The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver will capture global attention later this month, but the Tahoe-Truckee region can boast of that moment 50 years ago when the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley caught the world's imagination.
The 1960 Winter Olympics was a 10-day event where hundreds of athletes from 30 countries gathered at Squaw Valley to compete in 27 events. In the ramp-up to the Games, the American press had given the U.S. hockey team virtually no chance to win a medal at the Games. After all, they were just a bunch of students and working men, including firemen, carpenters, insurance salesmen and other amateur players. But the team showed confidence, perseverance, and talent that propelled them to go undefeated and win America's first gold medal in hockey.
The U.S. men's ski team was decimated by injuries, so it was left up to the American women to possibly win a medal. Penelope “Penny” Pitou, a 21-year-old ski racer from New Hampshire was the United State's best chance. Pitou's strong work ethic paid off at Squaw Valley when, despite a bad cold, she won the silver in the women's downhill, and then took silver in the women's giant slalom.
American figure skater Carol Heiss had an especially poignant story at the Squaw Valley Olympics. Raised in Queens, N.Y., Heiss earned her first national championship in 1951 at age 11. She skated in the 1956 Winter Olympics in Italy, and came in second to win a silver medal. Not long after, Heiss finished first in the World Figure Skating Championships, the first of five consecutive world titles. During Heiss' competitions at the 1956 Olympics, her mother was dying of terminal cancer. Carol offered to turn professional and skate in ice shows to earn money, but her mother made her promise to remain an amateur so that she could win a gold medal at the next Winter Olympics.
When Carol's mother died six months later, the distraught 16-year-old teenager decided to dedicate herself to fulfilling the promise she had made. Heiss retained her amateur status and for the next three years dominated women's figure skating like nobody since Sonja Henie. She was the U.S. and World Champion figure skater every year from 1957 to 1960.
Carol Heiss came to Squaw Valley on a personal mission greater than sport — she was there to win a gold medal for her mom. The pressure on Heiss was extraordinary, but her inspired skating performances were so eloquent and perfectly executed that each of the nine judges awarded her a first place score. The following week Heiss won her fifth consecutive world championship in Vancouver, Canada, and then permanently retired from competitive skating. Upon her return home, she became the first Winter Olympian to receive a tickertape parade in New York City.
Year-round visitors to the Lake Tahoe region today enjoy virtually unlimited choices in recreation, but when it comes to the social benefits of sport, the mission statement of the U.S. Olympic Committee is more important than ever: “Instill in the youth of America the qualities of courage, self-reliance, honesty, and tolerance; promote and encourage the physical, moral and cultural education of the youth of the United States to the end that their health, patriotism, character and good citizenship may be fully developed.”
Considered by many to be among the most successful Winter Games ever held, the event propelled Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe into the world spotlight and spurred a tremendous growth in winter sports.
— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author whose newest book, “Longboards to Olympics: A Century of Tahoe Winter Sports” is available at local stores or on his website www.thestormking.com. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org