This past September a horrible plane crash in Russia killed an entire elite hockey team. Over 40 people died as a result of simple pilot error in a great sports tragedy. In 1961 the figure skating community experienced a similar—but in many ways even bigger—tragedy. The entire United States figure skating team (including athletes, coaches, officials, judges, friends and family) was killed in a plane crash en route to the 1961 World Championships in Prague. Over 70 died on February 15, 1961 including 12- and 15-year-old children.
Being an avid figure skating fan for many years (and a particular fan of coach Frank Carroll), I was well aware of this tragedy and the repercussions it has had on US figure skating. I love a good “fluff piece” during sports broadcasts and the story of the 1961 always tugged at the heart strings. A new full-length documentary, Rise, offers the most complete picture yet of the impact of the crash on those involved and the current state of American figure skating.
Rise, made in 2010 (not to be confused with 2005's Rize, also a great documentary, though on krumping, featuring a young So You Think You Can Dance judge/choreographer Lil C), commemorates the 50th anniversary of arguably one of the greatest sports tragedies of all time. It was shown in theaters on February 17 and March 7, 2011, and was shown on the Versus network last month (how I was able to recently see it). It is a beautifully produced and edited film that intersperses the stories of those who lost their lives with the stories of those in the present who have been affected by the crash. Interviews with those who just missed the team or the plane trip (either through injury or pregnancy, for example) and family members of those who died are particularly powerful.
Equally powerful are the interviews with current and recent figure skating stars like Scott Hamilton, Michelle Kwan, Brian Boitano, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Evan Lysacek. Most, like Kwan and Lysacek, were coached by those who stepped in to fill the void created by the death of their own coaches (I especially loved Frank Carroll talking about how his coach, the great Maribel Vinson Owen, would physically touch her skaters to correct them—something he does with his skaters to this day). Others benefited in more practical, material ways. A few days after the crash the United States Figure Skating Association established a Memorial Fund, which still exists today. That fund helped Fleming and Hamilton, for example, afford skates so that they could compete. In this way the tragedy of the crash has helped give rise to the dreams of a new generation.
The focus of Rise is not on the crash itself. In fact, there is little discussion of what went wrong, and it’s really not important to the story. The focus instead is on rising to the moment—the way Lysacek did at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic games, winning the gold medal and being able to award the coach’s gold medal to Carroll. I particularly enjoyed learning more about the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado, which was one of the clubs most affected by the tragedy. The other, of course, was the Boston Skating Club, where Maribel Vinson Owen coached (Owen still holds the record for most national championships won), and where she coached her two daughters to their own national championships (one in singles, Laurence, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week of the crash, and the other, Maribel, in pairs). The story of the Owens family and the Boston Skating Club has received more attention over the years, so it was interesting to learn about the other clubs that were also deeply impacted by the crash.
Coincidentally the 1961 National Championships were the first to be shown on national television, so the great footage of those who lost their lives performing at their peaks is especially moving. Television has had a profound impact on figure skating and it’s really interesting to see it enter into the history of the sport at this moment.
There are many other interesting links to the present, and continuities across the five decades. For example, it’s clear that stage mothers in figure skating were quite common even in the 1960s (both the Westerfeld and Owen mothers clearly displayed traces of being stage moms). Then, as now, some families had to physically separate to support the dreams of their children and the financial strain sometimes led to divorce. Finally, figure skating, more than other elite sports that target adolescents, seems to send its top performers to elite higher educational institutions (in recent memory Sarah Hughes went to Yale, Emily Hughes to Harvard, Paul Wylie to Harvard as well, Rachael Flatt to Stanford, etc.). And many seem to excel in other artistic activities, like music, in addition to skating. Laurence Owen, at 17, had already been admitted to Radcliffe and hoped to become a writer; singles skater Steffi Westerfeld was a pianist, honor student, and homecoming queen.
Rise honors these families, and more, and continues to honor today’s families that sacrifice to give rise to their children’s skating dreams. You can purchase the DVD of this excellent documentary, and proceeds go to the 1961 Memorial Fund. I dare you to watch this film without getting a tear in your eye.