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Allen's Olympic bronze medal served as ray of hope

Skater's podium finish in Innsbruck showed strength of U.S. program
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Though only 14 at the time, Scott Allen (right) found himself on the Olympic podium with Germany's Manfred Schnelldorfer (middle) and France's Alain Calmat. -Getty Images

Scott Allen was barely 12 when he and his coach, Fritz Dietl, had planned on traveling to Prague to watch the World Figure Skating Championships. Allen, a junior-level skater at the time, was going to join the U.S. figure skating team to gain the experience of being around a major competition.

But they ended up having to delay their flight because Dietl, who operated a rink in New Jersey, had to fix a compressor and wait for parts to arrive from the West Coast.

That broken compressor likely saved Allen and Dietl's lives. Had it not malfunctioned, they likely would have been on board with the rest of the team on Sabena Flight 548, the one that crashed in Brussels, Belgium, and killed the entire U.S. team, including coaches and officials.

"I found those tickets for that flight when I was about 16 or 17," Allen recalled. "It was a pretty dreadful moment. I knew all of those skaters and coaches. It was such a great loss for skating."

The crash happened, and Allen, then such a young boy, found he had to grow up quickly, as did others who had been on the rise in the sport. Whereas it traditionally took skaters years to reach the top, now they were making monumental leaps. Monty Hoyt, for example, was the 1961 U.S. junior champion. In 1962, he won the U.S. title at the senior level, and Allen, who was making his senior-level national debut that year, earned the silver medal. Allen was the silver medalist again in 1963, and by 1964, at the age of 14, he was crowned the U.S. champion.

By winning the national title, he secured a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that would compete in Innsbruck, Austria. Just two days before his 15th birthday, on Feb. 6, 1964, he earned an Olympic bronze medal. To this day, he remains the youngest individual medalist at a Winter Games in any sport.

Allen was in Boston for the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and he will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his making the Olympic podium by watching the Sochi Games on TV.

"I plan on watching all of it," Allen said of the upcoming Olympics.

The U.S. had traditionally been a power in men's skating -- winning four consecutive Olympic golds from 1948 to 1960 -- but since it had lost so much talent in the plane crash, there wasn't much pressure on Allen in Innsbruck.

Instead of being viewed as a disappointment, having broken the gold-medal string, Allen's bronze was a huge reason for celebration, providing evidence that the U.S. still possessed a great depth of talent.

"I think at the time we all looked at [Allen's medal] as a bright spot from those Games," said Carol Heiss Jenkins, who had trained alongside Allen at the Skating Club of New York and also served as a TV commentator in Innsbruck. "I think it showed the United States still had some pretty strong skaters."

Allen had come by skating naturally. His mother, Sonja Fuhrman, now 90, was an accomplished skater herself, having won the 1941 national title in her home country of Sweden. She was unable to compete at the world championships because of World War II but was considered a top skater in her time. She encouraged her son to skate, and he took up the sport at the age of 6. His father was a huge supporter of his son's skating but was much more involved in skiing, golf and sailing.

By the time Allen was 9, he was landing all his double jumps, and that same year he made his nationals debut. At the time, he was the youngest competitor to skate at nationals, finishing second in the novice men's competition. He would skate in the morning, then go to school for a few hours in the afternoon and then receive tutoring to fill in for the lessons he missed.

Having a mother who understood the nuances of the sport definitely helped. As Allen told SKATING magazine in an article in 1968, "Having skated herself, she knew exactly what competitive skating involved. For years, she drove me to the rink at six o'clock every morning."

Sonja continued skating until she was 85.

Allen grew up traveling, mainly because of skating, and said he even took several top tests in Sweden. He went to the Olympic Winter Games in 1960 as a fan and never envisioned being a part of the U.S. team in 1964 until much later. As it was, he was just 14 when he walked in the Opening Ceremony in Innsbruck.

"That truly was a unique experience," Allen said. "There's really nothing like it. You walk in alongside of skiers and hockey players and athletes from all around the world. Even though the arena wasn't large, you knew the scope of people who were watching on television was huge."

