Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture, and society, and this year the Olympic Authority honors the following women and their contributions to the Olympic Authority and winter sport:
- Connie Bonsignore, a Lake Placid Central School gym teacher and one of the most dedicated volunteers
- Dot Nebel, Gore Mountain instructor and coach
- Lois Perot the founder of the first Ski Patrol in the country in 1934 at the North Creek Ski Bowl
- Jeanne Ashworth, Olympic Speedskater who broke barriers and served as a pioneer in women’s speedskating.
Connie Ruth Bonsignore
Born in Brooklyn on July 7, 1917, Connie Bonsignore was raised in Lake Placid and graduated from the Lake Placid High School (LPHS) in 1935. In 1945, after earning a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a Master of Education Degree from St. Lawrence University, she returned to teach at LPHS, where she was widely and affectionately known as Miss Bon. In the latter part of her 34-year career, she became widely recognized for developing programs for children with disabilities. In addition to her longstanding commitment to education, Connie consistently demonstrated a love for winter sports. At 13, she was the regional speed skating champion and a contender for the 1932 Olympics women’s speed skating team. Beginning in 1945 and for a great many years after, she was a volunteer coordinator for many Lake Placid winter sporting events and became an active sports official and a tireless Olympic Regional Development Authority volunteer. After becoming an International Luge Federation (FIL) judge in 1979, she officiated three U.S. Olympic Trials, six World Cups, the 1980 Olympic Games, and the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, and Lillehammer, Norway. She was co-founder and President of the U.S. Luge Federation Foundation, coordinator for U.S. Olympic Committee drug testing, Vice Chairperson of the U.S. Luge Association (USLA) from 1983 to 1988, and a U.S. Luge representative to the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary. Connie’s local community involvement was extensive, too, and included serving as Chairperson of the North Elba Zoning Board of Appeals. She was an active member of Delta Kappa Gamma (an international honorary education society for women) and a volunteer steward at numerous local community events and sporting competitions. As a result of her dedication and volunteerism, she was inducted in September 1993 into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame. That same year, she was honored as the first and only recipient of the 50th LPHS Award for dedicated service. In 2007 she was the Grand Marshall of the Lake Placid 4th of July Parade, and in 2008 she was celebrated as an Honored Alumni of LPHS. Her last honor came a few months prior to her 2013 death when in February of that year, she presented the LPHS Winter Carnival King and Queen with pins and patches from the first Winter Carnival 70 years earlier.
Dorothy Hoyt Nebel
Dorothy Nebel, known as Dot, enjoyed a life-long fascination with alpine skiing that began in 1920 when she first learned to ski as a 15-year-old high school student. Over a 52-year career that dipped into nearly every facet of the sport, she became a living legend in winter sports. Many believe her record is unequaled when it comes to her achievements across the divisional, national, and international levels. Even with very limited experience early on, she was enthralled by ski jumping hills and cross-country trails. A group of Norwegians built a jump in a nearby public park, and Dot took to the jumping and skiing on her own after the boys finished practice. Through her early development, there were no other women skiers, so she raced the men. Later, as a teacher in the Schenectady School System, Dot took an extended time off to travel to Europe to ski in 1936. Dot again raced with men the following winter, and this time her more advanced skills were quickly recognized. In 1938, she was selected for the U.S. Ski Team and traveled again to Europe for the FIS Championships. Team manager, Alice Damrosch Kiaer, reported in the American Ski Annual that “Dorothy Hoyt justified our choice by beating the other new girls. “Though she was named to the 1940 Olympic Ski Team, the Sapporo Japan Games were canceled due to World War II. Not one to give up on anything, Dot opened the 1941-42 season as a Class A national competitor. At the season’s only international event, the United States Women’s Team defeated the Canadians at Lake Placid, with Dot winning the downhill. After gaining experience coaching other women athletes on the west coast, including future double Olympic medal winner Andrea Mead, Dot came back east to take a position teaching at Belleayre Mountain in Highmount, NY. Within a year, she was managing the ski school at Belleayre and soon founded the New York State Professional Ski Instructors Association. After a 50-year competitive skiing and coaching career, Dorothy Hoyt Nebel was elected to the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. Her biography in the Hall of Fame states: “Dorothy Nebel is seen as an important pioneering figure in the early history of women’s skiing in the United States.” Her career spanned 52 years. Today, a black diamond trail at Belleayre Mountain in the Catskills bears the name Dot Nebel.
Lois Perret Schaeffer
“I was born in East Orange, New Jersey, and looked forward to my summers on Bailey Island near Portsmouth, Maine. That’s where my love of the outdoors began,” wrote Lois Perret Schaefer. As a young woman, her family moved to Schenectady, and Lois joined them. She loved hiking, swimming, skating, and sail skating. After several acquaintances described the skiing in North Creek, she decided to vacation there in winter, where she came to know many of the local residents. She joined the Schenectady Wintersports Club (SWC) and became its secretary-treasurer. Before her move to Schenectady, she had acquired considerable expertise in emergency care from working as a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City. Given that experience, Lois was asked to create a first-aid committee for the club. In 1933, she established the first recognizable ski patrol in America at Gore Mountain. An all-volunteer squad, they assembled medical kits and toboggans and engaged in emergency planning. Her committee included Dorothy (Dot) Hoyt, who would be named to the 1940 Women’s Olympic Team. Their motto: “Be careful, and think while you ski.”
