The rectangular markers for the graves at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale are uniformly flat to the ground to make it easier for groundskeepers to mow the grass. Most are fairly non-descript, generally displaying only the deceased’s name, years of life, and the occasional personal message.
In the private Garden of Honor section, near the plots of Sam Cooke and Sammy Davis, Jr., is a grave that tells a lot about how the life it represents was lived, and how it ended.
The deceased was a young female ice dancer by the name of Dona Lee Carrier, who was only a few months past her twentieth birthday at the time of her death.
Her marker reads: “Our Beloved Daughter – Dona Lee Carrier – Gold medalist and member of the U.S. Figure Skating Team, representing the U.S. in World Competition which was to be held in Prague. She perished at the peak of her career with all her teammates in the Sabena Airlines crash in Brussels, Belgium. She was beautiful, talented and good. ‘A cup of gold on the ice.’ …”
While Dona’s name may not be familiar these days, the plane crash that claimed her life and the rest of the U.S. Figure Skating team on February 15, 1961, is being remembered around the country today on its 50th anniversary.
Figure skating gold belonged to the Europeans for the first half-century of the Olympics, but great strides had been made by the U.S., culminating in gold medals won by both the American men and women at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960. After the games concluded, most of the medal winners retired, clearing the way for a new crop of stars. The 1961 World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia was to be the coming-out party for these future Olympians.
It was not to be. The Sabena Airlines Boeing 707 that was carrying the team to Prague dropped from the sky just outside of Brussels, killing everyone on board. The entire 18-member skating team was lost, plus an additional 16 coaches, officials, and family members. The tragedy even reached into the White House as one of the skaters, Dudley Richards, was a personal friend of President Kennedy and his brother Ted.
Other sports teams had been lost to airplane crashes in the past, but the Sabena crash was different. Since all the elite American skaters were on the plane, it was the closest a sport has ever come to decapitation in this country’s history.
The crash on February 15, 1961 could have proven fatal to figure skating, but like a phoenix, it rose again from its ashes, thanks in large part to the $10 million USFS Memorial Fund which was created in honor of the crash victims. The fund, which still exists, is used to support the training of promising young skaters, including Peggy Fleming, whose gold medal at the 1968 Olympics helped bring the Americans back to prominence in figure skating – a sport that could have died seven years earlier along with its 1961 World Championship team.
(In remembrance of the tragedy, Rise, a film about the crash and its aftermath, will be shown in theaters nationwide for one day only this Thursday.)