Golden stars honor ’61 skating team

Feb. 18, 2011, 4:48 p.m. (ET)

NEW YORK --- It is not often that all of America’s Olympic gold medalist figure skaters are gathered in one place. And when it does happen, it has to be a truly special moment.

Last night was one of those nights.

U.S. figure skaters Michelle Kwan (L) and Peggy Fleming attend the New York premiere Of 'RISE' on February 17, 2011 in New York City. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
Complete with red-carpet treatment at the Best Buy Theater in New York’s bustling Times Square, all 13 of the United States Olympic champion skaters arrived to watch the screening of the documentary, “Rise,’’ a film made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1961 plane crash that killed the entire U.S. world team and devastated the American skating community. Although the Olympic champions had been together a handful of times in the past, last night marked the first time Evan Lysacek, who won his gold medal exactly a year ago today in Vancouver, was in attendance as well.

With the Olympic champions dispersed throughout the nation and with some busy with ice skating tours, commercial engagements and even coaching, it is not an easy task to get everyone together. But considering the magnitude of the tragedy that occurred 50 years ago and how much it impacted all of them, there was no way any of them would have missed the event last night.

And it’s partially due to these champions promoting this film that US Figure Skating announced a second showing of the film will be held on March 7 at select theaters. (Tickets are available at participating box offices and online at

The connections between the champions and those who were aboard the plane to the World Championships in Prague in 1961 were endless.

U.S. figure skater Tenley Albright attends the New York premiere Of 'RISE' in New York City. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Some of the Olympic champions, such as Carol Heiss Jenkins, who won an Olympic gold medal less than a year before the crash, competed against skaters who died on that flight on Feb. 15, 1961. Others, like brothers Hayes and David Jenkins, Tenley Albright and Peggy Fleming, lost their coaches on the flight. Others, such as Scott Hamilton, said there was no way he would have achieved his Olympic dream had he not received funding for his training through the Memorial Fund, which was created a little more than a week after the plane crash to assist a future generation of skaters. At 25, the youngest of the U.S. Olympic gold medalists, Lysacek said he felt indebted to this cause since his coach, Frank Carroll, lost his beloved coach on that fateful flight.

One thing was evident: None of the Olympic champions reached the top of the medal podium without feeling the impact of the crash. And they used last night to give back to the community that has given them so much.

“To have us all here says a lot of the team and about the tragedy,” Hamilton said. “It says a lot about how this skating community is a skating family and how we honor our own and thank them for everything they’ve given us.”

Hamilton said his career nearly ended when he was a junior-level skater because of the financial demands the sport put on his family. 

“I was done, done, done,” said Hamilton, who captured the Olympic gold medal in 1984, the first American man to do so after the crash. “The Memorial Fund extended my career and let me live out my wildest fantasies.”

Hamilton, who didn’t let a little thing like the flu dampen his usual upbeat demeanor, said it is imperative that the gold medalists and the skating community educate this generation and beyond about what happened back in 1961.

“Without understanding the past,” Hamilton said, “the present means nothing and the future has no chance.”

U.S. figure skaters and Olympic champions, Evan Lysacek, Scott Hamilton, Dorothy Hamill, Brian Boitano and Peggy Fleming attend the New York premiere Of 'RISE' February 17, 2011 in New York City. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

The film opened up a dialogue that the champions never expected to emerge. Because of their hectic lifestyles, the skaters rarely get an opportunity to discuss such personal topics. Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, remained with his childhood coach, Linda Leaver, throughout his career and the two are virtually inseparable today now that Leaver is his manager. Yet he said they never discussed the crash until now.

“She was even nervous about seeing the film (last night),” Boitano said. “I really didn’t know how connected she was.”

Boitano, who was featured in the film, said that the process of putting the film together gave the skaters opportunities to talk about all sorts of issues, ranging from coaching techniques to parental issues.

“The fascinating part of doing the movie was sitting in this group with Michelle (Kwan), Scott, Dorothy and Peggy,” Boitano said. “I mean, we never talk about things like, ‘What was your mother like?’ I think this film really transcends skating, and it shows that rebuilding can come from something unexpected.”

