The US figure skating team of 1961 contained the golden girls and boys of their generation. That year’s National Championships were the first to be screened nationwide on CBS’s Sunday Sports Spectacular. Before the media exposure, the athletes were little known outside their sport, but by the end of the broadcast many were household names. Their grace and athleticism impressed a large TV audience and the sport’s profile was high. With success in their sights, the team, along with a large entourage of coaches and family, headed to the World Championships in Prague.
Watching them as they posed for photographs on the steps of Sabena Flight 548 at New York’s Idlewild Airport, nobody could have dreamed it was to be the last their admiring public would see of them. The plan was to fly to Brussels and then catch a connecting flight to Prague. On the approach into the Belgian capital the pilot overshot the runway and angled around to make a second attempt. Something had gone badly wrong with the flight controls and the plane came down in a nearby field, killing all on board as well as a farmer tending his cabbage field. The crash had a devastating effect on the tight-knit skating community, and the championships in Prague were called off. Among the dead was the nine-times US ladies champion Maribel Vinson-Owen together with her two daughters.
The disaster had a galvanizing effect on the sport of figure skating in America. With the loss of so many coaches and athletes, the US authorities decided to reach out far and wide to help the sport get going again. Overseas coaches were brought in and children across the nation were encouraged to take lessons. What had previously been regarded as a Boston-based sport now became a truly national pastime.
When was the Loss of the US Figure Skating Team: February 15 1961
Where was the Loss of the US Figure Skating Team: Brussels, Belgium
What was the Loss of the US Figure Skating Team death toll: 73
You should know: The American authorities were so alarmed by the crash that they sent FBI officers to Belgium to help with the investigation. Though the final report into the crash was inconclusive, pilot error was ruled out.