In times of tragedy, family often provides the best outlet for expression of grief. And for a tight−knit U.S. figure−skating community, there was no bigger tragedy than the events of Feb. 15, 1961.
With the entire U.S. Figure Skating Association Team en route to the World Championships in Prague, Sabena Airlines Flight 548 crashed over Brussels, killing all 72 passengers on board, including 18 athletes and 16 family members, coaches and officials. The unspeakable disaster — the cause of which was never determined — sent shockwaves throughout the sporting world, as well as wiped the slate of rising American figure skating stars clean.
In commemoration of the crash's 50th anniversary, an exclusive event will be broadcast live on Thursday from the Best Buy Theater in Times Square to more than 500 theaters nationwide and a number of Boston−area locations. Included in the event, hosted by NBC's Matt Lauer, will be the world premiere of "RISE," a film both celebrating U.S. figure skating and honoring those lost in the crash.
"It's a complicated story," said Nancy Stern Winters (LA '86), one of the movie's co−directors along with her twin sister, Lisa Lax (LA '86). "We wanted to do a celebratory piece about something that was inherently sad. So we came up with a way to connect skaters from every generation and found ways to connect each of them to someone on that plane. It was a challenge, but we think we were able to accomplish that."
Told through the eyes of some of the sport's most legendary athletes, including Michelle Kwan, who is currently studying at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and 2010 Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek, "RISE" uniquely bridges the gap between those lost in the crash and today's skaters who carry on their legacy.
The up−and−comers on Flight 548 included 16−year−old rising star Laurence Owen, the reigning U.S. women's national champion who had just appeared on the cover of "Sports Illustrated" before heading to Prague with her sister, fellow skater Maribel Owen, and mother, Maribel Vinson−Owen, a skating legend and coach in her own right.
From there, for instance, Lax and Stern Winters establish a link that trickles down to Lysacek, whose coach, Frank Carroll, was trained by Vinson−Owen in the years leading up to the crash. For Carroll, whose legendary coaching career was only missing an Olympic gold medal, Lysacek's victory in Vancouver provided a vicarious memorial for his former mentor.
"I was approached to be a part of the film right after the [2010 Vancouver] Olympics, and I just questioned how my story was relevant to the story of the film," Lysacek told the Daily. "I'm so many years beyond the plane crash, but they explained to me how my coach had been affected by the plane crash and how, by me winning in Vancouver, that put the punctuation at the end of the sentence that had been running on for 50 years. And it wasn't until I saw the final cut that I understood how I assumed [Carroll's] role and allowed his dream to live on."
The unique challenge of balancing inspiration with heartbreak is nothing new for Lax and Stern Winters, co−owners of Lookalike Productions and winners of 16 Emmy Awards. The U.S. Figure Skating Association approached the twins about the project in 2009, and they spent the next two years researching and gathering interviews and footage. The two were still busy putting the final touches earlier this week in preparation for Thursday's event.
"It's a film that me and Nancy together are really, really proud of," said Lax, who, along with Stern Winters, co−directed the ESPN 30−for−30 film "Unmatched," which premiered in Sept. 2010. "I think it's one of the best Lookalike Productions we've ever done."
Lax and Stern Winters mined the memories of those intimately connected to the crash victims, survivors who — understandably so — had buried the heartbreak deep inside. The result is a cathartic experience for viewer and interviewee alike.
"It was such a tragic moment that they just hid it away," Lax said. "Because it was such a sensitive topic and because it was their loved ones, they just didn't want to talk about it … In a way, for some of them, it was a little therapeutic. After all of it, they were glad to have talked about it for the first time in many, many years.
"There were times as interviewers when we had to take a deep breath and let the moment settle," she added. "It was difficult to listen to the stories, but also rewarding."
Among the tear−jerking moments in "RISE" are a reading of one of Laurence Owen's poems by actress Dakota Fanning to figure skater Dorothy Hamill, as well as journal entries from Vinson−Owen, which hauntingly end as she pulls up to the airport in New York to board the plane.
"I was emotional seeing the film, and I don't get emotional about that many things," said Lysacek, who was in New York to skate at the film's showing on Thursday and had just finished ringing the NYSE bell to commemorate the crash. "In this day and age, we have a hard time in 2011 figuring out how to relate to people who were in a plane crash in 1961. It's hard to comprehend that, and I think the movie transcends so much time."
Even for those lacking interest in figure skating, the tragedy provides a swift reality check about the importance of family and friends, which can appeal to all, regardless of sporting preference. To wit, Tufts baseball coach John Casey is bringing a contingent of his players to the see the film on Thursday in Revere, Mass.
"[Lax and Stern Winters] bring out the human side of sports and athletics, and I think that sometimes it helps to clarify that it's not always about wins and losses," Casey said. "It has themes of resiliency and hard work and picking people up after their down, so why wouldn't you want to go see it?"
In a weird, metaphysical way, the crash helped birth a new generation of figure−skating stars. In honor of the victims, the U.S. Figure Skating Association established a memorial fund, to which proceeds from the premiere of "RISE" will go, which has individually benefited each skater who speaks in the film.
"Scott Hamilton says unequivocally in the film that he wouldn't have skated in the Olympics without the fund," Lax said. "We felt it was really important to let the younger generation know who these people were. No one really knows what it's all about."
"It's important to know the history of any sport you're playing in," Stern Winters added. "I think that's one of the reasons why the U.S. Figure Skating Association wanted to do the film, [so] that the story won't be forgotten."
Thanks to "RISE," the legacy of the 72 passengers and 18 athletes aboard Flight 548 will surely live on.