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N.E. Ski Museum honors Penny Pitou


November 18, 2010
Last weekend the New England Ski Museum bestowed its Spirit of Skiing Award on the winsome blonde with a winning smile who twice stood on the podium at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, held in Squaw Valley, California.

The award banquet, attended by approximately 150 members and friends of the museum, was held in the historic base lodge at Gunstock Mountain Resort -- Pitou's home hill.

In presenting the award on Nov. 13, museum president Bo Adams noted Pitou's lofty Olympic record. "In the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley Penny took a silver medal in giant slalom and a silver medal in the downhill," he said. "She is the first American to win a medal in that most exalted alpine event, the downhill."

Accepting the award, Pitou spoke at length about her skiing career, which started behind the family home in Center Harbor on a pair of skis her father had made. She became an accomplished competitor after moving to Laconia at age eight and racing at Gunstock.

"Gunstock is where it began for me," said Pitou. "This is where I rode my first lift -- a rope tow -- and 13 years later I was standing on the podium at Squaw Valley."

Pitou's Olympic downhill run at Squaw Valley almost ended in disaster when she lost her balance near the bottom at "Airplane Corner" -- so called because mistakes there launched racers airborne and off the course. But she quickly recovered and flashed across the finish line with the second-best time.

Pitou is the fifth recipient of the Spirit of Skiing award. Previous honorees are: Tom Corcoran (Waterville Valley founder), Stein Eriksen (former Sugarbush ski school director), Sno-Engineering Company (ski resort design and planning) and Herbert Schneider (associated with Mount Cranmore for more than 70 years).

Pitou retired from competition following the 1960 Winter Games and married Austrian downhill champion Egon Zimmermann. The two of them ran the ski school at Gunstock for years.

Since her divorce from Zimmermann, Pitou has owned a travel agency that specializes in creating guided ski vacations in Europe -- mostly led by herself.

"When I'm skiing in Switzerland, I'm in my office," she says.

Pitou's Medals on Display

ADAMS NOTED THAT the New England Ski Museum was enjoying one of the most successful years in its history, with the current visitor count of 35,000 more than doubling the previous record. Much of that surge is attributed to the current exhibit, which opened in June and will remain up through April.

The exhibit has an Olympic theme and both of Pitou's silver medals are displayed. The museum is located in Franconia, near the lower terminal of the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway.

"Five Rings, Six States" is the title, and the exhibit outlines the story of New England skiers and snowboarders who have competed in the Olympics. The story begins in 1924, when Dartmouth College student John P. Carleton sailed to France to ski in the first Olympic Winter Games.

Several skiers from the Mount Washington Valley area are featured, including Brooks Dodge, Abbi Fisher, Tyler Palmer and Marcus Nash. Photos represent most of these men and women; Fisher's Olympic blazer is also on display.

The timeline of the story ends last February in Vancouver with two gold medals won by New England men: Bode Miller, of Franconia, taking the Alpine Combined and Seth Wescott, of Farmington, Maine, successfully defending his previous Olympic title in Snowboard Cross.

The museum's exhibit includes all three of Miller's medals from Vancouver plus his two silvers from the 2002 Salt Lake Games.

Pitou's Most Famous Run

HALF A CENTURY has vastly changed Pitou's most famous run.

When I skied at Squaw Valley last February, I grabbed a map of the 1960 race courses and retraced the women's downhill. Due to subsequent changes in the trail layout, the route is vastly different than it was for Pitou's most exalted moment.

Today the historic 1960 ladies' downhill route starts a few dozen yards east of the upper terminus of the KT-22 high-speed chairlift, drops through a mogul field, angles across a heavily trafficked crosscut trail, descends through a second bump run and finishes near one of the modern base buildings.

Historian David C. Antonucci, author of a book on the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, notes that Squaw Valley's trails have been so altered over the past half-century that the location of the infamous Airplane Corner can't be precisely pinpointed.

Scott Andrews is a snow sports journalist from Portland who frequently skis in the Mount Washington Valley.

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