two other skaters coached by Owen: her daughters, Maribel and Laurence. Maribel, 20, a pretty, shy Boston University senior who aspired to be a teacher, was a pairs titlist. Laurence, 16, a high school senior who had been admitted to Radcliffe, was the new ladies' champion. Her radiant smile appeared on that week's cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which introduced her as AMERICA'S MOST EXCITING GIRL SKATER.
A year earlier the 15-year-old Laurence (pronounced Lo-rahns) had finished sixth at the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., where she'd roomed with Carol Heiss, the gold medalist. Heiss had told her then that she was retiring to marry and start a family. "No pressure, Laurence, but you have to carry on the tradition," Heiss said. Between Heiss and Tenley Albright, who was also coached by the elder Maribel Owen, U.S. women had won the last two Olympic gold medals and seven of the last eight world championships. No less was expected of Laurence.
George had taught her how to drive. He'd taken her to dances at the tony Longwood Cricket Club at the behest of her mother, so they might both get a taste of society. The last time he'd seen her he'd asked her to sign the SI cover for him. Now Laurence, her sister and mother and the other skaters were all gone, burned beyond recognition in a field outside Brussels, where their Boeing 707 jet had been circling the airport in a crystalline morning, waiting for a runway to clear.
"I went to the club that morning," George recalls. "The ice was ready, but nobody was on it. It was the day the music stopped."
George was a pallbearer at the funeral of Bradley Lord, 21, the newly crowned U.S. men's champion, and attended the funerals of the Owens and of Dudley Richards, 29, who had just won the U.S. pairs title with Little Maribel Owen, as she was known. "It wasn't till the next fall that we got back to serious skating," George says. But by then he and his skating partner—his sister, Elizabeth—were "a good bit more determined," he says. "It wasn't coincidence that we won junior pairs the next year. You always looked forward. Big Maribel would have wanted you to look forward."
The morning of the crash, Hollis Albright, Tenley's father and the Owens' family physician, went to their house in Winchester, Mass., to break the awful news to Big Maribel's mother, Gertrude Cliff Vinson, who lived with her daughter and granddaughters. Grammy Vinson, as she was known to everyone at the Skating Club of Boston, drove Laurence to practice every day after school in her dented 1938 Ford convertible with no rear suspension. When she came to the door, Albright told her that Maribel had asked him to give her a flu shot. He gave her a sedative instead. When it took effect, he told her he had come about Maribel and the girls.
Grammy, age 80, looked up. "It's the plane," she said. "It went down, didn't it?" Albright nodded.
"Are they all dead?" she asked. He nodded again.
"It's just as well," Grammy Vinson said. "They couldn't have lived without each other."
The crash of Sabena flight 548 marked the end of the golden age of U.S. skating. It had begun in 1947, when Dick Button won the silver medal at the world championships. Button is credited with launching a new American style of skating, which combined athletic free skating and original moves with musicality. He was the first skater to land a double Axel in competition, the first to do three double loops in combination, the first to land a triple jump in competition, the first to do a flying camel spin. Button and the brothers Hayes and David Jenkins utterly dominated the 1950s, winning every men's gold medal at the Olympics from 1948 through 1960, and American men took first and second at the worlds every year from 1951 through 1958 and swept the podium in '52, '55 and '56. As for the ladies, in 1953 Heiss became the first woman to land a double Axel in competition. Albright won the '53 and '55 worlds and the '56 Olympics, and Heiss won every world championship from '56 through '60, not to mention gold in Squaw Valley. The best young U.S. skaters gravitated to a handful of rinks—in Boston, Colorado Springs, Philadelphia, New York City and Lake Placid, N.Y.—where they were inspired by training beside champions. Everyone's development was accelerated by the success of the few.
That suddenly changed in Brussels. The U.S. Olympic champions all had retired from amateur skating after Squaw Valley, and the next generation was tragically extinguished. "The crash set the sport back in Boston in a way that it was never able to recover," says Chuck Foster, who won a national junior pairs title in 1955 with Little Maribel Owen. "We had a pyramid, with champions like Tenley at the top, and a wide base below of coaches and skaters. The pyramid crumbled with the crash. We really lost two generations of coaches: those who were already coaching, and skaters like Bradley Lord who would have become coaches."
