he Skating Club of Boston went into a deep freeze that winter. ''The ice was empty for a long time,'' remembers Paul George, who was a junior skater in 1961. ''It was very quiet. There was a state of numbness.''
American skating stopped cold four decades ago when the entire US team, with five members from the Boston area, was killed in a plane crash en route to the world championships in Czechoslovakia. The best skaters were gone. The best coaches were gone. The best judges were gone. The ice was empty.
''This was a triple whammy,'' says Dick Button, the former Olympic and world champion who became the sport's top TV analyst. ''It was a devastating time for everyone.''
In a few awful seconds, the most dominant skating program on the planet was wiped out in a Belgian field. The Americans had ruled the sport since the end of World War II, winning the men's gold medal at all four Olympics and the women's gold at the previous two. Now, they were building from the bottom. ''We lost about eight to 10 years,'' reckons Ben Wright, a longtime international skating official and historian.
The crash would have crippled the US program whenever it happened, but it was far worse coming that year, because it was the season after the Olympics in Squaw Valley.
Every 1960 medalist - Carol Heiss, David Jenkins, Barbara Ann Roles, Nancy and Ron Ludington - had moved on. Their successors -- Laurence Owen, Bradley Lord, Maribel Y. Owen, Dudley Richards - would have been the core of the 1964 team. ''Now, the next rank was wiped out, too,'' says Button. ''The generation after that was virtually novices.''
Only four men, three of them teenagers, turned up for the 1962 national championships in Boston. And there were so few experienced women that the US Figure Skating Association coaxed Roles into coming out of retirement just for a year.
''They wanted to make sure they had one strong skater on the team,'' says Roles, who had a 7-month-old daughter. ''They needed to have someone in the top five at Worlds to send a full complement [of three] the next time. With the crash and everything, I thought it would be a good thing to do.''
The Olympics were only two years off by then and the Americans had to get back into the game, even if meant drafting mothers and 12-year-old boys. ''We knew the trip up the ladder was going to be very quick,'' says Tina Noyes, the Arlington skater who leaped from novice to Olympus in three years. ''There was a tremendous amount of pressure on us.''
There was pressure, too, on the new generation of coaches who were being asked to fast-forward a raw crop of kids into world contenders. Skaters come and go with every quadrennium. But coaches endure for decades, developing not only skaters but more coaches.
''What a top coach does is create an aura and an ambience that affects others after them,'' says Button. ''When you remove the linchpin, the rest of the structure collapses.''
Yet tragedy, by necessity, also created opportunity. ''We had lost our entire group of elite coaches, like Maribel Vinson Owen and Edi Scholdan, the cream of the crop,'' says Ludington, who would have been on the plane as a coach if he'd had the money for the trip. ''But it opened doors for people like me and Carlo Fassi and John Nicks. Our careers blossomed.''
A sport that had always stressed waiting one's turn was suddenly pushing understudies onto the stage because it had no choice. The rest of the world was still tracing figure 8s; the US had to lace up whomever it had.
The 1962 team had only two skaters - Roles and dancer Yvonne Littlefield - who had been to the world championships. Monty Hoyt, the men's titlist, was 17. Scott Allen, the runner-up, had just turned 13. Lorraine Hanlon, the 16-year-old from Boston who would have been aboard the doomed plane if her school hadn't discouraged her from making the trip, had just come up from juniors.
There were no fantasies about winning a medal that year. Getting the new generation overseas and in front of international judges was enough.
The Americans had no idea what to expect at the 1964 Games in Innsbruck. Owen, who had been Sports Illustrated's cover girl the week she died, had been sixth at Squaw Valley and probably would have been favored for gold. Lord likely would have made the medal stand, too.
''It was an honor to be on that Olympic team,'' says Noyes, who made it at 15. ''But would Peggy Fleming and Christine Haigler and I have been on it otherwise? I don't think so. There were too many other skaters who had seniority.''
Nobody expected Noyes and her fast-forwarded teammates to fill the skates of the departed. They could barely fill their uniforms. ''The sizes were way too big,'' says Noyes. ''They were meant for someone else.''
Yet the teenagers performed admirably at Olympus. Allen, who had become the youngest US men's champion that year at 14, won the bronze. The women finished 6-7-8. And the pair of Vivian and Ronald Joseph picked up another bronze after Germany's Marika Kilius and Hans Baumler had their silver taken away for signing a professional contract before the Games.
In less than a quadrennium, American skating was back on the board. Fleming went on to win gold in Grenoble in 1968 and set the stage for a procession of global ice queens - Dorothy Hamill, Linda Fratianne, Elaine Zayak, Rosalynn Sumners, Debi Thomas, Jill Trenary, Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski. Since 1964, US skaters have won 19 Olympic and 94 world medals. But the sport has never been the same here.
Before 1961, American skating was dominated by a handful of clubs - the Skating Club of Boston, the Skating Club of New York, the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs, and the Arctic Blades Figure Skating Club in southern California. It never would be again.
The plane crash, like the Nancy-Tonya soap opera in 1994, thrust skating into the national spotlight and stimulated grassroots growth. Indoor ice rinks, once a relative rarity, began springing up across the country. And the USFSA's Memorial Fund, created by donations honoring the 1961 team, helped promising talent with limited means to afford the daunting trinity of ice, coaching, and equipment.
But the Skating Club of Boston, at its peak 40 years ago, never recovered its place at the pinnacle. It was clearly the top competitive club that year, winning the team title at the national championships plus the men's, women's, and pairs crowns.
Now the Owen sisters, their mother/coach, Lord, and Richards had disappeared. ''They were at the club all the time,'' recalls Noyes, who was 12 that winter. ''When they were gone, there was nobody left.''