He especially enjoyed the opportunity to watch other athletes compete in those Games. He recalled seeing some speed skating, bobsledding and skiing, and even got to see Jean-Claude Killy on the slopes as well as attend the ice hockey gold medal game. Of course, he took some time to watch figure skating, catching some of the ladies and pairs events.

The highlight for him was watching the men's skating competition. Germany's Manfred Schnelldorfer, a fantastic technician when it came to school figures, won both the figures and the free skate to win the gold medal. Alain Calmat, a Frenchman, had placed second at the two world championships leading up to the 1964 Games, but he struggled in Innsbruck. He finished with the silver medal but was third in figures and fifth in the free skate after taking some spills. 

Allen admits today that he did not expect to be among the challengers for a medal, especially since he was going up against Karol Divin, a much more well-established skater who had won the Olympic silver medal for Czechoslovakia in 1960. Divin was second after the figures but stunningly plummeted out of the medal picture with a ninth-place showing in the free skate.

Allen, meanwhile, who had placed fifth at the 1963 World Championships, displayed a joy in his skating in winning the bronze medal. He placed fourth in both figures and the free skate and was so animated during the freestyle portion that, in the middle of his routine, he waved to some friends he recognized from the Skating Club of New York in the stands.

"I don't remember every skater I have ever seen, but I remember Scotty," said Debbi Wilkes, who competed in the 1964 pairs event for Canada. "At the time, men's skating was very proper, very mechanical. But my coaches would use Scotty as an example because of the kind of vitality he displayed in his skating. He was really an example of showmanship. It seemed that he wanted the audience to enjoy watching his skating as much as he enjoyed performing it."

Nearly 50 years later, Allen still calls the Olympic bronze medal "the pinnacle moment of my skating career," and added that "it is emblazoned in my mind forever."

It is not just the medal-winning moment that sticks with him. The medal ceremony and seeing the American flag being raised, and the entire experience of mingling with athletes from around the world are memories he holds dear.

Allen also said he never will forget sharing the excitement of the moment with his mom in the stands.

"She was just so thrilled; she was way more nervous than I was," Allen said, and then laughed. "She reminds me a lot of that mother at the Summer Olympics in London last summer in gymnastics (Aly Raisman's mom, Lynn Faber) -- just so into competition."

He returned home to a hero's welcome, receiving such large bags of fan mail that he said his mother enlisted a couple of his classmates to help him sort through it. There was even a "Scott Allen Day" in Kinnelon, N.J.

Following the Olympics, Allen had a chance to see the world as a show performer. He took part in exhibitions in Europe in the mid-1960s, calling his time abroad a "second education." While some wondered if he missed out on traditional childhood events because of his skating, Allen said he definitely benefited from his extensive travel.

He was able to visit places that were off-limits to most Americans, most notably behind the Iron Curtain, and recalled going through Checkpoint Charlie, to travel between East and West Berlin. He even returned to Innsbruck for a performance.

"But it just didn't have the same energy, the same feel as when I was there in 1964," Allen said.

Allen placed fourth at the world championships in 1964. The following year, in Colorado Springs, Colo., he scored his highest finish at worlds, earning a silver medal. In 1965, Allen was runner-up at nationals to Gary Visconti, and the two battled for the top spot at nationals for the next couple of years. Allen won the title in 1966, Visconti in 1967.

Leading up to the 1968 Olympic Winter Games, Allen was balancing academic life as a freshman at Harvard University and skating. Although he was expected to make the U.S. Olympic team, Allen got bumped from the squad by a showstopping performance by an 18-year-old from Montana named John Misha Petkevich.

Allen went on to graduate from Harvard and then from Columbia Business School. He worked in the men's clothing business for about 30 years, spending most of his life in New Jersey, but this past summer he moved to New York City. He continues to skate and follow the sport.

"I'll do some spins and jumps and a lot of footwork," he said. "I still like skating outdoors."

He remains involved in the Olympic movement. When Atlanta played host to the Summer Games in 1996, he had an opportunity to carry the torch for about half a mile. He was in Times Square when the U.S. Olympic Committee held its recent "100 Days Out" celebration.

"The dynamics of the Olympics are very unpredictable," Allen said. "The tensions are heightened; nerves are heightened. It just comes down to that one element and who's going to put down that performance of a lifetime. I'm looking forward to watching it all in February."