by Sandra Loosemore August, 2000
Most skating fans who have followed the sport for any length of time have heard the story of the plane crash that killed the entire US Figure Skating Team and their parents and coaches while they were on their way to the 1961 World Championships. But to me, and probably to other people who were born after the crash or who were too young to have any memory of it, the skaters who were killed have been just names, and ghostly images posing for a photograph on the steps of their doomed aircraft.
I wanted to know more about these people -- and, particularly, I wanted to see what their skating was like. Earlier this summer, I made a trip to the World Figure Skating Museum in Colorado Springs to find some answers. There, I was able to watch a video tape of 1961 Nationals, and read some background information in the museum's library.
The tape was made from the television broadcast of 1961 Nationals, as shown on the CBS "Sunday Sports Spectacular". This broadcast would have been of historical significance even without the plane crash, because it was the first time that the US Championships were covered on network television. Even at this early date, Dick Button was there to provide commentary -- but in 1961, he still had hair! I was amused to see that he was actually quite handsome in those days, when he was still actively skating.
The commercials included on the tape were also amusing, starting out with a cigarette commercial featuring a pair of professional skaters puffing away before skating out to do a trick, and then a whole bunch of beer commercials. (It seemed that it took the networks a long time to figure out that most of the people who tuned in to watch skating were not big beer-drinkers, as I remember the "Wide World of Sports" skating broadcasts from the 1970's being full of beer commercials, too.)
On to the actual competition, which was held at the old Broadmoor rink in Colorado Springs, on January 25th of 1961.
First up was the pairs competition. Judging by this tape, pairs in 1961 was a vastly different discipline than it is today. The most obvious difference is that the pairs were doing basically no true overhead lifts at all -- in fact, the rulebook of the time explicitly disallowed "hovering" at the top of a lift. The pairs did a lot of lifts, but most of them were more of the nature of assisted jumps than true lifts. The woman would jump up with the support of the man and then go right back down again, in most cases without the man ever lifting the woman above shoulder height. There were also no twist lifts, no throw jumps, and the only death spiral that was being done was the classic back outside one (this being before the Protopopovs invented the other three variations). So what did the pairs do instead? Well, besides all the little lifts, they did a lot of dance-like steps in a Kilian hold, and also some single jumps in unison in a Kilian hold, which is something one never sees today in pairs.
The first competitors shown were Ila Ray Hadley and Ray Hadley Jr, who finished second. They were a brother-and-sister team from Seattle, coached by their parents. Their elements were: side-by-side single axels, some dance-type skating, a non-overhead lift that Dick Button described as an "axel lift", another little lift, and a third one that I identified as a loop lift. Then some slow dance steps and stroking, a pair change-edge spiral, single axels directly into a pair back camel spin and mirror spiral sequence. Another non-overhead lift where the woman was swung behind the man's back, a pair spin with the woman in a layback position, another little lift, back outside death spiral. Straight-line steps, jump sequence, dance lifts, side-by-side flying camels and double salchows, then a pair spin combination where the woman was in an upside-down camel position, and finally running threes into a pair salchow in Kilian position. I didn't get a strong sense of personality from their program, and they seemed to be taking it slowly and deliberately throughout; they didn't look like they were taking any risks with elements they couldn't do reliably.
Maribel Owen and Dudley Richards were next. Their program opened with assisted jumps and a series of three non-overhead lifts, then a pair sit spin and mirror double loops (I forgot to note down which of them was the reverse jumper) and a pair single flip in Kilian hold. A lift that almost went all the way up to being overhead, followed by fast straight-line steps, splits, spirals, another small lift, and a pivot move like a death spiral except where Maribel was pulled around in a spiral position on a back outside edge. A non-overhead lasso lift, a sequence of mirror steps with edge pulls and figure-type loops, and solo walley jumps. Then they did a bunch of skating around in Kilian hold and a pair spiral sequence into a pair camel, then a section where they did solo double salchows, spins, and axels. Finally they ended with a hip lift with a grip on the woman's legs that would be illegal in pairs competition nowadays.
Debbi Wilkes, who was skating pairs in Canada with Guy Revell at that time, wrote about their rivalry with Owen & Richards in her book "Ice Time":
They were very lovey-dovey both on and off the ice and had all the lah-dee-da affectations I equated with the Boston Beacon Hill crowd. They bugged me. Of course, they were the competition, which may have coloured my attitude, but they seemed to me to be more like dancers than pair skaters. They couldn't do lifts very well....Owen was a senior at Boston University majoring in sociology and anthropology. She was a pretty big girl for a pair skater -- according to an article in "Skating" magazine, she was 5'6" to her partner's 5'10". Before she teamed up with Richards, she had skated with Chuck Foster, who is now a respected judge who has also served in various official capacities with the USFSA.
