Penny Pitou looked great, both on the slopes and in front of the camera

  • Penny Pitou poses for a photo at her Laconia travel agency office Friday. Pitou won two sliver medals in Alpine skiing at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, becoming the first U.S. athlete – male or female – to medal in the downhill. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Penny Pitou ski racing COURTESY—Penny Pitou

  • COURTESY—Penny Pitou

  • Penny Pitou poses for a photo in Val d’Isere, France in 2010. Courtesy

  • The Feb. 15, 1960 cover of “Newsweek” featured Gilford’s Penny Pitou. New Hampshire Historical Society

Monitor staff
Sunday, February 18, 2018

Penny Pitou, famous for winning two Olympic silver medals and booking European ski tours, says it’s okay to call her attractive.

In fact, she likes it, as long as you include the part about skiing, too.

Both defined her in 1960, when the woman behind Penny Pitou Travel in Laconia became an American media darling. Everything fit perfectly, from the early widespread TV coverage; to the buzz that accompanied a team of, according to Sports Illustrated, “young and attractive and appealing” women to the Games; to Pitou’s charging, sometimes out-of-control style of skiing; to those silver medals she won in the downhill and giant slalom; to those, well, aforementioned good looks.

“It was very acceptable at the time,” Pitou told me last week. “I liked it.”

I’ll let you decide if looks today are vital to a female athlete’s profile and marketability.

It sure was back in Pitou’s day. The difference was, no one tried to hide it. The male-dominated sports media used it as a regular tool in their arsenal, and women grew accustomed to this sort of treatment.

This is not to say, however, that Pitou was not a rebel with a cause, was not ahead of her time, was not ready to stick it to the system. Far from it.

At Laconia High in the 1950s, she pulled down her ski hat, tucked her blonde hair underneath and told the boys on the ski team to call her Tommy. Then she kicked their butts, and she took that attitude straight to Squaw Valley In California for the Winter Games, where she emerged as the first American skier – male or female, good looking or not – to win a medal in the downhill.

“I’m not sure it’s competitive spirit or just that I won’t give up,” Pitou told me, citing an interesting distinction. “If someone says you can’t do it, just keep doing it, and that’s the way I’ve been my whole life.”

Pitou is 79 and still leads people down mountains in places like Italy and Austria. She’s combined old-fashioned customs with a wildly independent spirit through her life.

So while she shook up the ski world as a kid and young woman, Pitou “wanted to open ski schools and get married” after her career ended at age 21.

But being left off the high school ski team? Simply because there was no girls’ team? No.

Pitou says she made it halfway through the season during her secret mission.

“I was racing boys I had grown up with and built tree-houses with and ran around the mountains with,” Pitou said. “Why shouldn’t I ski on the team? I skied as well as the boys, and I was the second best jumper.”

She was outed when she caught an edge at New Hampton School and fell flat on her face. Her hat came off, her hair spilled out and the jig was up.

“It wasn’t long after that I was called in by Mr. Piper, our principal,” Pitou told me. “I thought he was going to congratulate me because the team had been doing so well. He told me I was off the team. He told me parents had called and complained there was no chaperone on the bus.”

Pulling no punches

Pitou used no filter during our interview. Everything she said emerged in rapid-fire, in instinctive fashion, much like the skiing style she used to tear up the high school circuit and earn a berth, at age 17, on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team.

She was dynamite on skis, recklessly charging forward, bad on turns, great on speed, perfect for the downhill.

She competed in all three disciplines available for women – slalom, giant slalom and downhill – at the ’56 Games in Italy. She remembered face plants, falling and goggles flying. She forgot to lower her goggles for the giant slalom, pulling them down halfway through the race.

And the downhill really stood out, when her thirst for victory intersected with her desire to look good on camera.

“I was going 90 miles per hour, totally out of control,” Pitou told me. “I got to just before the finish and I thought I’d be on TV – we’d just gotten one – and I wanted to look good. I put my poles under my arm and hit a transition and fell flat on my face. I crossed the finish line with my big butt in the air.”

She wanted to quit, despite both slalom events remaining.

“I was ready to give up,” Pitou said.

She dragged her skis back to the hotel, a beaten and frustrated high school kid. She ran into her idol, mentor and teammate, Andrea Mead Lawrence, who had won a pair of Alpine gold medals at the ’52 Games in Oslo, Norway.

Pitou told Lawrence “I’m done.” Lawrence reminded Pitou that she had the fourth fastest time before falling.

“She told me, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ ” Pitou said. ‘I’d stay with it if I were you.’ So I did.”

