I ended up buying this book when I won a gift certificate in the USFSA Fantasy Figure Skating game, which actually caused me to stop playing, because I don’t know what I would’ve done with a second certificate! Practically all my knowledge of the 1961 U.S. team was from RISE, which as an hour and a half long documentary didn’t have nearly enough time to profile more than a handful of the eighteen skaters lost that day, and even less time to profile any of the coaches/officials who weren’t Maribel Vinson Owen. So this book was a pretty good extension of that, as it found time to give a profile and history of all thirty-four skating-affiliated individuals on the plane, from the two young sons Richard LeMaire & Jimmy Scholdan, who accompanied their coach and judge fathers to Europe, to the aged and apparently much revered ISU official Walter Powell. It may have been a little too reverent towards most of them, though; of course one wants to be respectful, but when their profiles paint everyone as phenomenal on the ice and loved by everyone off it and those that had trouble succeeding probably only did so because the politics were against them, you do start to wonder.
Perhaps feeling far more real was world of mid 20th-century figure skating portrayed in vivid detail, one very different from the world of figure skating that exists now, when skaters no longer do figures and can get into the senior division at Nationals much more easily, and whatever political judging there may still be, it certainly is nothing like it was. Bushman tells the tales of the competitions as well as the skaters, starting with 1960 Nationals, getting intensive for the 1960 Olympics, 1961 Nationals, and 1961 North American Championships, and continuing through to the 1968 Olympics, which actually left me wanting to buy the RISE DVD just to watch 1961 Nationals. Photographs and even film from the era can’t quite conjure the vividness Bushman’s accounts of figures and jumps and audience reactions does.
It also means that by the time you reach the ill-fated Sabena flight, the reader can feel the devastation of this world over the loss of so many of their own. It starts creeping up, reading about how ice dancer Marilyn Meeker was inconsolable and thinking she was cursed for the busted ankle that ultimately saved her life, and one gets the feeling even more when reading about how upset various skaters were not to make the World team, culminating in chills when the narrative mentions Dick Button expressing his disappointment he wouldn’t be able to fly with the team, a casual drop of how much more figure skating could have lost still. By the time I got to the accounts of the funerals all happening one after another, it was so painful that a quote from one of the mourners of the rain continually coming down, as if the sky was weeping with everyone, got me choked up.
This is definitely a book fans should read for the educational value alone. For others, it’s not a bad book either.