Richards was a graduate of Harvard College (class of 1954) with a degree in history, had just celebrated his 29th birthday, and was in the real estate business in Boston. I've also seen a reference to Richards having been a college roommate of Ted Kennedy.
CBS didn't show Laurie and William Hickox, the third-place team who were also killed in the plane crash. Instead, they showed Vivian and Ronald Joseph, the national junior pair champions. Their elements and style of skating were generally similar to those of the senior teams, except that they did only single jumps. I think the big technical highlight of their program was supposed to be the combination of two lasso lifts in opposite directions.
Next on the tape were the ladies -- CBS showed all three medalists. In both of the singles disciplines the elements and program construction were more or less the same then as they are today, except that the skaters were struggling to land double jumps instead of triples, and there was a notable lack of combination jumps. One other observation I made was that, while most of the skaters included a straight-line footwork sequence in their programs, circular or serpentine patterns seemed to be pretty much unknown.
Rhode Lee Michelson (her name is pronounced "rho-dee") was the first of the medalists to skate. She was a 17-year-old from Paramount, CA, and was in 4th place after the compulsory figures (which then counted for 60% of the total score). She looked a lot more "hippy" and "chesty" than most skaters we see nowadays, and was more athletic than graceful on the ice.
Michelson's elements were double loop, double salchow, double toe, skating with good speed and power into a split lutz and axel sequence. Travelling 3's into a camel spin, spirals, attitude spins forward and back, a series of two double axels, more spirals. At the end of her program she started to get a little sloppy, with a two-footed double lutz, spin combination, single axel, double salchow with a step-out on the landing, walleys, and a relatively ugly layback spin (Dick Button hadn't yet developed his fixation on this element). I didn't try to compute the placements, but she clearly had the strongest technical content of the ladies and deserved to be first or second in the free skating. She pulled up to finish 3rd overall.
Next was another 17-year-old, Stephanie Westerfield, representing the Broadmoor Skating Club. She was the leader after the compulsory figures, but did not seem to be a strong free skater -- besides having problems with her jump mechanics (especially on her axel), she also skated with rounded shoulders that detracted from her presentation.
I recognized Westerfield's music as being from "La Boheme". She opened with a single axel, a badly cheated double axel, and a messy flip jump (probably an intended double that she bailed out on), and a spin combination. Next there was a section of slow hoppy steps, a spin into a double salchow, spread eagles both outside and inside. Then another section of jumps: double toe with an arm variation, a messy popped loop jump, another cheated double axel, double salchow. She ended with a camel spin, a footwork section with three turns and mohawks, single axel, single lutz, and a sequence with a split jump, single toe loop, hops, double toe loop.
The third competitor shown was Laurence Owen, younger sister of Maribel. She was a 16-year-old high school senior who was planning to attend Radcliffe College the next year. Debbi Wilkes wrote about her:
Laurence was wonderful. She had a fresh, wholesome look, but didn't fit into any mold. She was carefree and joyous on the ice. She had wonderful rosy cheeks, beautiful big eyes and a short shag haircut that feathered over her face and fluttered when she skated. I was totally enchanted by her.I found myself agreeing with Wilkes's assessment as I watched the tape. I had never seen anything but the briefest of clips of Owen's skating before, so this was all new to me. She had a real "presence" on the ice -- she was wearing an elegant drapey-cut dress, had a radiant smile, and moved as if she'd had quite a bit of dance training. But she was not at all a "baby ballerina"; according to her obituary in "Skating" magazine, she was 5'6" tall. The obituary also mentioned that she was an all-around athlete who participated in swimming, diving and tennis as well as skating. She'd placed 6th at the Olympics and 9th at Worlds the previous year, which had been her first season of international competition.
Owen's program opened with some fast stroking around the ice, into a series of a waltz jump, axel, and axel sitspin. Then there were some dancey edge steps, a double salchow, double loop, and a camel spin. A double flip was underrotated and landed forward, double axel was cheated (but not so badly as Westerfield's), walleys, double flip, double lutz also underrotated and landed forward. Back spiral into a layback, hoppy steps on toe picks, straight-line footwork, split jumps, outside spread eagle, flying camel, flying sitspin changing to a cross-foot spin to end.
Next up was the ice dance. As in the pairs, this was a very different discipline in those days than what it is today. Basically, at this time ice dance was "strictly ballroom", and the skaters were always in one of the standard dance holds and in a relatively upright posture.
