Posted by Wilhelm
I must admit that I am not that much of a fan of figure skating. This week, however, Spokane is hosting the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships. This is definitely the big thing in town this week. The local newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, is providing very extensive coverage of the events. A special section in the Sunday paper included a list of all previous champions -- men, women, pairs. I like history and I like lists, so going over those names really was quite interesting to me. I must admit to not recognizing many names (especially from the very early years), but then there were also the names of famed skaters who won titles several years in a row. Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss dominated the 1950s. Then there was Laurence Owen, who won the women's title once -- in 1961 -- and a few years later Peggy Fleming, who dominated in the late 1960s. Those two skaters marked different points in a great tragedy of 1961.
In early 1961, Laurence Owen won the women's championship at 16 and appeared to by a strong contender for the gold medal at the 1964 Olympics. It was not to be. The plane carrying the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating team to the world championships in Prague crashed in Belgium, killing the entire team, along with coaches, friends, family members, and judges. Laurence Owen died along with her sister, who was also a skater, and her mother, who was a former champion and coach. In 2006, the story of the 1961 team was recounted in the book Frozen in Time, the Enduring Legacy of the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Team, by Nikki Nichols.
As a result of this tragedy, the junior skaters of 1961, including then 12-year-old Peggy Fleming, were hurried along. Peggy went on to become a U.S. national champion and to win the gold medal in the 1968 Olympics, thus marking the team's comeback from the unbelievable tragedy of 1961.