The Owen Family: Tragic Figures of US Olympic Figure Skating

The Owen Family: Tragic Figures of US Olympic Figure Skating
Laurence and Maribel Owen, with their legendary mother-coach Maribel

I am deliberately choosing to ignore writing in depth about the 20th Anniversary of "Tonya and Nancy."

To quote Kerrigan, "Whhhhhhhhhhhyyy.......whhhhhhhhhhhyyyy?"

Here's why: Because we forget what's good about US Olympic figure skating before scandals. Before showstopping production numbers trumped compulsory figures. When figure skating was all about the love of the ice, the ballet of movement and athleticism, and the families who sacrificed to be a part of it. Some, like the Owen family...gave all.

In celebration of our upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, and the connections they have to the current US champions, I choose instead to honor the Owen family...the first family of US figure skating for the first half of the 20th century.

Guy Owen, Maribel Vinson Owen, Laurence Owen (also called "Laurie") and Maribel Owen, Jr, were skating royalty from the late 1920's to 1961. Winners of multiple US and Olympic medals, the Owen family helped create a world in which women's figure skating legends like Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan could exist.

Guy Owen,  the patriarch, was a Canadian figure skating champion.  He initially competed in the men's individual figure skating event, winning the 1929 Canadian junior men's singles championship. He went on to specialize in the "Fours Event".  Between 1933 and 1937, Owen and his skating partners Margaret DavisPrudence Holbrook, and Melville Rogers won the Fours Event at the Canadian National Figure Skating Championships and the bi-annual North American Figure Skating Championship three successive times in 1933, 1935, and 1937.

Maribel Vinson Owen's parents were both figure skaters. When Vinson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1911,  she was made an honorary member of the Cambridge Skating Club. At nine, she began formal skating lessons, and a scant three years later, won the U.S. National Junior Ladies title.

As a senior competitor, she was a nine-time U.S. women’s champion, and a four-time U.S. pairs champion (with George Hill). A three-time Olympic competitor  (1928, 1932, and 1936), she placed fifth, third, and second individually (mostly behind the world's first true skating queen....Sonja Heine of Norway)

Maribel attended Radcliffe College, the "sister school" of Harvard.  After her last Olympics, she turned professional and toured the country in her own ice show. She and Guy married in 1938 and settled in Berkeley, California. They coached skating and had two children: Maribel Yerxa Owen, born in 1940 and Laurence Rochon "Laurie" Owen was born in 1944.

Guy and Maribel were partners in life and coaching. Some websites refer to Guy as Owen's ex-husband, but it's not recorded when, or even if it happened. What is known is that tragedy struck the family in 1952, when Guy died of a perforated ulcer in 1952 at age 38. Maribel, a single mother from that point forward, became one of the nation’s top figure skating coaches, and the author of one of the first books on the sport.

As a coach, Owen has been compared to Bobby Knight for her passion and ferocity She believed in discipline across the board. She rose to national prominence after coaching Tenley Albright to a 1956 Olympic gold medal in ladies singles. At the same time, she was coaching her two successful skating daughters.

Another student, the legendary coach Frank Carroll, who is tutoring current US Ladies Champion Gracie Gold, admitted on numerous occasions:

“I was scared to death of her"

Olympic skating coach Frank Carroll, on being coached by Maribel Owen

The blogsite The Postgame recalls another prominent coach, Ron Ludington, who said the inscription Owen wrote to him in one of her books reads, “It was fun, most of the time, wasn’t it?”

According to Sportsreference.com, daughter Laurence was supposed to be America’s next figure skating queen, following Carol Heiss, winner of the 1960 Olympic and World titles.

Laurence Owen's Sports Illustrated cover, published two days before her death

Laurence Owen's Sports Illustrated cover, published two days before her death

After competing at the 1960 Winter Olympics when she was only 15 years old, and placing sixth, Laurence' ascension to the top step of the figure skating podium seemed, to the United States, at least, a sure thing.

So sure, in fact, that the February 13, 1961, issue of Sports Illustrated featured a radiant Laurence Owen skating as light as air.  Laurence was 16 years old, an honor student at Winchester High School, and she had triumphed at the 1961 U.S. National and North American Championships.

She was on the plane to Prague to defeat the Netherlands’ Sjoukje Dijkstra and win the World Championship. She was supposed to win the 1964 Olympic gold medal, and then go to Radcliffe, like her mother, and become a writer. Her sister Maribel "Mara" partnered Dudley Richards to the 1961 pairs championships. Mara was a college student, and rumored to have a romatic partnership with Richards, nine years her senior.

On their way to the 1961 World Championships in Brussels, Owen and her two daughters were killed in the airplane crash which took the lives of all the American figure skaters. On February 15, 1961, the U.S. Figure Skating team, parents, coaches and judges--34 among the 62 passengers and crew aboard--left New York on Sabena Airlines flight number 548, which crashed before landing in Brussels, en route to Prague. The airplane's landing gear was not down, according to witnesses, and it is probable that the plane hit a high tension line about four miles from the airport's runway.

The only comfort in the plane crash was that death was likely instantaneous. The reasons for the crash, 53 years later, remain undetermined. Nearby residents said the plane was making more noise than usual and was much lower than usual. There were no survivors.

The Legacy of the Owen Family 

Some of the skaters that Maribel Vinson Owen trained became figure skating coaches.  She was the coach of Frank Carroll who coached 2010 Olympic Figure Skating Champion and Naperville native Evan Lysacek, U.S. Figure Skating legend Michelle Kwan, the only woman to rival Owen's nine wins, and Olympic Silver Medalist Linda Fratianne.

Carroll credits much of his coaching success to Owen.

In RISE, a US Figure Skating commissioned film commemorating the 50th anniversary of the plane crash, Carroll says, as if speaking to her, "Maribel, if I could only call you and thank you for all you have done for me and helping me to be able to do this for this young man."

Mabel Fairbanks (who was not allowed inside of ice rinks during the day because of the color of her skin). Fairbanks was the first coach of U.S. pair skating legends Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner.

A memorial fund was set up by the US Figure Skating Association in memory of the 1961 US Figure Skating Team to financially assist other skaters in achieving their dreams. This next group of skaters and coaches felt they were continuing what the victims of the crash had started.

And Laurence, the writer,  left us hope in the form of a poem:

Gloom is but a shadow of the night,

long past;

Hope is the light, the radiance.

Laurence Owen

 

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    Alison Moran

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