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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Skaters’ Legacy

U.S. figure skaters who’ve won Olympic gold medals become household names, and many of them appear in Rise, a compelling documentary about the greatest American skaters you’ve probably never heard of.

Before Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill, there was 16-year-old Laurence Owen, who won the 1961 U.S. women’s figure skating championship and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And long before Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano burst onto the scene, there was 16-year-old Doug Ramsay, winner of the 1960 U.S. men’s junior figure skating title.

But neither Owen nor Ramsay competed in the 1964 Winter Olympics because they died in a plane crash over Belgium on Feb. 15, 1961 while traveling to the world championships in Czechoslovakia, along with 71 others, many of whom were this country’s top amateur figure skaters at the time.

“Most people don’t know about this story but it really affected the sport in such a profound way,” said Nancy Stern Winters, a Port Washington native who, with her twin sister, Lisa Stern Lax, directed and produced Rise. Its one-night-only theatrical release is being held on Thursday, Feb. 17, to be seen in more than 500 venues in all 50 states. To find out where and when Rise is playing near you, log your zip code into www.rise1961.com.

Fleming, Hamill, Hamilton, Boitano and Michelle Kwan are Rise’s storytellers, and theatergoers next week will hear their reactions to the film in post-screening interviews to be conducted by NBC’s Matt Lauer from Times Square. In addition, Evan Lysacek, gold medal winner at the 2010 Winter Olympics, will give a never-before-seen skating performance after Rise’s conclusion.

All proceeds from Rise, a project commissioned by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, and the Feb. 17 event, will be used to further the U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund’s mission. The Fund was established on Feb. 23, 1961 as a living tribute to those who lost their lives aboard Sabena Airlines Flight 548. Indeed, the Memorial Fund awards about $300,000 annually in grants and scholarships to skaters in financial need, and set into motion a U.S. figure skating renaissance after the tragedy.

The Stern sisters, who formed New Jersey-based Lookalike Productions in 2002, won a combined 16 Emmy awards while working as producers at ABC (Nancy) and NBC (Lisa) sports during the 1990s, after the Paul D. Schreiber High School alumnae had graduated from Tufts University. They made a name for themselves playing tennis and lacrosse while at both institutions.

“Our biggest dream in life was to work together,” stated Lisa. Since both she and Nancy wanted greater control over their schedules as married mothers, they launched their own business.

Given the film’s pedigree, it is not surprising that the concept of family emerges frequently in Rise. Laurence Owen, for instance, was the daughter of 49-year-old Maribel Vinson Owen, a bronze medalist at the 1932 Winter Olympics who served as Laurence’s coach, and the sister of 20-year-old Maribel Y. Owen, a successful pairs skater. All of them died 50 years ago this month but Rise illustrates how they and their fellow passengers that day left an incredible legacy.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net