Skier Pitou inducted into New England sports hall of fame
Penny Pitou, the first American to win an Olympic downhill medal, entered the New England Women's Sports Hall of Fame November 14, 2001.
The downhill racer, who grew up in Center Harbor, graduated from Laconia High and now lives in Sanbornton, was as down-to-earth as any hall of famer in any hall of fame.
"This is really something," she said in a pre-banquet interview at the Swissotel Boston, site of the induction banquet. "There's classical music being piped into the ladies' room. Can you imagine that? I thought about staying in there all night."
Not allowed, Penny, not allowed.
Pitou, who was three when her family moved from New York to New Hampshire, joined five other inductees as the stars of the night. Wilma Briggs (All-American Girls Professional Baseball League outfielder), Jen Rizzotti (University of Connecticut point guard on the 1995 national championship team), Megan Donnelly (UMass four-time first-team All-America field hockey player), Tracy Ducar (University of North Carolina goalie on the 1994 title team) and Nancy Norton (USA Tennis New England Hall of Fame) entered the women's hall last night.
"I'm honored, overwhelmed, pleased, thrilled, you name it," the 62-year-old Pitou said. "This is bigger than I thought."
Pitou talked about her two silver medals (in addition to the downhill, she also finished second that year in the giant slalom) and the letdown she experienced when she fell down in the slalom event at Squaw Valley.
"All I had to do was stand up," she said, "and I would have won a gold medal in the combined. My two second-place finishes put me in position for a gold. I was eighth after my first run in the slalom. But I fell on my face in my second run.
"I was disappointed then but it's not eating at my soul. I don't look back on anything and think about how if I had done something differently, my life now would be so much better.
"And to be honest, the biggest events of my life have been the birth of my sons and grandsons."br />
After her medals and her marriage to Egon Zimmermann, a member of the Austrian Olympic team, the couple had the opportunity to run Alpine Meadows, a major California ski area.br />
"We turned it down because I wanted to come home," Pitou said. "New Hampshire is home. I fit in here. I have the freedom to be by myself if I want or I can be with friends if I want. I can't think of a more beautiful place in the world than New Hampshire. I love the change of seasons and the cold rainy days when I just hunker down."br />
Pitou rattled off the names of two people who helped her achieve what she did on the ski mountains of the world. She talked about Andrea Mead Lawrence, who won two Olympic gold medals in 1952. Pitou, at 17, was a member of that team. She failed to medal, however. "Andrea was my mentor and my idol. She kept me from quitting skiing after the 1956 Olympics."br />
She credited Center Harbor neighbor Gary Allen for helping her get started. "No one does it alone. Gary interviewed big-time skiers and took notes. He asked them about the length of their skis and the kind of wax they used for different conditions. Then he'd give me the notes and we'd talk."br />
Pitou started skiing on a hill behind her Center Harbor house, then moved to the Gilford Outing Club.br />
As a freshman at Laconia High in 1953, she ignored the no-girls-rule and tried out for the boys' ski team. "I hid my hair under my hat and asked my friends to call me Tommy," she said. "I made the team and everything went great until I competed in a downhill race at New Hampton School. I crashed in front of a gate-keeper, my hat flew off and my hair came down. It's one of the few times in my life that I was at a loss for words."br />
The gate-keeper wasn't. He called Laconia.
And her school principal wasn't.
He called Pitou to his office and told her she had to leave the team.
"People were concerned because there were no chaperones on the bus," Pitou said. "Can you imagine, kicked off the team because there were no chaperones? And my teammates were all life-long friends."
She shook her head. She laughed. She paused. She reflected.
Then she returned to the two most significant falls of her life. One cost her an Olympic gold medal, the other a spot on a high school ski team.
"You know, when you stop falling, you stop learning. Falling means that you're pushing yourself. In that sense, whenever I fell I was happy to be on my face. It meant I was going full-tilt."
Pitou now owns three full-service travel agencies in three cities: Laconia, Concord and North Conway. She specializes in skiing and hiking trips to the Alps. "This will be my 23rd winter taking groups to Austria, Switzerland, France and Italy," she said. "I plan the trips, write the brochures, sell them, then ski with everyone. Each year the trips get better."
And speaking of trips.
Many people attending last night's affair entered the swank Boston hotel shaking their heads about their ride into the heart of the Hub. They complained about the Big Dig, the rain, the traffic, the crazy drivers.
Pitou just laughed.
"I didn't have any problems," she said. "I took the bus. Got on in Concord and got off at South Station. Then just walked up here."
Right into the Hall of Fame.