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Plane crash anniversary elicits emotions in U.S figure skating community

On Feb. 15, 1961, the entire 18-member team, along with 54 other people, died in a crash on the way to the world championships. The team was recently inducted into the U.S. skating Hall of Fame.

February 15, 2011|By Philip Hersh | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Members of the U. S. Figure Skating team pose before boarding a Belgian Sabena airliner at Idlewild Airport New York.
Members of the U. S. Figure Skating team pose before boarding a Belgian Sabena… (Matty Zimmerman / Associated…)

Linda Leaver could not handle the news she got in a phone call from a friend on Feb. 15, 1961.

So she locked herself in her room for four days. And for the next 50 years, she locked away her feelings about what happened, never discussing it even with Brian Boitano, whom she coached to the 1988 Olympic gold medal.

"I didn't know how to deal with it," Leaver said. "I kept it deep inside me."

Leaver was 17, a high school senior in Tacoma, Wash., when she learned a plane crash had killed the entire 18-member U.S. figure skating team on its way to the world championships in Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Sixteen people accompanying the skaters — coaches, officials, family members — and 38 passengers and crew members also died when the Sabena flight from New York plunged into a field while trying to land at its scheduled stop of Brussels. There were no survivors.

It was, at the time, the worst air disaster involving a U.S. sports team. The press coverage was enormous. President Kennedy expressed his condolences.

Bill Hickox, 18, of Berkeley, the pairs skater who often was Leaver's escort at post-competition parties, was on the flight. So were the Hadleys, sibling pairs team Ila Ray, 18, and Ray Jr., 17, with whom Leaver shared training ice at Seattle's Civic Arena three days a week, as well as the Hadleys' stepmother, Linda, 31.

During the U.S. championships in Greensboro, N.C., late last month, U.S. Figure Skating marked the 50th anniversary of the tragedy by inducting all 34 members of the world team traveling party into its Hall of Fame.

A reception also was held that included family and friends of those who died as well as members of the tight-knit figure skating community. At one point , Leaver felt so overwhelmed she had to leave.

"For a long time, all those memories had not come back to the forefront," she said. "I was finally confronted with everything right then. I sensed it was the same way for a lot of people."

She wasn't alone.

"The sound of the words 'February 15th' makes you cringe," said Joan Sherbloom Peterson of Orange, whose sister, Diane, was among the dead.

A nation whose skaters had become the best in the world suddenly was faced with the sad task of rebuilding. Yet within months, a memorial fund was established that would turn part of the 1961 team's legacy into financial help for those who followed, including Peggy Fleming, who would win Olympic gold in 1968.

"It was like a phoenix rising from the ashes," Boitano said.

The celebration of that renaissance, as well as a remembrance of the lives lost, is central to the film "RISE," a U.S. Figure Skating project that will have a nationwide theatrical showing Thursday, including at a number of Regal, AMC and Cinemark theaters in the Los Angeles area, with all ticket proceeds going to the memorial fund.

A new book, "Indelible Tracings," also tells the story. Patricia Shelley Bushman's painstakingly detailed research brings back the vibrant personalities of those on the plane.

It also brings back the emotions.

"I think the anguish was enough to inhibit communicating about this for 50 years," said U.S. Figure Skating historian Ben Wright, 89, friend to many of those who died. "The anniversary has broken the ice."

To understand the far-reaching resonance of the tragedy requires context.

Figure skating essentially was a European sport before World War II. No U.S. skaters won an Olympic or world title until Dick Button got both in 1948.

At the same time, actress Sonja Henie — who won three Olympic gold medals for Norway by 1936 — had popularized the sport in the U.S. Her friends built rinks in the L.A. area, while the ice resurfacing machine that Californian Frank Zamboni invented in 1949 got wide publicity when Henie took a version of it on the road.

By early 1961, the U.S. had won four Olympic golds in men's singles, two in women's singles, two medals in pairs, plus 20 world titles. Interest especially leaped after Carol Heiss and eventual brother-in-law David Jenkins were among the gold medalists in the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley — the first Olympics televised in the U.S.

On the 1961 world team, there were five skaters from Boston, figure skating's traditional and exclusionary breeding ground, and eight from the West Coast.

That included Diane Sherbloom, 18, of L.A., an ice dancer whose presence on the team was a quirk of fate.

Marilyn Meeker, who finished second in dance at the 1960 nationals with partner Larry Pierce, broke her ankle in a training accident in December 1960. Pierce called Sherbloom, with whom he had skated a few times for fun. Six weeks later, Sherbloom and Pierce were U.S. champions.

Sherbloom left for the nationals in Indianapolis on Dec. 18 — the last time Joan, then 15, saw her sister.

"Memories are a picture book in your mind," Joan said during the commemoration in North Carolina. "When someone passes on, you have to close the book to go on. This has opened that book up again."

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