Years ago, when I was looking for visuals for my second book, Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports, I came across a Library of Congress photograph of a woman joyfully sculling on the Charles River in the 1920s. I didn’t use the photo in my book, but the confident strength of the sculler stayed with me because she seemed to transcend time. She looked like a contemporary female athlete, not like someone living decades before Title IX opened up opportunities for women in sports. I filed away her name for future reference: Maribel Vinson.
Close to 10 years later, when I was working on Freeze Frame, my book about the Winter Olympics, I came across Maribel again in connection with one of the most tragic events in sports history. On February 15, 1961, a Sabena Airlines flight carrying the entire U.S. figure skating team to the World Championships in Prague crashed, killing all 72 people aboard and one on the ground. Among those who perished were the reigning U.S. women’s singles champion, Laurence Owen, her sister, the reigning pairs skater Maribel Owen, and their mother and coach, Maribel Vinson Owen.
I was stunned. I didn’t necessarily expect the sculler from the 1920s to still be alive some 80 years later, but it seemed wrong that her story had come to such a heartbreaking end. I did some research and learned that Maribel had built a distinguished career in sports since being photographed on the Charles River. She won nine U.S. ladies figure skating titles in the 1920s and ‘30s, setting a record that has yet to be broken, though Michelle Kwan tied it in 2005. Maribel also won six U.S. pairs skating titles. She competed at three Winter Olympics, taking the bronze medal in ladies singles in 1932. (Norway’s Sonja Henie had a lock on the gold from 1928 through 1936.) While she was still skating, Maribel, a Radcliffe graduate, became the first female sportswriter at The New York Times. She returned to skating in the 1950s, coaching American Tenley Albright to the gold at the 1956 Olympic Games and shepherding her daughters’ emerging careers.
American figure skaters had won gold medals in both men’s and women’s singles at the 1960 Winter Games and in the aftermath, champions Carol Heiss and David Jenkins both had retired. So the athletes on the Sabena flight that February were up-and-comers, eager to prove themselves on a world stage. Their loss set U.S. figure skating back a generation, but it accelerated the career of 12-year-old Peggy Fleming, whose coach, Bill Kipp, also died on the flight. Fleming suddenly was America’s best hope. She would come close to medaling at the 1964 Winter Games—she placed sixth—and in 1968, she would win the first U.S. gold medal in figure skating since 1960.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Sabena crash. On Thursday, February 17, the skating community will commemorate the tragedy with a one-night-only special event. The event will include a program with a who’s who of skating royalty to be broadcast from New York City to more than 500 movie theaters nationwide, along with the world premiere of the film RISE, about the Sabena crash and its legacy. Proceeds from the evening will be used to further the mission of U.S. Figure Skating’s Memorial Fund, which was established soon after the crash as a living legacy of those who lost their lives. The fund has supported thousands of skaters at every level, including some who have gone on to compete at the Olympics. For more about RISE and to find a theater near you that is taking part in the event, click here.