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The entire US figure skating team died in a plane crash 60 years ago. The impact lives on

After the tragedy, U.S. Figure Skating started a fund to honor the victims and help young skaters in need. It's since raised over $20 million.
/ Source: TODAY

On Feb. 15, 1961, a commercial aircraft carrying all 18 members of the U.S. figure skating team, who were headed to a competition in Prague, crashed near the Brussels airport, killing everyone on board. Six coaches were also on the plane, along with four officials and six of the group's family members. In total, 73 people died in the accident — the 72 people on Sabena Flight 548 and an additional person on the ground.

The scene of the 1961 crash of Sabena Flight 548, which departed from New York City.STF / AFP via Getty Images

1968 Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming, whose then-coach Bill Kipp died in the crash, remembers seeing the news on TV before she had to head off to school.

"At 12 years old, it's just hard to get your head wrapped around what was happening," she told TODAY. "It was horrible to have it just wiped out."

A nation in shock

Fleming, now 72 and living in Colorado, had only been working with Kipp for about a year when he died, but she said he was "inspiring" and "very handsome."

"He was just always happy," she added. "He had a lot of energy, and he really loved skating to look beautiful."

Bill Kipp also coached ice dancers Dona Lee Carrier and Roger Campbell, and ladies skater Rhode Lee Michelson, who all died in the crash.U.S. Figure Skating

The loss of the team was personal for the entire country, too. 1961 was the first year the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which took place in January, were nationally broadcast, according to Barb Reichert, a former sports journalist and senior director at U.S. Figure Skating, the sport's national governing body.

The U.S. figure skating team before boarding Sabena Flight 548. The skaters on board were: Rhode Lee Michelson, Laurence Owen, Stephanie Westerfeld, Gregory Kelley, Bradley Lord, Douglas Ramsay, Ila Ray Hadley, Ray Hadley Jr., Laurie Hickox, William Hickox, Maribel Owen, Dudley S. Richards, Dona Lee Carrier Roger Campbell, Patricia Dineen, Robert Dineen, Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce.STF / AFP via Getty Images

"Americans got to see these people, understand these athletes ... and then a few weeks later, they opened their newspapers to find out that they'd all perished in the plane crash," she told TODAY.

"These people who probably weren't household names became household names from that weekend of competition," she added. "You see the real people, you see their personalities. ... You could see the exuberance of these young people. ... It was quite a big deal."

Then-President John F. Kennedy addressed the loss in a statement from the White House. Outlets covered the crash extensively, calling out the blue skies over Brussels that day and the unknown cause, which remains a mystery 60 years later.

'Filling the gap of what we lost'

The death of 16-year-old skater Laurence Owen, known as "queen of the ice," was especially prominent, according to Reichert.

"(Laurence) was truly America's brightest star coming out of those games," she said. "(There was) room for Laurence to be the best skater in America but perhaps on a world stage, as well."

A copy of the Sports Illustrated issue that skater Laurence Owen covered in February 1961 was found in the wreckage. Owen died at age 16 in the crash along with 33 other members of the U.S. figure skating contingent.Stan Wayman / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Fleming said she knew the athletes, who were all older than her, on the plane. The skaters' ages were between 15 and 24, according to Reichert. Still, Fleming had to step up and follow in their gliding footsteps.

"They had so much going for them, and they were gone, and the coaches were gone, so it motivated us to fill the gap of what we lost," Fleming said. "We still remember these skaters and what they brought to our sport."

Fleming was the only U.S. athlete to win a gold medal at the Olympics in Grenoble, France, in 1968. At the time, she was too focused on skating her best to think about the plane crash, she said, but looking back, she realized it made her victory especially historic.

Peggy Fleming poses with her Olympic gold medal for figure skating in February 1968.Getty Images

"(It was) like, we've arrived back," she recalled. "I think that gave hope to a lot of skaters that we can build again."

Barbara Roles, who won the bronze medal at the Olympics in 1960, felt the same call and returned to skating after retiring to start a family, Reichert said. She welcomed her daughter in June 1961, according to the Chicago Tribune, and placed first in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships eight months later.

Turning pain into prospects

The crash continues to motivate young skaters through a memorial fund started by U.S. Figure Skating, which is celebrating its centennial this year. Since its inception 59 years ago, the fund has raised more than $20 million and facilitated the careers of big names like Scott Hamilton, Adam Rippon and Kristi Yamaguchi.

Fleming, who received skates and lessons through the fund, is now involved as a donor.

"We keep ... supporting the memorial fund because we don't want it to just be people that are wealthy doing this. Everyone should be allowed to participate in their sport," she said.

The impact of the memorial fund was even evident at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, held during the coronavirus pandemic. The cutouts of photos of fans in place of real attendees due to COVID-19 restrictions were available to purchase in advance and raised $50,000 for the fund, Reichert said.

The cutouts of fans at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January 2021 in Las Vegas raised $50,000 for the Sabena Flight 548 memorial fund.Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images

The story of those who died on Sabena Flight 548 also lives on, thanks to Fleming, at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, a destination for the sport and where many of the victims trained. In 2018, she helped install a plaque that tells the story of the crash on the bench that sits on the same spot as the Broadmoor Skating Club rink, which was demolished in 1994.

"There's still a lot of pain of losing all these people," Fleming said. "It's still there."