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Dark memory from 1961

End Zone

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Fifty years ago, Colorado Springs possessed some of the same scenery but an entirely different personality. The population was only about 70,000 in the city, 143,000 for all of El Paso County. The easternmost main thoroughfare was Circle Drive, and Academy Boulevard was just a narrow road.

Sports-wise, the Air Force Academy hadn't finished building Falcon Stadium. No minor-league baseball, only a handful of high schools, and the Denver Broncos had played just one season.

Colorado Springs' main focus was on ice sports at the old Broadmoor World Arena: figure skating, with national and world championships coming regularly, and Olympic champions having trained here; Colorado College hockey, which won NCAA titles in 1950 and 1957, with the World Arena hosting the national tournament every year; and room around the edges for speedskating and curling.

We were the mecca, and the city embraced those athletes and coaches.

With that as the backdrop, it's easier to understand that the plane-crash tragedy of February 1961 in Europe, which took the lives of the entire U.S. skating team on its way to the World Championships in Prague, shook this city to its core.

So if you're lucky enough tonight to see the single showing of RISE, documenting the crash and its aftermath, you can add the perspective of how deeply that tragedy struck Colorado Springs.

William Thayer Tutt, the Broadmoor patriarch who did so much to build and fund that winter-sports presence, and later led the effort that brought the U.S. Olympic Committee here, explained it to me during a conversation about 30 years ago: "It was the most terrible thing. Everyone was in total shock, mainly because the town was small enough back then that everybody knew people on that plane."

For starters, Stephanie Westerfeld. She had trained at the World Arena from the age of 5, performing in many Broadmoor Skating Club shows. Now she was a 17-year-old senior at Cheyenne Mountain High School, an honor student and the homecoming queen. She had come close to winning the ladies title a month earlier at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on her home World Arena ice, eventually finishing second. Her older sister, Sherri, was flying with her.

Another Broadmoor skater was Gregory Kelley, who won the national junior title in 1959, then moved to Colorado Springs as he advanced to the senior level and quickly moved toward the top. He took second at the 1961 Nationals, making the U.S. World Team for the first time. The 16-year-old planned to follow his father's footsteps as a doctor, but first was aiming for the 1964 Olympics.

Bill and Laurie Hickox came from California, and when Bill enrolled at the Air Force Academy in the summer of 1960, he briefly retired from skating. Months later, though, the Academy agreed to let the former U.S. junior champion train with his sister and skate pairs at Nationals, since the competition was here. They finished third to make the World Team, and the Academy granted him special leave to compete in Prague.

Guiding them all was Edi Scholdan, the world-renowned Broadmoor coach who had churned out many champions in his 13 years at the World Arena, including Olympic gold-medalist brothers Hayes Alan Jenkins in 1956 and David Jenkins in 1960. Scholdan had more stars in the making, led by Westerfeld and Kelley, and at 50, he was in his prime. For this trip, he also took his 11-year-old son Jimmy, a charismatic young skater with Olympic potential.

All of them perished in that crash, and as Tutt recalled later, "We were all just paralyzed." But there were still lots of young skaters at the World Arena, some of whom would be pushed into the spotlight faster than expected. They needed new guidance, and soon Tutt picked out a rising Italian coach named Carlo Fassi and lured him to Colorado Springs.

Seven years later, Fassi would coach Peggy Fleming to the 1968 Olympic gold medal, with more champions to follow.

For most in the sport, that plane crash is memorialized as the inspiration for all that has transpired since in figure skating. Here, though, it was more than that.

It was the darkest moment in Colorado Springs' sports history.

routon@csindy.com

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