1960 Winter Olympics: Talent & determination 

 

Squaw Valley is hosting the Audi FIS Ski World Cup women’s slalom races in March this year. The world’s top professional skiers will be there and television networks will be broadcasting the event across the United States and Europe. It will be the first World Cup at Squaw Valley since 1969 and all the hoopla will also evoke memories of the 1960 Winter Games held there.

Carol Heiss smiles as she receives her Olympic gold medal. | Courtesy Mark McLaughlin

Virtually every competitor at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics came with a personal story of sacrifice and accomplishment. A few highlights of some American achievements can offer a taste of the excitement that these games generated.

First women’s downhill medal
Penelope “Penny” Pitou, a 21-year-old ski racer from New Hampshire, was the top-ranked American in the women’s downhill and giant slalom. As a high-school student, Penny tried to join the boy’s ski racing team. She hid her hair under her hat to secure a place on the team.

“I asked my friends to call me Tommy,” she said. “I made the team and everything went great until I competed in a race at New Hampton School. I crashed in front of a gatekeeper, 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.”

“Her inspired skating performances were so eloquent and perfectly executed that each of the nine judges awarded her a first-place score.”

After a poor performance at the 1956 Olympic Winter Games in Italy, Pitou trained harder. Her perseverance and commitment paid off at Squaw Valley when, despite a bad cold, she took silver in the women’s downhill and giant slalom. Pitou was the first American woman to win an Olympic medal for downhill skiing. Today, she runs Penny Pitou Travels, a full-service agency that organizes tours and adventures around the world. And Pitou leads skiing and hiking excursions in the European Alps.

First gold in 1960
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 and came in second to win a silver medal. Heiss finished first in the World Figure Skating Championships that year, the first of five consecutive world titles. In 1956, Heiss’ mother was dying of cancer and 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 Heiss’ 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.

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. Heiss’ gold was the first for the United States at Squaw Valley. The following week, Heiss won her fifth consecutive world championship and then permanently retired from competitive skating.

On her return home, she became the first Winter Olympian to receive a tickertape parade in New York City. Today Heiss and her husband, Hayes Alan Jenkins, who won the gold in men’s figure skating in 1960, teach and coach aspiring young ice skaters.

America’s “Team of Destiny”
In 1960, Canada dominated ice hockey with six gold medals, one silver and one bronze in the past eight Winter Olympics. The betting money was on Canada again at Squaw Valley, but the Russians, who won gold in 1956, were considered a strong contender. Compared to the Soviet’s so-called amateur team comprised of highly trained hockey professionals, the U.S. media disparagingly portrayed the American team as a ragtag group of college athletes and serious amateurs.

There were nine countries involved in the round-robin format of the hockey competitions. Three teams survived the early rounds undefeated: the U.S., Canada and the Soviet Union. Against Canada, the American defense proved superior. Goalie John McCartan’s performance was stellar with 39 saves out of 40 shots on goal. When the final buzzer sounded on the 2-1 American victory, spectators went crazy.

Then the U.S. beat Russia 3-2 in a thrilling game that had taken on the broader implications of the Cold War. The American defense had held even after the Russians pulled their goalie in the final minute to add firepower to their offense. The huge upset victory set up a final match between the U.S. and Czechoslovakia and a chance for the Americans to win their first gold medal in ice hockey.

Read Mark’s account of how a pioneering snowmaker saved the 1960 Olympics 

Pioneer snowmaker saved Squaw Valley Olympics

This final game played out on Sunday morning, the last day of the Winter Games. The Czechs employed the same aggressive style of quick play that had put the Russians on the podium in 1956. After the big win against the Soviet Union the night before, the Americans were exhausted.

At the start of the third and final period, the U.S. was down 4-3 and tired from their extreme physical and emotional battle with the Russians. During the second intermission Nikolai “Solly” Sologubov, captain of the Soviet hockey team, told the American coach that his players could boost their energy levels by inhaling pure oxygen. Solly’s suggestion wasn’t completely altruistic. The Russians may have been out of the running for a gold medal, but they could still win a bronze if the Czech’s lost to the Americans.

The third and final period went nearly 6 minutes without a goal until the Americans offense exploded with six goals to lead an unstoppable American surge past the Czechs. Their 9-4 victory made international headlines and clinched the first gold medal in ice hockey for the U.S.

The American press had given the U.S. hockey team virtually no chance to place higher than fifth. The squad included a fireman, two carpenters from Minnesota, a couple of insurance salesmen and various players from minor league outposts. After their remarkable victory, however, the same media pundits who said they were destined to lose proclaimed them the “Team of Destiny.”

 

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

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Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.