SI Vault
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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She made the proper Bostonians who ran the Skating Club so uncomfortable that they refused to let her coach anyone but her own daughters there. "She was a bull and was constantly telling people on the board what to do," says Tom McGinnis, who choreographed Laurence's winning programs in 1961 and still coaches at the Skating Club of Boston. "They were afraid of her."

"She was foul-mouthed," says Ben Wright, 88, who was on the board of the club in those years and is still its chairman. By modern standards, however, Maribel's language wasn't remarkable. "She'd say 'goddammit,' or 'What the hell do you think you're doing? I'm out here freezing my butt off telling you the same thing over and over,'" says Frank Carroll, then one of Owen's students and now the dean of U.S. coaches, with a list of present and former pupils that reads like a Who's Who of U.S. skating over the last 30 years: Linda Fratianne, Christopher Bowman, Kwan, Timothy Goebel and reigning Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek. "This was Boston. You didn't say things like that. Her mother, Grammy Vinson, who was always watching at rinkside, used to say to her, 'Must thou blaspheme?'"

Not permitted to coach at the club she had represented while winning 15 national titles, Owen buried her hurt and rented ice wherever she could find it in Greater Boston and as far away as Worcester, Mass., an hour west. "She used to call at the last minute and say, 'Today I'll be at the Boston Arena,'" recalls Christie Allan-Piper, who took lessons from Owen for two years and now coaches at the Skating Club of Boston. "They held boxing and wrestling matches at the arena, and we'd spend the first 10 minutes skating around picking cigar butts off the ice. Skating in Boston then was a Brahmin sport, and the Owens were noisy people. Grammy was practically deaf. Maribel had chronic laryngitis from yelling. I'll never forget the day she called Tenley Albright a dog—Tenley, who was so aristocratic in her movements. But she wasn't mean. Maribel just used very emphatic language."

Owen stressed the importance of education to her athletes. "She used to drive me out to practice in Worcester," George says. "I'd get in the car with Laurence, and Maribel would say in that raspy voice, 'O.K., let's work on synonyms.'" She was also a champion of the outsider. One of her pupils was Mabel Fairbanks, one of the first prominent African-American skaters, whom she coached for free. (Later, as a coach herself, Fairbanks would pair Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, who would win five U.S. pairs titles and the 1979 worlds.)

"Material things meant nothing to Maribel," says Tina Noyes, a two-time Olympian (1964 and '68). "She'd wear herself thin from running around, picking up her skaters at four a.m. to drive them to the rink. She had no heat or radio in her car. All she cared about was trying to create a champion."

One of her teaching techniques was to take students to the theater so they could learn from performers who communicated brilliantly with their bodies, such as Danny Kaye and Marcel Marceau. When the Charles River froze, she'd conduct her lessons there. She even took students caroling on Beacon Hill.

In her passion she sometimes crossed the line. Ludington, still coaching at 76, remembers seeing her toss a metal chair in the direction of a judge because she disapproved of his marks. At the Squaw Valley Olympics Ludington saw Maribel wrestle a Canadian coach for the arm of the record player at the practice rink, fighting over whose music would be played first.

"I adored her and was scared to death of her," says Carroll. "We all were." Once she was kneeling on the ice, tracing the arc of one of Carroll's figures, and when she looked up she saw he wasn't paying attention. "She smacked me on the face with her wooden skate guard so hard it gave me a welt that I was still wearing days later at Nationals," Carroll says. "She bought me a soda the next day, which was her way of apologizing. But she never said she was sorry. I was being disrespectful."

Carroll got off easy compared with Ludington. He didn't pick up ice skating until he was 16. He was a national roller skating champion, a tough kid from Roxbury, then a blue-collar, heavily Irish section of Boston. Albright had seen him compete in the 1953 North American roller skating championships when she was training in Colorado, and she helped him buy his first pair of ice skates, at the Skating Club of Boston. When Ludington learned that Owen was coaching Albright, he asked if she'd take him on too. "Maribel told me, 'Yes, but on my terms,'" he says. " 'You've got to learn etiquette on the ice. You can't be the tough kid from the streets out there.'"

Theirs was a Henry Higgins--Eliza Doolittle partnership. "Part of my training was to become a gentleman," says Ludington. "I had to go over to Maribel's and learn to set a dinner table. I used to escort her to the theater. When the play Auntie Mame came out, she insisted that I see it. I realized why. She was Auntie Mame. Anyone she touched, or who touched her, she molded."

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