1960 Winter Olympics inspire a generation
September 10, 2013
The 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley were magical. Crowds of nearly 50,000 packed the small valley near Lake Tahoe as Walt Disney enraptured them with pageantry. Just five years earlier, entrepreneur Alex Cushing defied all odds as unknown Squaw Valley upended Austria to get the Games.
At the opening ceremony, Andrea Mead Lawrence skied the torch down the mountain to kickoff the Olympics in America. After dominating women’s alpine skiing in 1948 and 1952, the Americans were shut out at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy in 1956. But a pair of young New England women were about to change that.
As teens in the mid-50s, New Hampshire’s Penny Pitou and Vermont’s Betsy Snite Riley rose to the top of their sport, winning major European titles and creating a potent one-two punch that the Austrian press called unbeatable.
Coming into America’s first Winter Olympics since Lake Placid in 1932, the two became media darlings especially Pitou, who carried a huge burden of expectations on her shoulders. A New Hampshire native, Pitou ignored the no-girls rules for the high school ski team, eventually making the 1956 Olympic Team as a 17-year-old under the watchful eye of double gold medalist Mead Lawrence.
Going into the Squaw Valley Olympics, Pitou and Snite were on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which described Snite as: "Poised, sophisticated and – on occasion ruthless."
The two didn’t disappoint. In the women’s downhill an event added four years earlier in Cortina Pitou became the first American to earn a speed event medal, taking silver. She backed it up with another silver in GS, while Snite won her silver in slalom.
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The women’s downhill on Squaw’s now infamous KT-22 was terrifying, pitching wildly down what has become one of skiing’s most famous pitches. Just 15 seconds from the finish, the women had to negotiate the 90-degree Airplane Turn which claimed over a dozen victims in the race including three of the four American women.
Pitou, who started number one, survived a near crash herself, losing what she felt was two seconds and costing her the gold. Her silver medal put her in the record books as the first in a long line of American women who would medal in downhill including Susie Corrock, Cindy Nelson, Hilary Lindh, Picabo Street, Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn.
They were American heroes capturing the hearts of the nation, which watched them live on CBS including famed commentator Walter Cronkite. An entire generation of skiers was created as they watched the snowflakes blanket the towering peaks around Lake Tahoe in quintessential Walt Disney fashion.
Pitou and Snite, meanwhile, went on to become icons in the sport both enshrined in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. Sadly, Snite Riley died in 1984, while her fellow Olympic medalist Pitou remains active in her travel business in New Hampshire, having been a lifelong, passionate ambassador of skiing.
I consider myself one of the many who were motivated by Penny Pitou’s silver medal run. As an 8-year-old in Madison, Wis., who had never heard of skiing, I was glued to the television home from school sick. Mom thought I would enjoy the Olympics. It impacted me so much that I decided as an 8-year-old that it was the sport I wanted to pursue in my career.
And here we are over 50 years later!
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he’s not traveling the world with the team.