That’s all it took, Pitou said. She got permission from her parents to stay in Europe. She waited tables, sold ski equipment and skied, and she got really good, to the point where the snooty Europeans knew they’d have a run for their medals at the ’60 Games at Squaw Valley.

Then came the publicity, for Pitou, Betsy Snite, Linda Meyers, Joan Hannah, Renie Cox and Beverly Anderson. America learned they were good skiers.

And good looking, too.

Smile for the cameras

Pitou was called “the bouncy blonde from New Hampshire,” in a Sports Illustrated article that ran two weeks before the 1960 Olympics.

Another passage described Pitou this way: “a cross between your little sister, your girlfriend and a rubber ball. She has blue eyes and a big dimple in her right cheek and is thoroughly feminine.”

Another segment said Pitou and Snite lured “European boyfriends who could show them how to ski.”

At one point, after the writer noted that Pitou had slimmed down from a “chubby 150 pounds” to 135, Pitou is quoted as saying, “I’m 36-25-38, and if you don’t think I’m in condition, just feel that,” at which time she slammed her fist against her thigh.

Word spread about the team and Pitou, 480 miles south, to La-La Land.

“Just before the downhill, Hollywood called me and wanted me to do a screen test,” Pitou told me. “I said I can’t do that because I’m racing in the downhill tomorrow, and they asked, ‘How about the next day?’ It was silly.”

Her racing, however, the manner in which she attacked the slopes, the way she lived up to the name “Tiger,” given to her by Olympic men’s ski coach Bill Beck, turned out to be the real story here.

Pitou was known as a power skier who had problems turning. She worked on it, however, and ended up winning the silver in the giant slalom.

In the downhill, Pitou recalled the final turn, sharp and dangerous. She nearly fell, and in that split second of panic and horror, while righting the ship to win America’s first medal ever in the downhill, Pitou’s thoughts raced hard like her body, revealing the burnout that had engulfed her from skiing and skiing and skiing as a kid.

“I said to myself as I was going down, ‘Penny, if you fall here you have to do this again in four years,’ ” Pitou said. “And I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

She regained control and won silver. Afterward, while eating in the cafeteria, Pitou saw a man with dark hair and, fittingly, a ski-sloped nose heading her way, surrounded by an entourage.

Vice President Richard Nixon walked over. “Ms. Pitou,” Pitou recalled, in her best Nixon-like, baritone voice. “I’m here to tell you how sorry I am you lost today.”

“I can tell you I didn’t feel badly about it,” Pitou told me. “I thought the guy was crazy to think that winning a silver wasn’t winning something.”

Back to where it began

She came home to Laconia and made some appearances, earning some money here or there, but not nearly enough to sustain her.

She skied once more, in Stowe, Vt., and that was that. Done, at age 21.

“I didn’t have it anymore,” Pitou said. “Totally burned out. I had been on the circuit for five years, living out of a suitcase.”

She turned her back on the Hollywood thing, telling her agent she had no interest in losing more weight, learning to dance or whitening her teeth.

She married twice and divorced twice. Her first husband was Austrian skier Egon Zimmermann, whom she had met at the 1958 World Championships and married in ’61. Their relationship at the 1960 Games only added to the fascination of the bouncy blonde.

They had two children together and settled in Gilford. They gave ski lessons at Gunstock Mountain Resort, always Pitou’s home base. Communication could be troublesome for the couple. Zimmermann’s English wasn’t very good. Pitou’s German wasn’t very good.

“A great way to learn German,” Pitou said. “I had a headache for three months.”

Her travel agency, located in downtown Laconia, opened 30 years ago. Pitou still skis with her clients, and in fact recently came back from a trip to France, Austria and Italy.

The Penny Pitou Silver Medal Quad chairlift opened at Gunstock eight years ago.

Looking back, Pitou broke down barriers for female athletes. She showed that girls could compete with boys in high school, and that American women could beat the Europeans on a world stage.

“Her two silver medals marked a new era of ski racing in the United States,” Gunstock General Manager Greg Goddard said during the quad lift dedication in 2009.

As for her photogenic side, Pitou used it, but only to a point. She was featured on the cover of Newsweek on Feb. 15, 1960, her blonde hair, red lips and huge smile dominating a photo of her skiing form in the background.

As a ground-breaking athlete herself, I wondered how Pitou felt about the #MeToo movement. Like her days at Laconia High and the 1960 Games, and in the spirit of a woman who never pulled any punches and rarely hit the brakes on the slopes, Pitou shook things up a bit.

She momentarily lost her balance, searching for the right words, but as had happened in the Olympic downhill at Squaw Valley, she finished standing tall.

“That part is a little overdone today,” Pitou said. “I think I wanted to be attractive. I wanted to look nice like women do now, even if they don’t say they do.”