The 1960 Winter Olympics, held at Squaw Valley 60 years ago, are considered to be among the most successful and innovative Winter Games ever. This iconic event is remembered for many breakthroughs, including the first use of computers to instantly tabulate score results, compressors to freeze skating ice, machine-groomed snow for both alpine and Nordic competitions and more.
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Progressive organizational policies were also implemented, such as opening speed skating to women and housing athletes together. The competitions were televised live across America, which projected images of Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe into living rooms throughout the nation. The 1960 Winter Olympics propelled the Tahoe Sierra into the spotlight for scenic beauty and year-round recreation.
Carol Heiss came to Squaw Valley on a personal mission: to win a gold medal for her mother. The pressure was intense, but her inspired skating performances were so eloquent and perfectly executed that each of the nine judges awarded her a first-place score.
Technology made a favorable impression on athletes, coaches and spectators, but it was the human element of competition that captured the drama and emotion of these XVIII Winter Games. Virtually every competitor came with a personal story of sacrifice and accomplishment — too many to cover here — but a few highlights of some American achievements can offer a taste of the excitement that these games generated.
Penelope “Penny” Pitou
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, Pitou tried to join the boy’s ski racing team. She tucked her hair under a 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 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.”
60th anniversary celebration
March 14 | 2:30-5:30 p.m.
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After a poor performance at the 1956 Winter Games in Italy, Pitou trained harder. Her perseverance paid off in 1960, when despite a bad cold, she took silver in both the women’s downhill and giant slalom. Pitou was the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the downhill. Today, she owns Penny Pitou Travel, a full-service agency that organizes tours and adventures around the world. Pitou still leads skiing and hiking excursions in the European Alps.
American figure skater Carol Heiss had an especially poignant story at the Squaw Valley Olympics. Heiss, raised in Queens, N.Y., 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 for a silver medal. She earned first place in the World Figure Skating Championships that year, the first of five consecutive world titles.
In 1956, Heiss’ mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The skater offered to turn professional to earn money for treatments, but her mother made her promise that she would try to win a gold medal at the next Winter Olympics. Her mother died six months later and the distraught 16-year-old dedicated herself to fulfilling the promise she had made. She retained her amateur status and for the next three years dominated women’s figure skating as nobody had 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: to win a gold medal for her mother. The pressure on Heiss was intense, but her inspired skating performances were so eloquent and perfectly executed that each of the nine judges awarded her a first-place score. Her 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. She became the first Winter Olympian to receive a tickertape parade in New York City. Today Heiss and her husband Hayes Alan Jenkins (gold medalist in men’s figure skating in 1960) teach and coach aspiring ice skaters.
U.S. Olympic Hockey team
In 1960, Canada dominated Olympic ice hockey with six gold medals, one silver and one bronze in the previous eight Winter Games. The betting money was on Canada again at Squaw Valley, but the Russian team (gold medalists in 1956) were considered a strong contender. Compared to the Soviets so-called amateur team comprised of government-supported 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 “Jack” McCartan’s performance was stellar with 39 saves out of 40 shots on goal. When the buzzer sounded on the 2-1 American victory, spectators went crazy. Next 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 held even after the Russians pulled their goalie in the final minute to add firepower to their offense. The 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.
This final game played out on Sunday morning, the last day of the Olympics. 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, Nickolai “Solly” Sologubov, captain of the Soviet hockey team, told the American coach that his players could boost their energy levels by inhaling pure oxygen. Sologubov’s suggestion wasn’t altruistic. The Russians may have been out of the running for a gold medal, but they could still win a bronze if the Czechs lost to the Americans.
The third and final period went nearly 6 minutes without a goal until the American offense exploded with six goals to lead an unstoppable surge past the Czechs. Their 9-4 victory made international headlines and clinched the United States’ first gold medal in ice hockey.
The American press had given the U.S. hockey team virtually no chance to place higher than fifth at the games. The squad included a fireman, two carpenters, a couple of insurance salesmen, college kids and players from minor league outposts. After their remarkable victory, however, the same media pundits who predicted their demise proclaimed them the Team of Destiny.