Entire U.S. Figure Skating Team Killed in 1961 Plane Crash


In 1961, 18 members of the American figure skating team, which included the nation's top figure skating talent, all died when their plane crashed for the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships in Prague. It was a world-shattering event in the sporting world, and figure skating was never quite the same in the United States.

We Are The Champions

The 1961 World Figure Skating Championships were held in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and naturally, the United States wanted to send its national team to showcase its talented skaters to the rest of the world. This included 16-year-old Lawrence Owen, who had just won the US Figure Skating Championships and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated; Her 20-year-old sister, Maribel, is a U.S. National Pairs Champion; his mother and coach, an Olympic bronze medalist; and Maribel's pairing partner, Dudley Richards. In addition to the Owen clan, Olympic medalists Gregory Kelly, Steffi Westerfeld, and Rod Lee Michelson and champions Bradley Lord, Dee Dee Sherbloom and Larry Pierce also boarded the flight to Prague.

Cover of Sports Illustrated showing Laurence Owen days before he was killed.

A Devastating Loss

On February 14, the U.S. All 18 members of the U.S. national team, along with 16 fellow coaches, officers, friends and family members—joined 38 additional passengers and crew members aboard Sabena Flight 548 in New York. The aircraft crossed the Atlantic without incident, heading to Brussels for a scheduled stopover at the Belgian national airport, but as soon as the plane approached Burg-Campenhout, Belgium, at around 10:00. It crashed on 15 February. All 72 people aboard were killed. The cause of the accident was never determined, but since it occurred during clear weather, it is believed that the aircraft experienced a mechanical failure.

The plane crash and the loss of the entire US national figure skating team was a blow to the sporting world and to the nation as a whole. The incident was, in fact, ranked as the most catastrophic accident to have happened to a US sports team until the 1970 plane crash, which killed 37 members of the Marshall University football team.

Memorial at the site of the accident.

Peconstruction Process

Before his untimely death, the U.S. The figure skating team was working towards the 1964 Winter Olympics, where they would defend their gold medal. That all changed in an instant. The team's catastrophic loss left the U.S. for athletes to scramble to fill out their roster. Some recently retired skaters, such as Barbara Rolls, who won a bronze medal in women's singles at the 1960 Olympics, were asked to come out of retirement, while young up-and-comers pushed themselves to the elite level.

One of these young skaters was Scott Ethan Allen, who was only 12 years old when he won a silver medal at the 1962 US National Championships. As a member of the national team, he competed at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. At the age of 14, she was taking bronze medal. Peggy Fleming, also tapped to compete in 1964, was only 12 years old when a plane crash claimed the life of her coach. He won a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, in which the U.S. Figure skating dominance made a comeback.

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