It was early on the morning of Feb. 15, 1961, when Paul George learned that Sabena Flight 548 had crashed in Belgium, killing 72 passengers, including all 18 members of the U.S. figure skating team. George, a lawyer and former vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, remembers it as if it were yesterday. He was a 19-year-old Harvard student and a junior pairs skater. His coach, the renowned Maribel Vinson Owen, had been on the flight, headed from New York City to the world championships in Prague. So were five skaters from George's training rink, the Skating Club of Boston, four of whom had just been crowned U.S. champions. The new titlists included two other skaters coached by Owen: her daughters, Maribel and Laurence. Maribel, 20, a pretty, shy Boston University senior who aspired to be a teacher, was a pairs titlist. Laurence, 16, a high school senior who had been admitted to Radcliffe, was the new ladies' champion. Her radiant smile appeared on that week's cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which introduced her as AMERICA'S MOST EXCITING GIRL SKATER.
A year earlier the 15-year-old Laurence (pronounced Lo-rahns) had finished sixth at the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., where she'd roomed with Carol Heiss, the gold medalist. Heiss had told her then that she was retiring to marry and start a family. "No pressure, Laurence, but you have to carry on the tradition," Heiss said. Between Heiss and Tenley Albright, who was also coached by the elder Maribel Owen, U.S. women had won the last two Olympic gold medals and seven of the last eight world championships. No less was expected of Laurence.
George had taught her how to drive. He'd taken her to dances at the tony Longwood Cricket Club at the behest of her mother, so they might both get a taste of society. The last time he'd seen her he'd asked her to sign the SI cover for him. Now Laurence, her sister and mother and the other skaters were all gone, burned beyond recognition in a field outside Brussels, where their Boeing 707 jet had been circling the airport in a crystalline morning, waiting for a runway to clear.
"I went to the club that morning," George recalls. "The ice was ready, but nobody was on it. It was the day the music stopped."
George was a pallbearer at the funeral of Bradley Lord, 21, the newly crowned U.S. men's champion, and attended the funerals of the Owens and of Dudley Richards, 29, who had just won the U.S. pairs title with Little Maribel Owen, as she was known. "It wasn't till the next fall that we got back to serious skating," George says. But by then he and his skating partner—his sister, Elizabeth—were "a good bit more determined," he says. "It wasn't coincidence that we won junior pairs the next year. You always looked forward. Big Maribel would have wanted you to look forward."
The morning of the crash, Hollis Albright, Tenley's father and the Owens' family physician, went to their house in Winchester, Mass., to break the awful news to Big Maribel's mother, Gertrude Cliff Vinson, who lived with her daughter and granddaughters. Grammy Vinson, as she was known to everyone at the Skating Club of Boston, drove Laurence to practice every day after school in her dented 1938 Ford convertible with no rear suspension. When she came to the door, Albright told her that Maribel had asked him to give her a flu shot. He gave her a sedative instead. When it took effect, he told her he had come about Maribel and the girls.
Grammy, age 80, looked up. "It's the plane," she said. "It went down, didn't it?" Albright nodded.
"Are they all dead?" she asked. He nodded again.
"It's just as well," Grammy Vinson said. "They couldn't have lived without each other."
The crash of Sabena flight 548 marked the end of the golden age of U.S. skating. It had begun in 1947, when Dick Button won the silver medal at the world championships. Button is credited with launching a new American style of skating, which combined athletic free skating and original moves with musicality. He was the first skater to land a double Axel in competition, the first to do three double loops in combination, the first to land a triple jump in competition, the first to do a flying camel spin. Button and the brothers Hayes and David Jenkins utterly dominated the 1950s, winning every men's gold medal at the Olympics from 1948 through 1960, and American men took first and second at the worlds every year from 1951 through 1958 and swept the podium in '52, '55 and '56. As for the ladies, in 1953 Heiss became the first woman to land a double Axel in competition. Albright won the '53 and '55 worlds and the '56 Olympics, and Heiss won every world championship from '56 through '60, not to mention gold in Squaw Valley. The best young U.S. skaters gravitated to a handful of rinks—in Boston, Colorado Springs, Philadelphia, New York City and Lake Placid, N.Y.—where they were inspired by training beside champions. Everyone's development was accelerated by the success of the few.