Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series. Find the first installment at www.tahoedailytribune.com.
The 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley represents the moment in history when the world discovered Lake Tahoe. The Walt Disney-inspired pageantry, Hollywood celebrities, and live television broadcast brought a certain sparkle to these Winter Games, but ultimately it was the athletes who made the Olympics the ultimate in amateur competition. In 1960 the United States wasn’t the world-class winter sports powerhouse it is now, but Americans would medal in dramatic ways.
Much has been written of the U.S. hockey team’s amazing gold medal win that year, but virtually every athlete at those Games came with a personal story of sacrifice and accomplishment. A few highlights offer a taste of the excitement that these Olympics generated, both in the United States and throughout the world.
Penelope “Penny” Pitou, a 21-year-old ski racer from Gilford, N.H., was the top ranked American in the women’s downhill and giant slalom. With the U.S. men’s alpine ski squad decimated by injuries, the women racers were America’s best chance. As a high school student Penny didn’t let her gender hold her back and she tried to join the boy’s ski racing team. She hid her hair under her hat to secure a place on their team. “I asked my friends to call me Tommy,” she said. “I made the team and everything went great until I competed in a downhill race at New Hampton School. I crashed in front of a gate-keeper, my hat flew off and my hair came down. It’s one of the few times in my life that I was at a loss for words.”
Pitou’s skiing mentor was Olympic great and the 1952 double-gold medalist Andrea Mead Lawrence, who encouraged Penny to work harder after she performed poorly at the 1956 Winter Games at Cortina, Italy. Pitou’s perseverance and commitment paid off at Squaw Valley when, despite a bad cold, she won the silver in the women’s downhill, and then took another silver in the women’s giant slalom. Penny Pitou became the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the downhill race.
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, the first of many winning performances. 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. After the Games, Carol offered to turn professional and skate in ice shows to earn money, but her mother made her promise to remain an amateur so 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 and one minor misstep in her routine would kill any chance to win, but her inspired skating performances were so eloquent and perfectly executed that each of the nine judges awarded her a first place score. Carol Heiss’ gold was the first for the United States at Squaw Valley; American figure skater Barbara Ann Roles shared the podium with Heiss when she won the bronze. 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.
One Olympic-caliber skier that never got a chance to show his stuff at Squaw Valley that year was Wallace “Buddy” Werner out of Steamboat Springs, Colo. Werner made the U.S. Olympic Team three times, 1956, 1960, and 1964. His best chance to medal was in 1960 at Squaw Valley, but two months before the Games he broke his leg while training in Aspen. Four years later, Werner was killed in an avalanche in Switzerland. The Buddy Werner League was created in his honor to involve American youth in alpine ski racing.
The 1960 Winter Olympics was a 10-day event where 665 athletes from 30 countries gathered at Squaw Valley to compete in 27 events, including alpine skiing, Nordic combined, cross-country skiing, biathlon, figure skating, speed skating, ice hockey and ski jumping. American athletes acquitted themselves well, winning nine medals total, including three gold, four silver, and two bronze.
— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog: www.tahoenuggets.com.