The six members of the U.S. women's Olympic Alpine ski team are young and attractive and appealing—and they would slit your throat to beat you through a slalom gate by two feet.
Since their goal is an Olympic championship and their opposition a seemingly endless file of girls born on the slopes of the Alps and raised on skis, this ruthlessness is an admirable thing in Betsy Snite, Penny Pitou, Linda Meyers, Joan Hannah, Renie Cox and Beverly Anderson. Defying history and the odds, they have become the girls to beat in this most glamorous of European-born sporting events at the VIII Olympic Winter Games beginning at Squaw Valley February 18. It is almost as if a team of Laplanders showed up at the Coliseum one day to challenge the Dodgers—and then discovered themselves favored to win the game.
Olympic ski championships have gone to American girls before, of course. Gretchen Fraser won the special slalom at St. Moritz in 1948, and Andrea Mead Lawrence won two gold medals four years later at Oslo. But today there are half a dozen American girls primed to cover their parkas with gold and silver and bronze medals, particularly the parkas belonging to Snite, Meyers and Pitou. A year ago Snite and Pitou were consistent winners against women from the great Alpine countries in Alpine events over Alpine courses. Now Meyers has become a winner, too. At the Olympics the U.S. team will be back home competing on its own familiar slopes, while the Europeans must travel 6,000 miles.
Two weeks ago, at the famed Hahnenkamm meet in Kitzb√ºhel, Austria, in the only major competition bringing together most of the Olympic contenders before Squaw Valley, Penny Pitou stole the show. (She also stole the handsomest member of the Austrian men's team, a topflight racer named Egon Zimmermann, right out from under the Austrian girls' noses, and this has more to do with Penny's success on skis than one might think.) With Betsy Snite on the sidelines, waiting for a minor knee injury to heal (she came back a week later to win the slalom at St. Moritz), the bouncy blonde from New Hampshire placed fourth in the giant slalom, second in the downhill and tied Linda Meyers for first in the slalom, despite a fall which cost her two seconds on her first run.
February 1, 1960
If the '60 Hahnenkamm was a triumph for Penny, it was a major-breakthrough for Linda Meyers. Her tie for first there, and a first place last week in the Lenzerheide giant slalom, proved that she could beat the Europeans, too. "You've learned what it's like to win," Coach Dave Lawrence told the freckle-faced tomboy from California. "Now keep doing it."
Behind the big three are Joan Hannah, Renie Cox and Bev Anderson, who lack only experience—European experience—and the confidence which it brings. Hannah, a 20-year-old with a ski-jump nose, came flashing out of nowhere last winter to win or place in several big U.S. events, and the three-week Olympic team trip to Europe may be all that she needed to hit the top. Cox, once an outstanding junior racer, is steady and sure, and bad conditions do not bother her. No one knows exactly what to make of Anderson. A friendly blonde chatterbox who makes honor grades at the University of Washington, she defies most of the rules of racing technique—and some of the laws of gravity. "She has no bloody business being that good," says Andrea Mead Lawrence, who is both chaperone of the girls' team and wife of its coach. "But she is." Or at least she was last year, when she had a terrific record in the United States. This winter Beverly was visibly awed by her firstventure into the international ranks, but the European races could be just the right seasoning for her, too.
The factors which have propelled American women into this prominence in the strange world of Alpine skiing are only accidentally related. First, and in some ways most important, these girls are the pioneer products of the great U.S. ski boom which is now going full blast and can be expected to furnish first-class international racers at a steadily increasing pace. But why are most of them girls? Well, in the first place, it is much easier for a girl of 12 to decide that she is going to become a ski champion some day than it is for a boy of the same age. Where 30 other girls in the entire world may have the same ambition at the same time, there will be 300 boys—or maybe 3,000. And, finally, it is because American women are...well, American women, incapable of viewing with more than a cool sort of indifference the reputations of their opponents. U.S. male skiers, confronted with the incredible skill and vast experience of Europeans raised on skis, find themselves staggeringunder a psychological burden. U.S. women seem to look upon their European rivals not so much as superior skiers but simply as other women—and they go out to beat them.
