Peak Past: Remembering The Tragedy That Killed The 1961 US Figure Skating Team

*Note: This audio essay first aired on KRCC (Colorado Springs’ NPR affiliate, 91.5 FM) on February 11, 2021. The link to the program is here; the audio file and the text from the essay are below.

When I first visited the new U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs, one display nearly put me on the ground.

It was a black-and-white photograph with a couple dozen pearly white smiles boarding an airplane on a tarmac. Those smiling kids and coaches were members of the U.S. Figure Skating Team. 

Hours later they would all be dead.

I was with my daughters when I saw that picture. I wanted to know more, started to tear up, but also didn’t have the time because my girls had already moved on to the next display. I insisted on holding their hands when I caught up. 

On Feb. 15, 1961, the entire U.S. Figure Skating team crashed outside of Brussels on their way to a world championship.

The team had just finished U.S. Nationals, held at the Broadmoor World Arena. A Colorado Springs girl, 17-year-old Steffi Westerfeld, who had been the prom queen at Cheyenne Mountain High School, led on the first day of competition, and finished second overall to another American phenom, 16-year-old Laurence Owen. 

Onboard with Steffi was her 25-year-old sister Sherri, presumably acting as her little sister’s chaperone. Laurence’s mother was aboard as a coach; Laurence’s sister was on the team and on the plane too.

I like to think that, before impact, the presence of family comforted these women. Maybe by holding hands they felt some warmth in their last moments.

I think about them now as we lose thousands of Americans due to COVID-19 every day. Olympians, skaters, daughters—in the end we’re all the same, because in the end everything is taken from everybody. Tragedies like these remind us to hold our loved ones a little tighter. 

I know I will. I hope you do too. 

Until our next mountainside chat—be good, be well, and no matter what, climb on.

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