CBS started with Donna Lee Carrier and Roger Campbell, the silver medalists. They were from California and they had a kind of flashy Hollywood show-business style about them; they were an attractive couple with nice long lines and a considerable amount of flair. They skated a jazzy Astaire-and-Rogers kind of dance to music that included "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off". I'm not a dance judge, but I would have put them first in this part of the competition, and in fact at the North American championships right after Nationals they came in two places ahead of the couple who beat them here. From a technical point of view, one interesting thing I noted about their program was that it included a dance spin -- one of the supposedly "new" elements the ISU has started requiring the free dance in recent years.
Next up were the winners, Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce. There was a very interesting story behind this couple that seems all but preposterous nowadays. Pierce's "regular" partner was Marilyn Meeker, with whom he'd won the national junior dance title in 1959 and the silver medal in seniors at 1960 Nationals. But Meeker broke a bone in her ankle in the fall of 1960, and (apparently with Meeker's blessing) Pierce decided to enter Nationals with Sherbloom as his temporary partner instead. They trained together for only 5 weeks before winning the title!
I noted down that their program included boogie-woogie and cha-cha sections, but remembering back I think it was probably constructed in the "classic" way with a total of 4 different dance rhythms. Their program had a lot of skating in a simple hand-in-hand hold, and I thought they looked deliberate and cautious as they skated. Pierce, incidentally, wore glasses on the ice, and looked more like a nerd than an elite athlete. (The glasses make him easily identifiable in the photo of the skaters standing on the steps of the plane, by the way.)
The CBS broadcast didn't include the bronze medalists who were killed in the plane crash, Patricia and Robert Dineen. They were a married couple rather than brother and sister.
Finally, there were the men, and CBS did us the favor of showing the complete programs of all the top four finishers.
Tim Brown was up first. At this time he was 22 years old, studying for his master's degree in zoology at the University of California. He had been the silver medalist (behind David Jenkins) at the previous four national championships and I think he must have been considered the overwhelming favorite going into this competition, but instead, he struggled, finishing third in the figures and having a pretty lousy free skate to finish third overall. I've seen conflicting reports that either Brown was ill or didn't want to take any more time off from school, but in any case, he chose not to compete at either the North American championships or Worlds, and therefore was not with the team on the plane when it crashed.
Brown's free skate was set to "Appalachian Spring". He opened with a double flip, overrotatated and with a step out on the landing, some edge steps, a split flip, spread eagles into a pivot move. Then he did a series of 3 camel spins in a row, bailed out of a lutz, a cross-foot spin, a series of half loops and salchows into a double salchow, a waltz jump, straight-line footwork, walleys, and a double salchow. He ended his program by literally jumping off the ice -- Dick Button praised him for his originality. Aside from the lack of jump content in this program, I thought it had too much plain stroking between the elements, and not enough in the way of connecting steps.
Next CBS showed Doug Ramsay from the Detroit Skating Club, who wound up finishing 4th and taking Brown's place at North Americans and Worlds. Ramsay is probably best known to many people nowadays as the skater who beat Frank Carroll to win the 1960 US Junior title. "Skating" magazine reported about that event:
The culmination of the Junior Men's event on Friday night was an agonizing three-way tie in ordinal points between Douglas Ramsay, Bruce Heiss [brother of Carol and Nancy] and Frank Carroll. None of the skaters having a majority of first-place votes, Douglas Ramsay won a slim victory on subsequent majority, with a dazzling free style that rated him a first from the cheering crowd if not from the judges.The only other thing I had previously heard about Ramsay was that he was supposed to have had an amazing resemblance to 1985 US Junior champion Doug Mattis -- so much so that Carroll thought he was seeing a ghost the first time he saw Mattis skate, or so I was told. After seeing the tape, I think it's an accurate comparison; imagine what Mattis might have been like at 16, and that's Doug Ramsay. I think Bradley Lord deserved to win this particular competition, but Ramsay was probably the true talent among the men on the team.
Ramsay started out his program with a series of walleys in both directions into back cross rolls into a double lutz. He had very good speed into a nice double axel. I can't make out my notes for the next bit, but then he did a change sit spin, straight-line steps with hops, double loop, half lutz, and some dancey steps into a triple salchow with a slight two-foot on the landing. More edge steps, then some bracket steps, a flying camel in a layover position, and more dancey steps. A delayed axel, single axels in opposite directions, and still more dancey footwork. Then a series of an axel and a double axel with arms crossed, a single axel, double lutz, straight-line footwork. And then, at the end of the program, wham! -- he knocked off a double flip, double loop, double salchow, and another double flip one right after the other, and ended with a split jump into a flying sit spin. Not only was this program packed with both jumps and footwork, it was delivered with a great deal of boyish charm and self-confidence.
