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60 years later, the worst day in US figure skating history is remembered

Laurence Owen, Maribel Vinson Owen, Maribel Owen, and Dudley Richards (left to right)  — all of whom had local ties — are seen before boarding their ill-fated flight in 1961.
Laurence Owen, Maribel Vinson Owen, Maribel Owen, and Dudley Richards (left to right) — all of whom had local ties — are seen before boarding their ill-fated flight in 1961.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

“Nobody wants to skate today.”

Mary Bronson, an assistant in the office at the Skating Club of Boston, uttered those words to Globe reporter Harold Kaese on Feb. 15, 1961, after the crash of Sabena Flight 548 killed the entire US figure skating team on its way to the 1961 World Championships.

Of the 34 skaters, coaches, officials, and family members on the flight, 10 were from Boston. The tragedy greatly impacted the sport in the US, and ended the reign of the Skating Club of Boston as the nation’s best.

In the weeks prior to the crash, Boston-based skaters won five national championships: senior women, men, and pairs, plus junior and novice women. Back then, the cup given to the skating club with the best results, the Harned Trophy, was just as coveted as a national title. At those 1961 national championships, the Skating Club of Boston captured it for the seventh time in 12 years.

That progress was stymied when Flight 548 circled Brussels Airport three times in failed attempts to land, eventually plunging to the ground 2 miles from the airport and exploding upon impact. Debris from the plane killed a farmer near the site and caused another to lose his leg.

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At a commemorative event at the brand-new Skating Club of Boston facility in Norwood on Saturday evening, Tenley Albright, the 1956 Olympic gold medalist, spoke from the club’s trophy room to an audience gathered on Zoom.

“I am sitting in this trophy room, thinking of the trophies that would be here had this tragedy not happened,” said a choked-up Albright.

But it wasn’t just skating trophies that the group would have amassed. Maribel Owen, known as Little Maribel, was a senior at Boston University at the time of the crash, studying to be a teacher. Bradley Lord, the surprise US men’s champion that year, had taken the year off from what is now BU’s College of Fine Arts. Owen’s pairs skating partner, Dudley Richards, was a Harvard graduate, juggling skating with a burgeoning real estate career. Owen’s sister, Laurence Owen, had been accepted by Radcliffe, and her teachers at Winchester High School touted her remarkable writing ability, especially for poetry.

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“They were just extraordinary people, and what happened to them was inconceivable,” said former Watertown resident Patricia Shelley Bushman, who spent nearly a decade researching the crash for her book “Indelible Tracings: The Story of the 1961 US World Figure Skating Team.” “These people would have accomplished so much in the Olympic arena, but also in their non-skating lives.”

The wreckage of the flight near Brussels.
The wreckage of the flight near Brussels.Associated Press/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The crash’s most well-known victim was Maribel Vinson Owen, Maribel and Laurence’s mother, who accomplished just as much off the ice as she had as a competitive skater. A Winchester native, Owen won the US women’s title nine times and the US pairs title four times between 1928-37. During her skating career, she became the first woman to write for the sports section of The New York Times, and contributed coverage to the Globe. A Radcliffe graduate, she also wrote three books and was a single mother to Laurence and Maribel while coaching at a variety of rinks from Cambridge to Worcester.

One of her former pupils, Paul George, spent a portion of Saturday’s commemoration likening Vinson Owen’s coaching style to that of Bill Belichick.

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“Among coaches, Maribel was a general manager,” said George, recalling how she not only had high expectations and brutal honesty, but demanded much from her students’ decorum and education off the ice as well.

Much like Belichick, the Vinson Owen coaching tree touched generations of skaters after her untimely death at just 49 years old. Worcester native Frank Carroll, who coached Olympic medalists Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek, among many others, is a branch of that tree. He was skating at the Garden with the Ice Follies the day of the crash, and a Globe report remarked that he was in a daze at the news of his former teacher’s death.

Years later, he still struggles with the loss.

“It was so sensational, so devastating, that I blocked it out of mind,” Carroll said at the Skating Club of Boston event. Later, he said, when he was coaching, “I couldn’t call up Maribel and ask her what I was doing wrong. She was dead, and I wasn’t going to be able to call her again.”

The crash also claimed the lives of Gregory Kelly, who had placed fourth at the National Championships in 1961, and his sister Nathalie, his chaperone on the trip and an Ashland High teacher.

In addition to Saturday’s event, the Skating Club of Boston marked the 60th anniversary of the crash by raising more than $12,000 for the US Figure Skating Memorial Fund, which was created following the crash. Over the last six decades, the fund has given millions to skaters to use toward training and education.

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“Losing [the team] significantly changed our club for several decades,” said club executive director Doug Zeghibe. “When you have that first-hand connection to the tragedy, which several of our members still do, it is very important to keep the memories alive and mark these occasions.”

While one is hard-pressed to find physical memorials to those lost to the tragedy at places besides the Skating Club of Boston and the Vinson Owen Elementary School in Winchester, documents from the weeks following the crash suggest that that could be by design. During Saturday’s event, George read from those documents that suggested that the Memorial Fund was a “living memorial, rather than … memorials of marble.”

But the most haunting memorial could be the photo that newspapers ran on their front pages in the days after the tragedy of the entire US delegation on the steps of their plane with a “US Figure Skating Association” sign. The group was focused on their competitive fate, not imagining that they might never get there.

Associated Press/ASSOCIATED PRESS

“When I look at the famous picture of our team boarding the flight, I see how vivacious and energetic they are to get to the World Championships,” said Albright, who was coached by Vinson Owen during her Olympic career.

“At the time, we really felt numb. We didn’t want to believe it. But that we can talk about it now; it helps us heal.”

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