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Documentary Film Honors 50th Anniversary of 1961 US Figure Skating Tragedy

Peggy Flemming speaks to the media after watching a screening of the movie, 'Rise' at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in Greensboro, N.C., January 28, 2011
Peggy Flemming speaks to the media after watching a screening of the movie, 'Rise' at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in Greensboro, N.C., January 28, 2011

On February 15, 1961, tragedy struck when the plane carrying the United States figure skating team, coaches and family members perished en route to Brussels, Belgium, killing all passengers.

The American squad was on its way to the 1961 Figure Skating World Championships in Prague that was canceled after the accident. Fifty years later, the legacy of the crash still resonates with the skating community.

Film chronicles 1961 plane crash that killed skaters

A documentary film, RISE, is being released nationwide Thursday night to commemorate those affected by the tragedy and to spread word of the sport’s inspiring tale of starting over.

The crash devastated the U.S. figure skating community. All 18 members of the world team along with 16 international officials, judges, coaches and family members lost their lives, as well as the 27 other passengers and 11 flight crew members on the plane.

The US Figure Skating Memorial Fund, started to support competitive skaters

Barely a week after the tragedy, a memorial fund was established for the 18 U.S. athletes who lost their lives. To this day, skaters are benefiting from the fund that aims to provide athletes with monetary assistance both on the rink and in the classroom.

Julie Schmitz, the U.S. figure skating teams coordinator, told VOA about the lasting influence of the 1961 team.

"The memorial fund is really the 1961 team’s lasting legacy because it exists still today,” she said. “And it contributes over $300,000 every year to current skaters. Skaters can use that to supplement their training or academics. So that’s really sort of their lasting legacy."

Commerating 50 years

The 50th anniversary milestone will be brought into the public light when the documentary film RISE is released in theaters nationwide for a one-time showing. The commemoration has helped connect the younger generation of skaters to those who perished in 1961.

Skating clubs across the United States have been promoting the film, whose admission proceeds go directly towards the memorial fund.

Schmitz believes the film speaks to both the past generation of skaters and the up-and-comers who may not understand the scope of the incident.

"We feel like this is a very significant moment in American history and in U.S. figure skating history,” she said. “It is telling the younger generation and younger skaters all about what happened. But it also is touching people who haven’t seen figure skating because it is such an interesting story."

The film also aims to capture the growth of American figure skating and how the sport rose from the tragedy.

Many young coaches and retired skaters were forced into the spotlight and step up for their friends and family members that perished.

RISE depicts how every generation of figure skaters since the accident are connected to the 1961 team in some way.

To Schmitz much of the figure skating community is linked by this event.

"The more and more you get into it, the more you learn about how everyone is connected, and to hear the stories from their surviving friends and relatives, the more real it becomes,” she said.

Inspiration for future generations

Schmitz hopes that this film will serve as an inspiration to skaters and those who don’t follow the sport closely.

"It has a very inspirational tone and you’re going to want to walk away feeling like you want to get back up and try again. And you leave feeling very uplifted and excited to skate,” she said. “We hope that lots of people will want to go out and skate and learn to skate if they don’t currently skate. But also it just touches the human spirit. It's definitely going to be a significant experience for anyone who watches the film."

In the first U.S. National Figure Skating Championships after the fatal crash, Barbara Roles Williams came out of retirement to win the gold medal. The program slowly returned to prominence, with all three entries in men's, women's and pairs finishing in the top 10 at the 1964 Olympics, with one bronze medal. In 1968, Peggy Fleming won the Olympic women's gold medal and fellow-American Tim Wood won the men's silver in Grenoble, France.