The Olympic champions entered the theater by walking down a red carpet and then they were seated at tables along with several hundred fans who sat in seats behind them. Matt Lauer, co-anchor of NBC’s “Today” show, hosted the event and interviewed several of the Olympic stars after the film.

At times, the Olympians teared up. Dorothy Hamill, the 1976 champion, had a tough time watching herself discuss a poem that Laurence Owen wrote shortly before the crash. Owen, the 1961 U.S. champion and a member of the 1960 Olympic team, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated just days before she died in the plane crash. 

“That poem was very prophetic,” Hamill said. “It was almost as if she knew … she had a special gift.”

There were other times when the crowd laughed. Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist, couldn’t help but chuckle when news reels showed skaters endorsing cigarettes. Clearly, that would never happen in today’s world.

The Olympic champions also cheered when Carroll was honored in film. In a way, he, too, was entered into the club of gold medalists. One of the most respected skating coaches in the world, the Olympic gold medal had always eluded him. Kwan came close, earning a silver, as did Linda Fratianne, and Tim Goebel earned a bronze, but it wasn’t until Lysacek dethroned Russia’s Evgeny Plushenko a year ago that Carroll finally shed himself of the gold-medal albatross.

“I stopped thinking about having an Olympic champion,” Carroll said.

But his skating friends never gave up hope.

“I was hoping and praying it would happen for him,” Fratianne said. “But I think Frank is a person who just does the best he knows how and lets the chips fall as they may. But I was so excited after Evan won. I called Frank the next day. And I think it does put this all together. With Frank and Maribel and now Evan.”

After the film, an exhibition tribute performance by Lysacek was shown. The routine featured him carrying young skaters, a symbol of him passing the torch to the next generation of skaters. There was also an auction to raise money for the Memorial Fund. Since its inception, the Memorial Fund has donated more than $10 million to assist skaters with training costs as well as with their educational needs.

US Figure Skating officials were overwhelmed with the film’s success, noting that several theaters sold out their showings and some opened extra viewing rooms to handle crowds. The film was broadcast live from the Best Buy Theater in New York City’s Times Square and was presented in more than 525 theaters in all 50 states.

“We attribute a lot of the wide-spread interest in this film to the coaches around the country who told their skaters, ‘This is your history,’ ”  said US Figure Skating president Pat St. Peter.

Although the evening had some sad moments, the overwhelming mood in New York was one of accomplishment and pride. Those who attended the event said it had a class reunion feeling. Two-time Olympic champion Dick Button made a point of inviting all of the gold medalists as well as other skaters and coaches to his New York apartment Wednesday night to welcome his brethren to the city for the film. 

And they left feeling as if an important story in their sport had been told well. Some of the Olympic champions had seen the movie beforehand, but most had not. All of them seemed pleased with the final product.

“It was done very well,” said Hayes Jenkins, the 1956 champion who saw the film for the first time last night. “Very well. It put a warm touch on a dark time.”

What made the moment in time the most special was that they spent it together. By the early hours of the next morning, the champions went back to life as usual. Lysacek was on board a flight to San Jose, Calif., to perform in the Smucker’s Stars on Ice tour, and Fleming was en route to Colorado for a speaking engagement. Heiss Jenkins, meanwhile, will go home to Cleveland where she has been coaching skaters for 33 years.

But the night will be remembered for years to come.

“I think it’s fabulous,” Hamill said. “We try to do this every four years and I was sitting with Peggy and Brian in Vancouver when Evan won. It’s so nice to have a new member to the club, and it was great for all of us to be here tonight.”

List of the current U.S. Olympic gold-medal champions

Dick Button, 1948, 1952

Hayes Jenkins, 1956

Tenley Albright, 1956

David Jenkins, 1960

Carol Heiss Jenkins, 1960

Peggy Fleming, 1968

Dorothy Hamill, 1976

Scott Hamilton, 1984

Brian Boitano, 1988

Kristi Yamaguchi, 1992

Tara Lipinski, 1998

Sarah Hughes, 2002

Evan Lysacek, 2010

Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.