One of the coaches who died was Edi Scholdan, who had trained the Jenkins brothers and was traveling with 16-year-old Gregory Kelley, whom he had coached to the silver medal at the 1961 nationals. Gone, too, was 28-year-old William Kipp, who at his home rink in Paramount, Calif., was training a 12-year-old girl named Peggy Fleming. And, of course, Big Maribel Owen, 49, who had coached five of the 12 skaters on the U.S. team at the '60 Olympics.
"She was a firecracker, very demanding, smart and inventive, a cross between Bela Karolyi and Bill Belichick," says Paul George. "She'd come drifting by and whack you on the thigh with her skate guard if your free leg wasn't straightened properly. There was no fooling around. It was tough love."
A Radcliffe graduate who was the first female sportswriter to be published by The New York Times, in the 1930s, Owen was a rarity in skating, a great champion who became a great coach—indeed, one of the most influential figures in the history of her sport. Perhaps that was because she had unfinished business as a skater: She'd never won Olympic gold or a world championship. She had the misfortune of competing her entire career against Norway's peerless Sonja Henie, who won three Olympic gold medals (1928, '32 and '36) and 10 straight world championships. Maribel Vinson finished fourth in the 1928 Olympics, won a bronze medal in '32 and was fifth in '36. She was second to Henie at the 1928 worlds, her highest finish. "Sonja's routine is not as hard as mine," she once said, "but she seldom makes a mistake."
Still, in the U.S., Maribel was without peer. Both her parents had been skaters—Thomas Vinson, a lawyer and Boston city alderman, was a skating champion in the 1890s, and he met her mother while skating on the Charles River. Maribel got her first pair of double-blade skates at age three and graduated to single-blade a year later. When she was nine she came under the tutelage of the German coach Willie Frick, known as the Boy Wonder of Berlin, who was hired in 1920 by the Skating Club of Boston. In 1924 Maribel won the U.S. junior title at age 12, and four years later she won the first of nine U.S. ladies' titles, a total only Michelle Kwan has equaled.
Maribel turned professional in 1937 and produced and starred in a skating tour called Gay Blades—An International Ice Ballet with two-time gold medalist Karl Schafer of Austria. One of the other skaters on that tour was a former Canadian junior champion named Guy Owen, whom Maribel married in 1938. She gave birth to Little Maribel in 1940, prompting her and Guy to settle down and coach at a new skating center in Berkeley, Calif. One of her early students was six-time U.S. ladies' champion Gretchen Merrill.
The marriage ended in 1949, when Maribel divorced Guy after he had become an alcoholic. (He died three years later while being operated on for a bleeding ulcer.) Maribel's father died in 1952, setting in motion her decision to drive back East with her two daughters to live with her widowed mother in the family mansion in Winchester, the Captain Josiah Locke House, a grand estate built in 1803 that had fallen into disrepair. Maribel Owen would support her family by giving skating lessons.
Owen taught skating as if she were trying to change the world. By her own estimation she instructed more than 4,000 students, old and young, beginner and expert. She wrote three books on figure skating and numerous magazine and newspaper articles. She was often on the ice from 5 a.m. till midnight. "She used to drive her car with her skates on," recalls Tenley Albright, 75, who would win the '56 gold medal under Owen's tutelage. The coach's gruff, salty language was new to Albright. "When I was 11," she says, "I somehow got up the nerve to say to her, 'I can't skate when you call me bad names.' After that she never did.
"She was ahead of her time in so many ways. She was a person of courage and conviction who would stand up for people. When someone said something about Jews, Maribel said, 'How would you feel if I told you I was Jewish?' She wasn't, but she wouldn't put up with any nonsense. She stood for what was right—always."