Snite, Meyers and Pitou were all raised in snow country—Betsy in Norwich, Vt., right across the Connecticut River from Hanover and ski-conscious Dartmouth College; Penny in Laconia and Gilford, N.H.; Linda in Bishop, Calif., a few good schusses down the Sierra Nevada from Squaw Valley. Snite, whose father is an ardent and often very vocal ski fan, was able to walk at the age of 7 months and was placed on skis at the age of 1½. "Sometimes I used them as skis," she says, "more often as toboggans or just shovels to dig in the snow. They were playthings. But they weren't barrel staves; they were real skis." Like Pitou, she was skiing hard at the age of 5, and at 11 she was winning races, usually against boys. Linda Meyers didn't start skiing until she was 14, when her family moved to Bishop from Los Angeles, but she had the benefit of the long Sierra snow season and developed very quickly.
Pitou and Snite each made the 1956 U.S. Olympic team at 17, although neither was really ready for that kind of competition. Penny, with remarkable consistency, finished 31st, 34th and 34th in the three races at Cortina. Snite skied badly in the giant slalom, then tore ligaments in her knee while practicing for the downhill and missed the other events. In 1958 Meyers joined Snite and Pitou on the U.S. team for the world championships at Bad Gastein. They skied in Europe the rest of that winter and the two eastern girls, Pitou and Snite, stayed right through until March of the following year, working for ski-equipment manufacturers in whatever jobs they could find, racing every weekend and collecting European boy friends who could show them how to ski.
"Maybe that sounds funny, but it's important," says Betsy, who is tall (5 feet 6½ inches) and can be described as willowy when she has been training hard. "I really learned to ski in Europe. The Austrian boy friends? Well, it's not so much that they teach you how to ski properly, they show you. You're standing there on top of the mountain with them, looking down this absolutely dizzy run, and suddenly they say, 'Let's go,' and they're gone. You learn to ski fast or spend a lonesome winter."
HOW TO CATCH UP QUICK
"They're 10 years ahead of us," says Penny, "and if you want to beat them you have to go over there to learn how. I had to make sacrifices to stay in Europe—dropped out of Middlebury after my freshman year, worked in summer theater and as a waitress to earn money, rode in the Johns of trains all over Italy and Austria. But it was worth it."
"That extra year Penny and Betsy spent in Europe undoubtedly put them out ahead," says Linda, speaking of racing rather than boy friends. "I know I wouldn't take anything for the six months I had over there in '58. You learn to race, but you also learn that you can be as good as anyone else. I think European competition is more important from a psychological standpoint than anything else."
Linda is slender and quiet and unassuming; her green eyes regard you warmly from a pleasant, lightly freckled face. She skis because she loves it, and skis every day, snow permitting, from early October to the middle of July. When she can't ski she likes hiking or hunting or fishing. She gives great credit for her success to Dave McCoy, who runs the Mammoth Mountain, Calif. resort where she skis, and she is an altogether levelheaded, wholesome girl. But at the top of a hill Linda Meyers turns into a killer.
"A killer," she says. "That's exactly what I feel I am. Determination is nine-tenths of skiing. Skill is necessary, but you have to have determination to acquire skill. It takes a tremendous amount of hard work to get to the top as a racer. And when you get there only one thing is important. To win."
Penny Pitou is a cross between your little sister, your girl friend and a rubber ball. She has blue eyes and a big dimple in her right cheek and is thoroughly feminine. She is also as tough as a coal miner and sometimes talks like one. Her only major athletic injury (the twisted knee and ankle suffered at St. Moritz last week appear to be quite minor) was torn ligaments in a knee and these came not from skiing but from playing football in junior high school; sometimes Penny still wishes that she were a boy and as big as her brother Kippy (6 feet 4 inches, 280 pounds) so she could play tackle for the Chicago Bears. Kippy doesn't, but Penny probably would. She is a brilliant student who wants to go back to school, major in languages and then go to Europe to work as an interpreter. On the other hand, she also wants to marry Egon Zimmermann, who would like to marry Penny, too, if they can just decide whether to live in Europe (Penny's choice) or America (Egon's). For relaxationPenny builds model boats. "Really," she says. "Good ones."
YOU NEED TO WANT TO WIN
When the time comes to ski, however, boats, boys, books all disappear. Perhaps even more than Linda, Penny has an implacable determination to win. "You have to have that," she says. "You have to feel like a race horse, ready to jump out of the gate and show people just how good you are."
