On Feb. 17, clubs in all 50 states will be celebrating a milestone: the release of RISE, a feature film that has been hailed as a layered, engaging portrait of the history of U.S. Figure Skating. If that's enough to make you execute a triple-axel yawn, refrain: The film reveals that history in light of one of the great untold sagas of American Olympic sports.
Naturally, RISE's one-night-only, nationwide theater showing has been calculated to coincide with a 50-year milestone for the organization that has launched Olympic stars from Dorothy Hamill to Evan Lysacek. Less predictably, the occasion they're commemorating is the event that nearly obliterated figure skating as an American sport.
A defining moment
In February 1961, newly inaugurated president John F. Kennedy issued a statement from the White House that could properly have been called a eulogy.
Kennedy expressed the national sense of tragic loss at the news that, on Feb. 15, Sabena Flight 548 had crashed in a field outside Brussels, Belgium, killing everyone aboard — including the entire U.S. World Figure Skating Team, which was on its way to the World Championships in Prague, Czech Republic. He was also lamenting the ostensible death of the U.S. Figure Skating program.
"We were at the top of the world in post-World War II figure skating," explains current U.S. Figure Skating executive director David Raith. "And then this tragedy happens, and so our top coaches are killed, our next generation of athletes are killed, and what is this organization going to do?"
The plane crash is where the story of RISE begins, but filmmaker Nancy Stern Winters is quick to point out that the film is "not about death."
"On the surface it seems like, 'Oh God, this is a movie about a team who died in a plane crash,' but it's so much more than that on so many different levels," says Stern Winters' co-director Lisa Lax. "It really has turned into a giant celebration of what U.S. figure skating is and has been over the past 80 years."
The spirit of the '61 Team'
In the weeks following Kennedy's statement, checks began arriving, unsolicited, at U.S. Figure Skating headquarters.
"They realized that this money should be used to commemorate this team," says Raith. Thus was born the U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund, which would use the windfall to support the young skaters and coaches stepping into the gap left behind by the 1961 team. No one thought the program could attain its former glory — at least not in the next decade or two — but at least the fund could get them back on the ice.
"At the 1964 Olympics, there were not any great expectations," Raith says. "We won a couple medals, but not the gold medals as we had done previously. This is where Peggy Fleming came in."
One of the first beneficiaries, Fleming explains in RISE that support from the Memorial Fund was what allowed her to afford skates as she launched her career.
Seven years after the crash, Fleming led the U.S. Olympic team to gold in Grenoble, France.
Inspiring a new generation
Just as the Memorial Fund defied expectations by bearing fruit years ahead of its time, it has continued to astonish with its longevity. The legacy of the 1961 team has fostered the careers of not only Fleming, but Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano and Michelle Kwan, all of whom tell their stories in RISE. Joining them are family members, teammates and coaches whose ties to the 1961 team link together to form a comprehensive, inspiring portrait of the history of the sport.
"Figure skating's a small community, and I think that they would all feel that it's important to remember your past," Lax says. "In one way or another, I think each of them feels that they have somehow fulfilled the dreams of those who were on that plane who never had the chance."
Raith says he hopes RISE will give young skaters that same sense of place within a larger legacy. "Every year about 200 [or] 300 athletes receive a check from the Memorial Fund," he says. "The majority of those athletes don't know the history of where that check is coming from."
As for that portion of the audience not made up of Olympic hopefuls — a category in which Raith squarely places himself — he says, "We want people to go out and skate!"
Adds Stern Winters, "Lisa's 5-year-old son spent a lot of time in the edit room with us. He watched the first 3½ minutes of the movie, and he's like, 'Mommy, I want to go ice skating!'"