Owen was, in fact, a thoroughly modern woman: tough, independent, open-minded and driven. "If there was one way to hurt her," says Ron Ludington, who won a bronze medal in pairs in the 1960 Olympics while being coached by Owen, "it was to say to her, 'Why don't you act more like a woman?' That would kill her. She was a woman in a man's world."
She made the proper Bostonians who ran the Skating Club so uncomfortable that they refused to let her coach anyone but her own daughters there. "She was a bull and was constantly telling people on the board what to do," says Tom McGinnis, who choreographed Laurence's winning programs in 1961 and still coaches at the Skating Club of Boston. "They were afraid of her."
"She was foul-mouthed," says Ben Wright, 88, who was on the board of the club in those years and is still its chairman. By modern standards, however, Maribel's language wasn't remarkable. "She'd say 'goddammit,' or 'What the hell do you think you're doing? I'm out here freezing my butt off telling you the same thing over and over,'" says Frank Carroll, then one of Owen's students and now the dean of U.S. coaches, with a list of present and former pupils that reads like a Who's Who of U.S. skating over the last 30 years: Linda Fratianne, Christopher Bowman, Kwan, Timothy Goebel and reigning Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek. "This was Boston. You didn't say things like that. Her mother, Grammy Vinson, who was always watching at rinkside, used to say to her, 'Must thou blaspheme?'"
Not permitted to coach at the club she had represented while winning 15 national titles, Owen buried her hurt and rented ice wherever she could find it in Greater Boston and as far away as Worcester, Mass., an hour west. "She used to call at the last minute and say, 'Today I'll be at the Boston Arena,'" recalls Christie Allan-Piper, who took lessons from Owen for two years and now coaches at the Skating Club of Boston. "They held boxing and wrestling matches at the arena, and we'd spend the first 10 minutes skating around picking cigar butts off the ice. Skating in Boston then was a Brahmin sport, and the Owens were noisy people. Grammy was practically deaf. Maribel had chronic laryngitis from yelling. I'll never forget the day she called Tenley Albright a dog—Tenley, who was so aristocratic in her movements. But she wasn't mean. Maribel just used very emphatic language."
Owen stressed the importance of education to her athletes. "She used to drive me out to practice in Worcester," George says. "I'd get in the car with Laurence, and Maribel would say in that raspy voice, 'O.K., let's work on synonyms.'" She was also a champion of the outsider. One of her pupils was Mabel Fairbanks, one of the first prominent African-American skaters, whom she coached for free. (Later, as a coach herself, Fairbanks would pair Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, who would win five U.S. pairs titles and the 1979 worlds.)
"Material things meant nothing to Maribel," says Tina Noyes, a two-time Olympian (1964 and '68). "She'd wear herself thin from running around, picking up her skaters at four a.m. to drive them to the rink. She had no heat or radio in her car. All she cared about was trying to create a champion."
One of her teaching techniques was to take students to the theater so they could learn from performers who communicated brilliantly with their bodies, such as Danny Kaye and Marcel Marceau. When the Charles River froze, she'd conduct her lessons there. She even took students caroling on Beacon Hill.
In her passion she sometimes crossed the line. Ludington, still coaching at 76, remembers seeing her toss a metal chair in the direction of a judge because she disapproved of his marks. At the Squaw Valley Olympics Ludington saw Maribel wrestle a Canadian coach for the arm of the record player at the practice rink, fighting over whose music would be played first.
"I adored her and was scared to death of her," says Carroll. "We all were." Once she was kneeling on the ice, tracing the arc of one of Carroll's figures, and when she looked up she saw he wasn't paying attention. "She smacked me on the face with her wooden skate guard so hard it gave me a welt that I was still wearing days later at Nationals," Carroll says. "She bought me a soda the next day, which was her way of apologizing. But she never said she was sorry. I was being disrespectful."
Carroll got off easy compared with Ludington. He didn't pick up ice skating until he was 16. He was a national roller skating champion, a tough kid from Roxbury, then a blue-collar, heavily Irish section of Boston. Albright had seen him compete in the 1953 North American roller skating championships when she was training in Colorado, and she helped him buy his first pair of ice skates, at the Skating Club of Boston. When Ludington learned that Owen was coaching Albright, he asked if she'd take him on too. "Maribel told me, 'Yes, but on my terms,'" he says. " 'You've got to learn etiquette on the ice. You can't be the tough kid from the streets out there.'"