Ramsay was also a big hit at the North American Championships following Nationals. The "Skating" magazine report said:
Douglas Ramsay was the darling of the audience. The foot stamping, applauding crowd acclaimed his every dextrous motion. His magnificent axel with arms folded, and his skillful bracket dance brought loud cheers. The captivating Ramsay unfortunately missed a double axel. He ended in fourth place.Back at Nationals, Greg Kelley was up next, another 16-year-old; he was from the Boston area, but represented the Broadmoor Skating Club, where he trained with Edi Scholdan. His elements were a delayed axel, double flip, a good flying sit spin, footwork done mostly on two feet, a cross-foot spin, a section of edge pulls and footwork done with good speed, double salchow, double lutz, two double axels in a row, a slow section of edgy footwork, double salchow, a big swoopy rocker, walleys, a spin with a jump transition, a split jump, and ending with an awkward-looking flying camel. I wrote down in three different places in my notes that he was "fast", but I also noted that he had very sloppy feet in the air position on his jumps. Nowadays we take the back spin position in the air for granted, but back in those days skaters were just as likely to jump with their legs uncrossed, or even crossed backwards. Kelley had won the figures, and this free skate was good enough for 2nd place overall.
Finally, there was Bradley Lord, who moved up from 2nd place after the figures to take the title. He was a 21-year-old student at Boston University (commercial art and history major) who had taken the winter term off to concentrate on his training. He'd finished a very respectable 6th at the previous year's Worlds, filling in at short notice when all three of the US men who'd been on the Olympic team decided to skip Worlds.
Lord started out with a big open axel, then did a double salchow, half flip, flying sit spin, walley jumps, and double flip. Then a series of spread eagles both outside and inside, footwork into a double flip, another open axel, footwork into a single flip, and more alternating spread eagles, an axel sit spin, and some slow footwork. Next came a jump I've never seen done before: a double half loop (a double jump like a loop but landed on a back inside edge). Next a pivot move with a change of edge, double lutz, a fast circular step sequence that covered the entire ice surface, an axel, a flying sit spin, and ending with a fast scratch spin. On paper, maybe this list of elements doesn't look as impressive as what Ramsay did, but Lord looked powerful and mature and gave a completely commanding performance with good speed throughout his entire program. They did a short interview with him at the end of the broadcast, and he gave the impression of being quiet, soft-spoken, and thoughtful.
So that was 1961 Nationals. Just over two weeks later, most of these skaters were in Philadelphia for the 1961 North American Championships, on February 11 and 12, and with Worlds scheduled to start in Prague on February 22, the USFSA decided to send the entire team there directly: after travelling from Philadelphia to New York, they would fly to Brussels and from there catch a connecting flight to Prague. But the plane carrying the US skaters and their coaches and families crashed on final approach to the Brussels airport on the morning of February 15, 1961, killing everyone on board as well as a farmer on the ground.
The plane crash had repercussions in the US skating community that went far beyond the deaths of the individual skaters. Probably the most significant effect was that it really marked the end of the elitist "Boston Brahmin" era of skating. The Boston skating community was particularly hard-hit by the tragedy, and in addition the crash marked the beginning of deliberate efforts by the USFSA to step outside its wealthy country-club roots, and bring more people into the sport at the developmental levels. The USFSA's Memorial Fund, which was set up in memory of the 1961 skaters, initially funded basic skating programs for the general public, but for many years now its primary purpose has been to provide training grants and academic scholarships for competitive skaters.
Another long-term effect of the plane crash was brought about by the deaths of the several prominent coaches on board: to fill the void, a number of foreign coaches established themselves in the US, including most notably Carlo Fassi and John Nicks, who went on to coach numerous champions. It was the start of the internationalism that now pervades the sport at every level.
As for the competitive skating program in the US, it rebounded fairly quickly. Even in normal times there is typically quite a bit of turnover at the end of every Olympic quadrennium, so that by 1965, the US had a new crop of skaters on the podium in all four disciplines at Worlds -- the same as might have happened without the crash. On the other hand, one also wonders what might have been.... whether Laurence Owen and Doug Ramsay might have turned out to be the first big stars of the television era of skating, for instance, or whether television by itself would have provided the impetus for the USFSA to broaden its membership base.
More articles about the plane crash are linked to SkateWeb's Skating History page.
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