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My mother has a lot of friends, and sometimes she tells me about one of them that I should interview for Only A Game, because the friend has some connection to sports.
That’s why I introduced myself to Imogene Fish, who’d been a skier. A very good skier, in fact. She learned to ski in New Hampshire, a place with which — until 1940 — she and her family were completely unfamiliar.
"I was born in Germany, in Berlin, in 1932," Imogene says, "and because of some Jewish background in my father’s side of the family, we decided — they decided — we needed to get out of Germany, and we left there in 1940."
The decision was easy. One night the Gestapo had knocked at the door, asking for Imogene’s father. He was hiding in a closet. Imogene’s mother told the officers her husband was extremely ill. And they went away.
Discovering Her Unlikely Dream
Shortly thereafter, Imogene and her family made their way to the U.S.
In Germany, Imogene’s father had been a banker. For a time, the family traveled around this country, looking for opportunities. In North Conway, New Hampshire, they found one.
"We purchased a small, run-down inn," Imogene says. "My mother learned to cook, and they ran that inn successfully — fairly successfully — for years and years."
Even as they were first getting established as innkeepers, Imogene’s parents were determined to make their first Christmas in the U.S. memorable.
"I got my skis, little wooden skis," Imogene recalls. "I was just thrilled and delighted. Walked up Cranmore Mountain with some friends, and we started skiing. You walk up a ways to — I remember the boulder that we walked up to and went back down. It would get cold, and so most of my friends would go into the warming hut and have some hot chocolate, and I was just driven to climb back up that little hill and ski down again — probably fall down at the bottom, but just determined to keep trying."
Keep that determination in mind. It paid off.
But for a moment, let’s stick with what it must have been like to be an 8-year-old, newly relocated German kid in New Hampshire when Hitler was gobbling up chunks of Europe and dropping bombs on London.
"We were the only German family in that little town, and it was quite difficult to make our way," Imogene says. "People were somewhat suspect of us, in terms of Nazi spies, etc., etc."
Young Imogene was fortunate to have parents who protected their children from the ugliness and harassment they sometimes encountered as adults. And perhaps she was also fortunate that neither of her parents was inclined to try skiing. She was free to practice on her own without parental misguidance. She found a role model outside the family circle.
"I do remember being maybe in the 5th or 6th grade," Imogene says, "and there was a woman from North Conway, her name was Paula Kann."
Paula Kann represented the U.S. in the 1948 Olympics. Even before that experience, she had stories for the youngsters in that New Hampshire school.
"She came to talk and play the accordion and yodel at this elementary school. And I was enthralled by her," Imogene says. "She talked a little bit about her skiing and she had been in Colorado to race, and suddenly I thought that would be absolutely my dream, is to do what Paula has done."
The dream seemed unlikely. Imogene hadn’t started skiing as early as a lot of her classmates had. She was persistent, but would that be enough? A few years later, she began to find out.
"I tried out for the Kennett High School Conway Ski Team, and I was the only girl selected for that," Imogene says. "There were only five on the team, and I was the only girl, which led to, back then, a lot of teasing about bathrooms and all that kind of stuff."
Representing The United States
After high school, Imogene enrolled at the University of New Hampshire. During the winter of 1950, she met an older ski racer who mentioned that she might want to try out for the Olympic team.
"And I said, 'I could never. I’m not nearly good enough,'" Imogene says. "At the time, Cranmore Mountain and the mountains in the East did not offer the kind of terrain that I would need to train on. So I took a year off from college, again with the support of my parents, and went to Sun Valley, Idaho."
Sun Valley had not only the terrain, but the coaches who could turn aspiring skiers into Olympians. Imogene Fish waited tables between the races that would determine who’d go to the 1952 Olympics in Norway. Fish won the first such event. But before the second, she came down with the flu — and learned that the team manager had some common sense.
"I was going to get myself out of bed and get myself in that race, even with a 104 temperature, but she said, 'Imogene, the kind of people we want on this team are more sensible than that,'" Imogene recalls. "So I missed that race, but then did fine in the remaining two. Lo and behold, at the end of the winter and after the final race, I had indeed made the team."
"They just felt blessed that something this wonderful would happen to them, that the country they had chosen had then chosen their daughter to represent them."Imogene Fish
Imogene called home. Her parents were understandably proud, and then some.
"I think they were more interested in me going to the Olympics and perhaps beating some of the German skiers than they were anything else," Imogene says. "They would never confess to that, but ... "
"So the idea was, 'You don't necessarily have to come home with a medal, but please beat the Germans,'" I say.
"Yes, yes, and I did beat a few of the Germans, but a couple of them beat me, so..." Imogene says.
Lovely. And simple, too. A happy ending for a young skier and two proud parents, a dozen years after they fled the country where they were born, the country they left to escape imprisonment and, very likely, death.
Except that as Imogene Fish recalled while we talked, her story, like most stories, was not as simple as it might have seemed.
"My mother had left a son from a different marriage in Germany, who was in the German army, and so could not come to the U.S. with us, who was then missing in action in Stalingrad," Imogene says. "I just feel that they had been through so much, that they just felt blessed that something this wonderful would happen to them, that the country they had chosen had then chosen their daughter to represent them. And it was just very satisfying for them."
Imogene Fish re-enrolled in college when she returned from Oslo, this time at Mount Holyoke, where she’s in the Athletic Hall of Fame. She earned a couple of master's degrees, built a career in education, raised a family and helped set up an integrated school and summer camp during the civil rights movement.
Recently, for a profile that appeared in a Mount Holyoke publication, she was asked if she had any advice for aspiring Olympians.
"If you’re going to do well," she said, "you have to go a little bit faster than you think it’s probably smart to do."
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Paula Kann is currently living in Vienna. In fact, Kann passed away in 2001. We regret the error.
This segment aired on January 21, 2017.
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