Theirs was a Henry Higgins--Eliza Doolittle partnership. "Part of my training was to become a gentleman," says Ludington. "I had to go over to Maribel's and learn to set a dinner table. I used to escort her to the theater. When the play Auntie Mame came out, she insisted that I see it. I realized why. She was Auntie Mame. Anyone she touched, or who touched her, she molded."
They had their battles. The night before Ludington was to take one of his figure skating tests, Maribel arranged to give him a lesson at the Boston Arena at 2 a.m. He fell asleep beforehand, and she had to call his home, waking his parents, to roust him. "She had her fur coat on and her feet up on the boards when I finally came in, and of course everything I did went wrong," Ludington recalls. "She was yanking me around by the belt to get me into proper position, telling me I was going too slow, and I cursed her under my breath. I didn't think she'd heard me. But she went over to the side of the rink and grabbed one of the arena's wooden folding chairs and hit me over the back of the head with it as hard as she could. Never saw it coming. I was cursing, she was crying, and I stormed out of there yelling. I had to go back the next night for my test, and there she was. She called me over and said, 'We're going to Crusher Casey's, and we're going to have a talk.' Crusher Casey was a professional wrestler who had a bar in the South End. We had it out over a couple of beers, and that was the end of it."
Dudley Richards was one of Ludington's best friends. One Christmas Eve they were having a beer when Ludington said, "We ought to go put a tree up at Maribel's." They knew she wouldn't have had the time to get one. They bought a tree and drove it to Winchester, then watched as Laurence, Little Maribel, Big Maribel and Grammy decorated it in delight.
Fast forward to April. Ludington and Richards were having another beer. Ludington said, "We'd better go take down that Christmas tree. It's a fire hazard." They drove out to Winchester, and sure enough the tree was still in the faded living room, its needles brown and branches sagging so low that the ornaments had fallen to the floor. "Maribel didn't have time for housekeeping," Ludington says. Skating, culture and education—that's what she cared about. The rest was just trappings.
"Most of Maribel's clothes were secondhand, sent to her by a wealthy friend from New York," says Allan-Piper. "I don't think she ever looked in the mirror." Owen drove the same station wagon that had spirited her east from California in 1952, a car so unkempt that it had fungus growing out of its interior wood panels. "I always sat in the back, since I was the smallest," recalls Ronna Goldblatt Gladstone, who took lessons from Owen between the ages of seven and 15. "The girls would say, 'Be careful of the mushrooms!' Then we'd drive to the rink and have a spelling bee or vocab lessons on the way."
No one felt the pressure of Big Maribel's expectations more than Laurence, who was both more talented than her sister and more driven, a self-described perfectionist in all her pursuits, from poetry to the piano to ballet. "Young Maribel was very sweet and laid back," says Ludington. "Laurence was like her mother, very bright and outgoing. That's why those two fought so."
Of all the skaters who died on Flight 548, Laurence was the surest bet to go on to Olympic stardom. She was tall, willowy and graceful. "To watch her skate was like watching a flower blossoming," says Noyes. "There are skaters who skate for themselves and skaters who skate for the audience. Laurence did both. And she competed to win."
McGinnis, the choreographer, says, "Laurence was more of a show person than her mom, who had no real flair but was a good, consistent, proud athlete. No question, Laurence could have been world champion. Her most outstanding feature was her personality. She'd throw her head back during her layback spin and bring everyone in the audience in."
"She had such freedom and speed and freshness to her skating," says Fleming, who was four years younger than Laurence. "She was like Tenley: very athletic yet feminine too."
Whether Laurence would have been as steely under pressure as Albright, Heiss and Fleming is a question that will never be answered. But from birth she was raised to be a champion. "Maribel wanted that ladies' title so much," says McGinnis. "She treated Laurence like a commodity."
