He had the audacity to suggest his fledgling ski resort in Northern California could adequately play host to the Winter Olympics.
It was quite a bold move by Alex Cushing, who at the time was hardly a big shot in skiing circles. On a daily basis in the early 1950s Cushing was simultaneously selling lift tickets, hot dogs and running the first aid station out of his modest home at Squaw Valley.
“This is a man who drives into Squaw Valley, makes a left turn and thinks – ‘I should build a ski resort here,’” recalled Jim Mott several years ago when describing Cushing, who employed him for 22 years at Squaw, the last dozen as the resort’s GM/President. “Then Alex not only buys the land and opens a resort, around 10 years later he’s preparing to bring the Olympics here. Amazing”
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At the time of the Olympic bid, with one double chairlift that skiers had to ride sidesaddle to the peak, Squaw wasn’t even the best known ski resort in the Lake Tahoe region. That distinction belonged to Sugar Bowl.
Yet that didn’t stop the ambitious Cushing, the owner and founder of Squaw, who campaigned all over the globe to convince the Olympic committee in 1955 that his then tiny resort could pull it off.
“Alex was a very persuasive person,” said Nancy Cushing of her late husband, who died in August 2006 at age 92. “He went around and visited everyone on the organizing committee, even the ones that were in the Amazon and China.”
The man certainly had persistence. And persistence paid off in this case. By a shocking 32-30 vote, the committee chose Squaw, bypassing Austria’s famed Innsbruck resort by two votes.
Cushing’s beloved, picturesque Squaw Valley and the Lake Tahoe region were exposed to the world in 1960 at the VIII Winter Games. The first-ever televised event drew international attention and sparked a development boom at then sparsely populated Lake Tahoe. It also was responsible for millions of middle-class families catching the skiing bug in this formerly elitists sport.
“Alex was like the Marlboro Man, a big, 6-foot-5 guy who was larger than life,” said Bill Jensen, who worked at Squaw for over 10 years in marketing. “Bringing the Olympics here put Tahoe on the map; it was no longer just a place to visit in the summer,” remarked Jensen in 2007.
The memorable 1960 Games are being relived this month as Squaw celebrates the 50th anniversary. The resort is in the midst of staging a 10-day celebration, which is only one day shorter than the 1960 Olympics. Perhaps it is fitting that Squaw is using this time to mount a Capital Campaign to build a Squaw Valley Olympic Museum and launch a bid for the 2022 Winter Games.
The celebration culminates with the 1960 Olympic Legends Gala, which takes place Saturday evening in the Grand Ballroom at the Resort at Squaw Creek. The revelers will have an opportunity to mingle with many 1960 Olympians.
Among the 1960 athletes expected to attend are U.S. gold medal winning hockey coach Jack Riley, team members Dick Meredith and Weldon Olson, legendary skiers Penny Pitou and Osvaldo Ancinas, members of the U.S Nordic Team, and Starr Walton, who served as torch bearer for the Squaw Games.
Also taking part during the 10-day party at Squaw have been Tamara McKinney – the first American woman to win the overall World Cup (1983); Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley; two-time Olympians Kristin Krone and Eric and Sandra Poulsen; and figure skater Peggy Fleming, who won the 1968 gold medal.
But the star of the show is the resort itself. Right up to the time of his death, Cushing never stopped adding to Squaw, which has international appeal with gorgeous views, difficult terrain, plus a massive system of 29 lifts that access over 4,000 acres of skiable terrain.
Walk into Squaw’s expansion village area and it’s impossible to miss the Olympic rings hanging over the entrance at the ticket plaza. But other mementos of the 1960 Games are long gone.
Blyth Arena, where a seemingly overmatched U.S. hockey team of mostly college stars somehow won a gold medal, was demolished after the roof collapsed during a heavy snowstorm in 1983. Blyth was the site of America’s first victory over the Russians and the team proved it was no fluke by handling the Czechs 9-4 in the finals.
The original Olympic Village, which housed all 750 athletes for the first and only time in Olympic history, is mostly unrecognizable now with the exception of the sturdy beams in the dining hall, which is now used for films and events like weddings and concerts.
Despite all the changes in modernizing Squaw into a world-class resort, Cushing was said to like the simplicity of it all. He loved watching skiers come down the mountain from his living room window. He claimed it was part of his staying-in-touch plan.
“The business is much bigger than I like, but we still run a family-type enterprise,” said Cushing prior to his death. “I believe skiing is about smelling the flowers, about the beauty of the mountains. I want everybody to enjoy it.”
And this week at Squaw, plenty of people are smelling the flowers and enjoying the aroma.
For information, visit www.squaw.com.