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"THE DAY THE MUSIC STOPPED"
E.M. Swift
February 21, 2011
Fifty years ago, a fiery plane crash destroyed an entire generation of U.S. figure skaters and some of the sport's most celebrated coaches, including a grande dame whose influence is still felt today
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February 21, 2011

"the Day The Music Stopped"

Fifty years ago, a fiery plane crash destroyed an entire generation of U.S. figure skaters and some of the sport's most celebrated coaches, including a grande dame whose influence is still felt today

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That suddenly changed in Brussels. The U.S. Olympic champions all had retired from amateur skating after Squaw Valley, and the next generation was tragically extinguished. "The crash set the sport back in Boston in a way that it was never able to recover," says Chuck Foster, who won a national junior pairs title in 1955 with Little Maribel Owen. "We had a pyramid, with champions like Tenley at the top, and a wide base below of coaches and skaters. The pyramid crumbled with the crash. We really lost two generations of coaches: those who were already coaching, and skaters like Bradley Lord who would have become coaches."

One of the coaches who died was Edi Scholdan, who had trained the Jenkins brothers and was traveling with 16-year-old Gregory Kelley, whom he had coached to the silver medal at the 1961 nationals. Gone, too, was 28-year-old William Kipp, who at his home rink in Paramount, Calif., was training a 12-year-old girl named Peggy Fleming. And, of course, Big Maribel Owen, 49, who had coached five of the 12 skaters on the U.S. team at the '60 Olympics.

"She was a firecracker, very demanding, smart and inventive, a cross between Bela Karolyi and Bill Belichick," says Paul George. "She'd come drifting by and whack you on the thigh with her skate guard if your free leg wasn't straightened properly. There was no fooling around. It was tough love."

A Radcliffe graduate who was the first female sportswriter to be published by The New York Times, in the 1930s, Owen was a rarity in skating, a great champion who became a great coach—indeed, one of the most influential figures in the history of her sport. Perhaps that was because she had unfinished business as a skater: She'd never won Olympic gold or a world championship. She had the misfortune of competing her entire career against Norway's peerless Sonja Henie, who won three Olympic gold medals (1928, '32 and '36) and 10 straight world championships. Maribel Vinson finished fourth in the 1928 Olympics, won a bronze medal in '32 and was fifth in '36. She was second to Henie at the 1928 worlds, her highest finish. "Sonja's routine is not as hard as mine," she once said, "but she seldom makes a mistake."

Still, in the U.S., Maribel was without peer. Both her parents had been skaters—Thomas Vinson, a lawyer and Boston city alderman, was a skating champion in the 1890s, and he met her mother while skating on the Charles River. Maribel got her first pair of double-blade skates at age three and graduated to single-blade a year later. When she was nine she came under the tutelage of the German coach Willie Frick, known as the Boy Wonder of Berlin, who was hired in 1920 by the Skating Club of Boston. In 1924 Maribel won the U.S. junior title at age 12, and four years later she won the first of nine U.S. ladies' titles, a total only Michelle Kwan has equaled.

Maribel turned professional in 1937 and produced and starred in a skating tour called Gay BladesAn International Ice Ballet with two-time gold medalist Karl Schafer of Austria. One of the other skaters on that tour was a former Canadian junior champion named Guy Owen, whom Maribel married in 1938. She gave birth to Little Maribel in 1940, prompting her and Guy to settle down and coach at a new skating center in Berkeley, Calif. One of her early students was six-time U.S. ladies' champion Gretchen Merrill.

The marriage ended in 1949, when Maribel divorced Guy after he had become an alcoholic. (He died three years later while being operated on for a bleeding ulcer.) Maribel's father died in 1952, setting in motion her decision to drive back East with her two daughters to live with her widowed mother in the family mansion in Winchester, the Captain Josiah Locke House, a grand estate built in 1803 that had fallen into disrepair. Maribel Owen would support her family by giving skating lessons.

Owen taught skating as if she were trying to change the world. By her own estimation she instructed more than 4,000 students, old and young, beginner and expert. She wrote three books on figure skating and numerous magazine and newspaper articles. She was often on the ice from 5 a.m. till midnight. "She used to drive her car with her skates on," recalls Tenley Albright, 75, who would win the '56 gold medal under Owen's tutelage. The coach's gruff, salty language was new to Albright. "When I was 11," she says, "I somehow got up the nerve to say to her, 'I can't skate when you call me bad names.' After that she never did.

"She was ahead of her time in so many ways. She was a person of courage and conviction who would stand up for people. When someone said something about Jews, Maribel said, 'How would you feel if I told you I was Jewish?' She wasn't, but she wouldn't put up with any nonsense. She stood for what was right—always."

Owen was, in fact, a thoroughly modern woman: tough, independent, open-minded and driven. "If there was one way to hurt her," says Ron Ludington, who won a bronze medal in pairs in the 1960 Olympics while being coached by Owen, "it was to say to her, 'Why don't you act more like a woman?' That would kill her. She was a woman in a man's world."

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