- by Tom Eastman
An Olympian Ski Heritage
Long before Jim McKay was there to report back to ABC television viewers about the beauty of the spectacle known as the Winter Olympics, New Hampshire skiers were representing their country in the international competition. From St. Moritz to Sapporo, beginning in 1924 and continuing on up to the current 1984 games taking place in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, the Granite State's skiing heritage has been strongly evident.
Who are these skiers, and where do they come from? The names are well known to ski enthusiasts, unheard of by others: John Carleton, Charles Proctor, Ed Blood, Paula Kann Valar, Penny Pitou, Abbi Fisher, Tom Corcoran, Brooks Dodge, David Currier, and Terry and Tyler Palmer. Each has made his or her own mark in the ski world, whether as an Olympic champion, or as a lifelong promoter and developer of the sport.
Today, skiers such as Paula Valar, Penny Pitou, Brooks Dodge, and David Currier all note that the Olympic experience they share is something which has not faded with the passage of time. They remember the camaraderie of the athletes they competed against, the hospitality of the host countries, and their own awakened awareness of the world around them. As David Currier noted, "I had a great time. We were there for three weeks at the 1972 games, and Sapporo is a huge city with a lot to do. Just competing in the Olympics was a great thrill, and my parents came, which made it even greater."
New Hampshire's first involvement with the Winter Games occurred in 1924 when Dartmouth ski pioneer John Carleton was named to the first American ski team. A 1922 graduate of Dartmouth who had set the New England jumping mark his senior year, Carleton in 1924 was a Rhodes Scholar, studying at England's Oxford University. At the 1924 games in Chamonix, Carleton finished 22nd in the jumping events, a performance that was soon eclipsed by his other skiing feats in the ensuing years.
Along with 1928 American ski team member and fellow Dartmough grad Charley Proctor, Carleton gained notoriety as one of the first ski pioneers to regularly ski Mount Washington. Together with Proctor, who had been one of the mainstays of all the Dartmouth teams of the 1920s, Carleton made skiing history after his Olympic career when they became the first men to ski down the Tuckerman Ravine headwall on April 11, 1931. Carleton later became a lwyer in Manchester, and was instrumental in enlisting the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps for the cutting of ski trails in the 1930s.
Proctor, Carleton's kindred spirit, was regarded as one of the leading ski champs during the early days of skiing in the White Mountains, as he won the first downhill race ever staged in the United States on Mt. Moosilauke in 1927. He was named to the hastily assembled U.S. team chosen to compete in the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz and "trained on the boat going over."
According to New England Ski Museum historian, E. John B. Allen, Proctor's 1928 team was well chosen, but "bad luck was to dog their ski tracks." Two weeks before the major event and the day after the team's arrival in St. Moritz, Rolf Monsen suffered a badly sprained knee on a practice jump. In spite of it, Monsen joined team member Proctor and Anders Haugen in an 18 kilometer race. In that event, Proctor damaged an elbow in a fall and had to finish the race minus a pole. Their results were disappointing and more than a little discouraging--they ended up last of those to qualify for the combined category as Haugen was 42nd, Proctor 43rd, and Monsen 44th our of a field of 80. They were an hour behind the winners.
Under those circumstances, their chances in the ski jumping competition of the combined event were non-existent, but the trio showed their spirit and jumped anyway. Monsen, despite not being able to climb the jumping hill well, jumped credibly enough to place 6th out of a field of 40. Proctor took a very resepectable 14th, while Haugen--who twice was holder of the world record and maker of the longest jump at Chamonix, placed 18th.
After the games, Proctor became one of the most well known American ski instructors. He laid out ski trails, taught at Birchmont Hill in North Conway (current site of the Red Jacket Mountain View), and became one of the first three examiners for the certification of ski instructors in 1938. He later advised Averill Harriman on the layout of Sun Valley.
The Americans fared better overall at the 1932 Olympic Games at Lake Placid, but their medals came in such events as speedskating and bobsledding, not skiing. Ed Blood--later a coach for the University of New Hampshire--came in 16th in the combined events. The 1936 Games at Garmisch-Partinkirchen, Germany, which followed were significant for two respects: alpine skiing was introduced to the competition and female athletes were allowed to compete for the first time. A strong Dartmouth presence was evident at the games, as the American team was led by Dick Durrance. Ed Blood come in 42nd in the 18-kilometer cross country event.
The games were cancelled due to World War II in 1940 and 1944. When they resumed in 1948 after the conclusion of hostilities, Gretchen Fraser took America's first gold medal in alpine skiing when she won the slalom. Paula Kann Valar--a native of Austria who had moved to North Conway after Hitler invaded her country--raced for the U.S. team, finishing 11th out of 28 racers in the slalom.
The American men brought hom no medals from the 1952 Oslo, Norway, games, but there were some pleasant surprises. Jackson's Brooks Dodge pulled a 6th in the giant slalom, and a 9th in the slalom. American Bill Beck moved up from an alternate slot to make it to 5th place in the downhill out of 72 competitors as well. Meanwhile, American woman Andrea Mead Lawrence won both the slalom and giant slalom. Norway's dominance of the sport continued, however.
While the 1956 Olympics in Italy were considered to belong to Austrian ace Toni Sailer, the American trio of Ralph Miller and New Hampshire's Tom Corcoran and Brooks Dodge were 13, 14, and 15th in the GS, while American Buddy Werner was 11th in the downhill. Dodge's slalom earned him a 4th place, the best that any American make had ever done up until that time.
Young Penny Pitou of Gilford gained experience at the 1956 games and then bowled everyone over along with teammate Betsy Snite in 1960 at Squaw Valley when she won two silvers for her showings in the downhill and GS. Snite took the slalom silver. Meanwhile, Tom Corcoran came within .6 of being the first American male to win an Olympic skiing medal when he took 4th in GS. America was starting to make itself known in the European dominated disciplines of alpine skiing.
Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga broke that medal barrier in 1964 for the Americans when they captured a silver and a bronze in the men's slalom. The 1968 games in Grenoble failed to extend that trend, however, as the Americans were outgunned by Jean Claude Killy's three golds in all the alpine events.
The 1972 Sapporo games marked a miles of achievement and pride for ski racing here in Mt. Washington Valley. Brothers Terry and Tyler Palmer, along with their longtime skiin partner and friendly rival, David Currier of Madison, gave the Valley three places on the U.S. team, a situation that is not likely to occur again for some time yet. Barbara Cochran game the American team a gold in the women's slalom that year.
South Conway's Abbi Fisher--a local girl who had developed her technique on the slopes of Mt. Cranmore and Wildcat--compete for the Americans in 1976 and 1980, but was hampered by injuries. As she recently noted, "The biggest disappointment for me in the Olympics was not being healthy."
Bill Koch of Vermont took the silver in the men's 30-kilometer cross country race in 1976, and Cindy Nelson took the bronze in the women's downhill. Phil Mahre continued the trend in 1980 by taking the silver in the men's slalom.
With Holly Flanders of Deerfield, N.H., leading the way, there's no telling how many more New Hampshire youths are developing into prospective Olympians on local ski slopes. Flanders and all those who have preceded her are ample proof that the state's Olympic heritage is as strong as granite, and almost as old as the hills. If the games are held in the state in 1996 as some have lobbied, here's to the local heroes' chances of taking home gold.