"She's a tiger," says Bill Beck, coach of the U.S. men's team, "particularly in the downhill. Most girls are scared of going fast, but not Penny. She likes to go downhill."
"I was always good at downhill," says Penny, "because that's all I knew how to do. Go fast. I couldn't turn. But Egon taught me to turn, to ski slalom, and I'm not so sure now that I don't like slalom best. Maybe it's my best event. But I still like to go fast."
To get ready for her big year Penny began to chop away at her chubby 150 pounds late last spring. Training with Dick Taylor, a neighbor who is on the U.S. Nordic training squad, Penny lifted weights, tried interval running, sprinted uphill, took long hikes, rode horseback, played tennis, turned flips on a trampolin. By the time the Alpine squad assembled at Aspen, Colo. for early training in November, Penny was down to 135 pounds. "I'm 36-25-38," she said, "and if you don't think I'm in condition, just feel that." At which point Penny banged a fist against a remarkably solid thigh, which, despite its evident hardness, managed, somehow, not to look too much like Buddy Werner's.
"She's a tiger," says Bill Beck. "She's also quite a girl."
If Penny is hard, and proud of it, and Linda is hard enough, Betsy Snite is not hard at all—nor does she really care. "Do you know when I decided I was going to be an Olympic champion?" she asks. "It was out West at the 1950 world championships when I first saw Dagmar Rom and her lovely blonde hair."
A year younger than Meyers, the same age as Pitou, Betsy is more sophisticated than either, more conscious of her status as one of the world's great women skiers, more concerned with acting like a female. A combination model-secretary-saleswoman for a San Francisco fashion firm when she isn't racing, Betsy loves clothes. She has a large wardrobe of fashionable dresses and suits and shoes and a big collection of sportswear, including a drawer full of handsome ski sweaters and at least a dozen pair of those devilishly designed stretch ski pants, a sort of ankle-length bikini which would make Marie Dressier look like Brigitte Bardot—or, anyway, Bardot's young maiden aunt. While Linda was tramping over the California mountains last summer getting into condition, and Penny was bounding around the New Hampshire hills, Betsy was living it up in San Francisco, dating, dancing, learning to sail and drive a sports car.
"When it's time to race," she says, "I'll be ready. In the meantime I'm going to have fun. I know I've been criticized for not training as hard as I might. I like to smoke. Sometimes I'll stay up dancing all night. When I want to swim I go for a swim. I think it's good for you to relax and do something like that once in a while.
"You know what I like best about Europe? The after-ski tea dances. I was put on this earth to be a female. I'd love to get married, settle down and have a family."
The reason no one worries too much about Betsy's training routine is that once she goes to work she works at least as hard as anyone else. "You should have seen her just before she fell at Aspen," says Dave Lawrence. "She was beating Penny and Linda and everyone else. She'll be ready at Squaw Valley."
Of all the U.S. girls, Snite skis more like a European—and also more like a boy. She has remarkable reactions for her size, tremendous concentration once she starts down a course and near-flawless style.
RHAPSODY ON SNOW
"Sometimes Betsy's attitude is horrible," says Andy Lawrence, "and I guess you really couldn't call her dependable. But she has terrific technique; in fact, she's the best-looking woman skier I've ever seen. She is smooth and polished and, when she wants to be, she's the best slalom skier in the world."
Only the best will win against such competition as the U.S. girls must face: Thér√®se Leduc of France; Pia Riva, Carla Marchelli and Jerta Schir of Italy; Annemarie Waser and Madeleine Chamot-Berthod of Switzerland; Austria's Erika Netzer and Hilde Hofherr; Heidi Biebl and Sonja Sperl of West Germany; Astrid Sandvik and Inger Bj√∂rnbakken of Norway; and Canada's Anne Heggtveit; not to mention the youngsters who might come popping up any day, as Traudl Hecher, an unknown Austrian 16-year-old, did to beat Penny in the Hahnenkamm downhill.
"It's all a matter of split seconds," says Betsy Snite. "You fall and you're out. You hit a patch of ice and slip; you take a gate too low; you ride an edge too long; you sleep too much the night before or you don't sleep enough; you have a fight with your boy friend. Anybody can win."
"The only thing you can say," says Andy Lawrence, "is that we've never had this many good ones before. We'll find out how good they really are at Squaw Valley."