- by Karen Cummings
NH Olympians -- Penny Pitou '56, '60
Dubbed the "Russian Railroad" due to her aggressive skiing style, Penny Pitou led the American women's team at the 1960 Olympic games in Squaw Valley, California. Joining teammate Betsy Snite, who took a silver in the slalom, Penny captured silvers in the giant slalom and downhill.
"I has no finesse," she said, "and I was strong as a bull in those days, so they gave me that nickname."
Born in Meredith, New Hampshire, Penny began skiing for one simple reason. "There was nothing else to do," she explained. "You either skated or you skied and in those days, there was more snow, so I skied." Penny started her skiing career on barrel staves with canning jar rubbers holding her boots to the skis. After moving to Gilford in 1946, she was close enough to be able to ski home from Gunstock, which she did many times. "I always raced and skied with the boys," Penny said. "I figured I could do whatever they did. Once I started racing against the girls, I found it wasn't that hard."
Financial backing was a problem for Penny in her early years of competition. In 1955, she went to her first Olympic tryout on Northland "seconds"--one pair of skis for all events. "It was all I could afford," she said, "so I just did my best." Penny won the Junior Nationals on her second quality skis, and made the U.S. Olympic team at age 17. "One time before a race, my skis didn't have enough offset," Penny recalled, "and a neighbor who was driving me to races took out his jack knife and carved some of the wood away."
Equipment was undergoing radical changes in the mid 1950s, and it was at the 1956 Olympics in Cortina, Italy, that Penny first used release bindings. "We started out thinking we would rather fall and break a leg than lose a ski," she said, "but after watching the other girls, we gave them a try."
Though a strong skier, her immaturity and relative lack of experience in the 1956 Games might have kept her out of the winner's circle. "I had the second fastest time in the downhill until the very bottom," she explained, "but I was madly in love with Tony Sailer at the time and the television cameras were on me so I went into a tuck to try to really look good and I lost it. The next week, I came in second in a world class race so I knew I could do it."
Penny speaks fondly of her years of racing, which she primarily spent in Europe for financial reasons. "The U.S. team was only in existence for a few months every two years," she said, "so you had to train by yourself, which was hard, and also pay for everything mostly on your own." Though she worked in a toy airplane factor or as a waitress among other odd jobs, Penny found that the European racing system, which paid the racers' expenses, allowed her to ski and meet her financial responsibilities.
"The whole experience was wonderful," she said, "but I'm really glad I did it then. I got to travel, meet all kinds of different people, and learn to speak French and German. The whole racing thing wasn't so intense--we were able to have other interests and a lot of time in between."
Winning many of the European events, Penny had her best years in 1958 and '59. Her skiing career too place before the races were designated World Cup events, but her exploits in those years would compare to current Olympian Tamara McKinney's results in the last few years. Everything culminated with her two silver medals at Squaw Valley. Retiring from competitive racing, Penny and her former husband, Austrian racer Egon Zimmerman, set up ski schools at Gunstock and Blue Hills, Massachusetts.
Still a New Hamsphire resident, Penny is the proprietor of the Penny Pitou Travel Agencies where her skiing expertise and renown come in handy when she heads ski tours to Europe twice a year. "They are very good to me, especially the Austrians," she said. "In Europe, I'm still a star."