But Owen was tough on both her girls, says Ludington. "They'd argue quite a bit. She'd make them cry, then she'd start to cry. I used to tell her, 'You can't be a mother and a coach too.'"
Gladstone remembers the time Maribel Jr. swore at her mother during a lesson. In front of everyone, Big Maribel forced her to kneel on the ice and ask for forgiveness from God. Another time Big Maribel was yelling so loudly at Laurence that Laurence jokingly put her fingers in her ears. Furious, Maribel chased her daughter around the rink, but Laurence, her fingers still in her ears, was too fast. She fled the ice and took refuge in the bathroom.
McGinnis remembers the tension escalating in the weeks leading up to the 1961 Nationals. "Every time I went to the house to go over her program, Laurence would run away from Mama and go upstairs," he says. "I'd follow her, and Laurence would read her poems to me. Poetry was her escape."
But if Big Maribel's style and standards in any way hindered Laurence's development, you couldn't prove it by her 1961 results. At the Nationals in Colorado Springs she came from behind to beat Stephanie Westerfeld at the Broadmoor Skating Club, Westerfeld's home rink. Laurence then upset four-time Canadian champion Wendy Griner to win the North American championships in Philadelphia just days before leaving for the worlds. She'd never looked better.
Neither Laurence nor Maribel Jr. had ever been to Europe. Now they were going as national champions. The only negative was that Grammy wouldn't be traveling to Prague with them.
She was afraid of flying.
Out of respect for the U.S. team, the 1961 world championships were canceled. It would be 1965 before a U.S. skater medaled again at the worlds.
A month after the crash, a benefit was held in Boston Garden for the 1961 World Figure Skating Team Memorial Fund, established in memory of those who had died. Among the performers were Button, Noyes, Griner and David Jenkins. Noyes sold skating badges for a dollar out of a coffee can while walking the aisles in her performing costume and skate guards. The Memorial Fund is still active, and over the years it has helped finance the development of thousands of young skaters, among them Fleming, Scott Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi and Lysacek.
Carroll says he did not fully understand what he and skating had lost with Big Maribel's death until he was coaching Fratianne in the 1970s. "I couldn't ask Maribel things like why [Linda's] rocker was pointing the wrong direction when she landed a jump," Carroll says. "I remember bursting out crying when that dawned on me." Now 72, Carroll still cries whenever he's interviewed about the crash. In February 2010 he coached Lysacek to the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver, the first of his long, distinguished career.
Ludington became America's top pairs coach, and under his tutelage Peter and Kitty Carruthers won silver in the 1984 Olympics, the highest placement ever for a U.S. pairs team. Ludington still coaches at the ice center built for him in Newark, Del.
Fleming, her ascendency accelerated by the sudden vacuum at the top, won the first of her five U.S. titles in 1964, at age 15, edging out Noyes. A year later she began training at Broadmoor under Carlo Fassi, who was hired to fill the void created by the death of Scholdan. In 1966, at 17, Fleming became the first U.S. skater since the crash to win a world championship, and two years later she was the first since the tragedy to win Olympic gold. Her performance was televised live and in color by ABC, also a first. It was the only gold won by the U.S. team at the '68 Games, and Fleming's popularity transcended the sport. Pretty and graceful, she ushered in the television age of figure skating. Fassi also coached Dorothy Hamill to a gold medal, in 1976, in Innsbruck, Austria. The tradition continued, but apart from 1991, when American women swept the podium at the worlds, the U.S. would never be as dominant in skating as it had been before the crash. A U.S. man would not win an Olympic gold medal until Hamilton in '84.
Grammy Vinson continued to go to the Skating Club of Boston until her death in 1969. She would yell encouragement and instructions to the skaters. She donated many of her daughter's and granddaughters' trophies and memorabilia to the club, where they are on display today. Grammy is interred in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge beside Laurence and the two Maribels.
The Vinson-Owen Elementary School in Winchester is believed to be the only school in the U.S. named after a figure skater. It is perennially ranked among the top schools in Greater Boston.