From air crash of 30 years ago, comes spirit that still carries U.S. skating today

February 18, 1991|By Ann Killion | Ann Killion,Knight-Ridder

MINNEAPOLIS -- Figure skating is a sport of lineage, of paying one's dues, of waiting one's turn. It is not a sport that adapts easily to new ideas or abrupt change.

The United States' 1991 world team, completed yesterday after the men's finale of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, is to be a careful blending of old and new, acknowledging both those who have put in their years of dedication as well as the promising young hopes for the future. That is the natural, orderly progression of skating.

But 30 years ago, the order of the sport was replaced by chaos, the well-planned line of descent suddenly wiped out by tragedy.

On Feb. 15, 1961, the entire U.S. world skating team -- as well as officials, coaches and family members -- was killed when the plane that was carrying it to the world championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia, crashed in Belgium.

It seemed that the strength of U.S. skating was gone, if not forever, at least for a very long time.

"The skating establishment thought this would be an absolute disaster for the United States, that everything was gone," said John Nicks, one of the top pairs coaches in the United States. "Most thought it would take at least 10 years to rebuild."

After all, the top three contenders in all four skating events -- men's singles, women's singles, pairs and dance -- were killed, along with several high-caliber coaches.

Sabena Airlines Flight 548 had departed on schedule and crossed the Atlantic. At 10 a.m. the next day, the plane came into sight of the Brussels airport control tower and circled twice. The jet started to land, then pulled up sharply and began zig-zagging away from the airport, losing radio contact with the tower. An airport official said it looked as though the plane's controls had failed completely.

The plane plunged, spinning to the ground, and exploded in a field four miles from the airport. Seventy-three people were killed, including 49 Americans. The exact cause of the crash was never determined.

Word of the tragedy quickly spread back to the United States.

Peggy Fleming, 11 and living in Los Angeles, was told about the crash as she got dressed for school. Her coach, William Kipp, had been on board Flight 548.

"I remember it very well," Fleming said. "It was so unreal . . . It was devastating."

Ron Ludington, who had retired from competition one year before as the national pairs champion, was awakened with a phone call in Connecticut, where he was living. He was told that his former coach, Maribel V. Owen -- a nine-time U.S. champion -- had been killed.

Nicks was living at a small hotel in British Columbia and heard the news on television.

"I was shocked," he said.

The lives of Fleming, Ludington and Nicks would be changed forever.

"All of our careers were accelerated," said Ludington, who -- at age 23 -- inherited several of Owen's students and began his successful coaching career.

Nicks, a native of Great Britain, was hired in Los Angeles to replace Kipp and went on to become one of the most celebrated U.S. coaches. Other coaches came from abroad to fill the void in the United States. Carlo Fassi, from Italy, went on to coach three world champions.

And young skaters such as Fleming stepped to the forefront.

"Of course everyone was wrong about how long rebuilding would take," Nicks said. "The inherent strength of American figure skating was its depth. Within four years we were back in business, and that surprised everybody."

Fleming made the Olympic team in 1964 at age 15 and finished sixth. In 1968, she won the gold medal, becoming the first U.S. Olympic champion since the crash and launching an exciting new generation of American skaters.

Because of the crash, Fleming had lost all her role models, forcing her to create her own style -- something rarely done in skating.

"I couldn't copy anyone," she said. "I had to find my own way."

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