‘She was a spunky lady’: Olympian Suzy Harris Rytting laid the tracks for a better world for female skiers

Rytting lost her spot on the 1952 Olympic team because of her pregnancy but didn’t let that define her life

(Utah Ski Archives) Suzy Harris Rytting, the 1948 national downhill slalom combined champion, prepares to race for the Harriman Cup at Sun Valley, Idaho in 1949. Rytting was a member of the first USA women's team recognized by FIS and was named to the 1952 Olympics. She was removed from the team weeks before the Games after discovering she was pregnant. Rytting died Feb. 28, 2022 at the age of 92.

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While training with the USA ski team in Europe for the 1952 Olympics, Suzy Harris Rytting’s stomach started turning. It wasn’t nerves.

A trip to the doctor revealed Rytting was pregnant — and also perfectly fit to compete in the Winter Games to be held in Oslo, Norway, less than a month later. That was not the opinion held by the International Olympic Committee and its first-year president Avery Brundage, however. Brundage ordered the 21-year-old, who had been married to Bill Rytting since 1949, removed from the team. She was hastily sent home without any of her team gear, including her coat and hats. The only thing she managed to smuggle out was a nylon blue windbreaker with a small Olympic patch.

That Olympic rebuff followed another one in 1948, when Rytting was chosen as a Winter Games alternate rather than a competitor for what her daughter Jessica “Jinx” Strout said were “political reasons.” Yet rather than turn her back on her sport, Rytting dedicated the rest of her life to making the skiing world better.

“That’s what I really admire about my mom is that she kept on promoting skiing, even with those two huge disappointments,” said Strout, who was playfully nicknamed for her role in keeping her mother out of the Games. “She kept on supporting the sport and wanting it to be successful.”

Rytting, a member of the United States’ first women’s world championship team and a U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame inductee, died Feb. 28 at the age of 92. Her cause of death was congestive heart failure, Strout said, though Rytting had spent the last five years in a care facility with dementia.

“Her loss, to me, is not only a loss to the skiing world,” said Salt Lake City native Alan Engen, whose own induction into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame he said was spearheaded by Rytting, “but it’s a loss to everyone who who knew and participated with her in her activities.”

(Utah Ski Archive) Suzy Harris Rytting in 1957 with several of her ski trophies.

Connie Nelson, executive director of the Alf Engen Ski Museum in Park City, where Rytting was both part of an exhibit and a docent, agreed Rytting’s influence went well beyond her trophies.

“She was passionate about skiing,” Nelson said. “She was passionate about giving the history of skiing and keeping skiing in the forefront and introducing young kids to skiing and getting them involved with the sport that was such a passion of hers.”

Rytting’s primary method of changing the sport’s culture was staying involved. She continued to race for more than another decade, winning the Pacific Northwest Ski Association Championship in 1960 and 1961. When she wasn’t racing, she and Bill volunteered with the Intermountain Ski Association by officiating races and helping with event setup and breakdown. When Bill took a seven-year stint with the PNSA in Yakima, Washington, Strout said Rytting enmeshed herself in that ski community as well.

Back in Utah a few years later, Rytting started the United Alta Skiers when Jinx and her younger sister, Robyn, became interested in racing. The main difference between it and most other clubs at the time was that it integrated the boys and the girls.

“Mom really focused on good technique and how to do it properly. And that you should want to do it,” Strout said. “You need to be aggressive and ski like you mean it.”

That was how Rytting skied from the time she skittered through her first competition at age 14.

(Utah Ski Archives) A young Suzy Harris Rytting, left, poses with her mother Carolyn prior to Suzy's first race in 1944 at age 14. Rytting was a member of the first USA women's team recognized by FIS and was named to the 1952 Olympics. She was removed from the team weeks before the Games after discovering she was pregnant. Rytting died Feb. 28, 2022 at the age of 92.

It was 1944 and she’d only taken up skiing a year earlier, after her father, Bill, and mother, Carolyn, moved their family out to Holladay from Ohio. She didn’t know anything about racing, so some Alta Ski Lifts patrollers placed some Coca-Cola bottles on a table and used them to show her how to weave between gates.

Her youth and general lack of experience did not keep her father from signing Rytting up for the most competitive class. In a subsequent interview, he said he remembered thinking: “Why start her at the bottom? Put her in the A class.”

Results aside, Rytting, who had previously dreamed of becoming an ice skater, found her new calling.

Rytting spent the rest of her winters as teenager touring the West seeking out for ski races. Since no junior circuit existed, she often found herself competing against much older and more experienced women. Drawing on the athleticism of her mother — who played basketball, golf and tennis in addition to skiing — and her own competitive nature, she soon surpassed them.

“She was a spunky lady,” Barbara Engen, a longtime friend of Rytting’s, said. “Yeah, Spunky is a good word for her because she just was always just full of energy. She would just exude energy and upbeatness. And that was kind of her deal.”

From 1947 through 1952, Rytting won national titles in slalom, downhill and giant slalom and earned eight national medals along with a collection of regional championships. Yet when the time came to pick the 1948 Olympic team — coached by Alf Engen, a friend of the Harris family — Rytting was benched. Strout said her mother was a victim of regionalism. Many eligible skiers hailed from the East, which was more organized and had more influence than the West region at the time, she said.

“The ‘48 team was really a disappointment for her,” Strout said. “What she was really proud of was the 1950 FIS team. … When she made that team, she felt very honored.”

(Utah Ski Archives) Suzy Harris Rytting skis down the slope of an unidentified Utah resort in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Rytting was a member of the first USA women's team recognized by FIS and was named to the 1952 Olympics. She was removed from the team weeks before the Games after discovering she was pregnant. Rytting died Feb. 28, 2022 at the age of 92.

The International Federation of Skiing has run the world championships since 1931, but the USA didn’t send a women’s team until 1950 — which also happened to be the first year since 1939 that the races weren’t held concurrently with the Olympics and the first time the championships, held in Aspen, Colo., were located outside of Europe. Rytting placed 14th in giant slalom, 19th in slalom and 20th in downhill, putting her alongside Katy Rudolph and Andrea Mead as the only American women to finish within the top 15 of any race.

The following year, Rytting was placed on the 1952 Olympic roster. Then, suddenly, she wasn’t.

Barbara Engen said Rytting was asked to recount the tale of her Olympic near-miss countless times over the years and never expressed anything but amusement about it.

“It was one of those things that she laughed about,” Engen said. She added, “Suzy just kind of thought, ‘Well, I got the better deal. I got Jinx.’”

Strout still has the nylon windbreaker, which time has faded from royal blue and crimson to a drab navy and maroon. It’s not something her mother, a notoriously natty dresser, would still wear. Still, it’s a reminder of how far the world has come in accepting female skiers since 1952, and of her mother’s role in that progress.

“She always referred to me as her gold medal,” the woman nicknamed Jinx said, “which I always thought that was very sweet.”