At that time, skiers arrived via a ski train from Schenectady, so Lois set up a first aid state inside one of the train cars. “I thought about what injuries we might expect, what equipment might be needed, and how skiers would need to be transported from the site of their injury on the slopes to the train,” wrote Lois. Toboggans used to transport injured skiers were stored in small metal structures installed on stilts above the snow along trails on the mountain. Lois and her ski patrol, nicknamed the “Clean-Up Crew,” would sweep the trails at day’s end to be sure no one was left behind. It’s reported that because skiers overestimated their abilities and underestimated trail length, the Clean-Up Crew often did this work skiing in the dark to account for everyone on the train. Often the trains were delayed until every skier was accounted for. Lois and her SWC First Aid Patrol were true pioneers in the sport. In fact, the Mt. Mansfield Ski Club in Vermont adopted several procedures that Lois’s committee had pioneered, as did Minnie Dole, who established what would eventually become the National Ski Patrol that today serves ski areas around the country.
Everything begins with opportunity. Those of us who grow up in the Olympic Region of Upstate New York understand the opportunities we have right here in our own backyards.
From ski jumping to skating to luge, flyers and notices for the start of the winter sports season fill our inboxes each year, and some parents are asking their children what activity they want to do. It’s an easy decision for some because from an early age their child was drawn to a particular sport.
Sometimes the opportunity and inspiration for a child’s passion comes from unexpected places. Growing up in Massachusetts, one young girl was captivated by skating competitions depicted in, “Hans Bricker or the Silver Skates” a novel by Mary Mapes Dodge published in 1938. That fascination she felt in reading that book would lead her to one day being a three-time Olympian in the sport of speedskating.
Her name was Jeanne Ashworth, and not long after reading the book, something small but remarkable happened. She discovered an ad in her local newspaper for a speed skating race, immediately put down the 25-cent entry fee, and signed up. Ashworth had already begun skating on a small pond near her house in Massachusetts when she was seven or eight, but until that race, she had only ever figure skated. She had little idea what to expect going into a speed skating race.
Before her death October 4, 2018, at age 80 in her home in Wilmington, NY, she and her longtime partner, Christine LeFevre, both spoken on the record about Ashworth’s skating and her life.
Ashworth recalls how her mother made her “a little tartan dress with straps that went down mid-thigh with a white blouse with straps over my shoulder that I wore … and lights were shining on the skaters as we raced around the Boston Garden.” She went on to describe the event, saying, “I was wearing figure skates running around on my toes and I made it into the semi-finals. There were tons of kids that did this, and I made it!”
Following that first race, her local speed skating club took notice and asked if she wanted to join the Wilmington Skating Club in Massachusetts. The very next year, Ashworth got a pair of $9 speed skates.
Her love for speedskating grew, and as she entered her competitive years, she discovered the Lake Placid region had a lot to offer. It wasn’t long before she moved to the area, and her parents followed soon after. Early on during the summer, she worked at the North Pole (the nation’s first theme park) as the Little Miss Muffet character and set up at a campsite where she lived temporarily just off the road leading to the Whiteface Memorial Highway. Ashworth would jog up the road to work every morning and back down to her campsite after work.
She remembers at the end of that Fall, “I wanted to get the earliest ice I could get, and the ice would sometimes freeze on Winch Pond up near Copperas … and I made a squeegee out of a garage door stop and would use a piece of plywood for the handle. I would chop holes on the ice and squeegee the water around the track to make new ice to skate on.”
That kind of seemingly fearless innovation, hard work, and dedication are rare, and in Ashworth’s case, it was all eventually rewarded in gaining a spot on the Olympic Team.
The 1960 Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley, California, were the first in which women were officially allowed to compete in speed skating. With the exception of exhibition skating, the sport had been wholly dominated by men since it was first introduced to the world at the 1924 Olympic Games in Chamonix, France. Ashworth had won several speedskating championships by the time she made the 1960 Olympic Team.
At Squaw Valley, she competed in all four speed skating events and when she crossed the finish line of the women’s 500-meter race, “I looked up at the times and wow.”
Jeanne Ashworth had captured the first ever medal for U.S. women in speed skating when she won the bronze medal in the 500-meter race. “It was all so lucky,” she said, “Because I didn’t know too much about what I was doing, I just went out and skated fast.”
Ashworth also later competed at the 1964 Games in Innsbruck Austria as well as the 1968 Games in Grenoble, France. Her fourth-place tie in the 500-meters in Innsbruck was her best finish in either of those Olympics. During her career, she also set eleven national indoor speedskating records.
Though additional medals eluded her, she had rounded a vital turning point in history. Jeanne Ashworth was among the pioneering women who smashed the Olympic speedskating ceiling, ushering in a new era of women’s competition in the sport around the world. All of it first initiated in that moment long ago as a child when she found that ad in the newspaper.
Following her competitive years, Ashworth remained in Wilmington, NY, working as a high school teacher and speedskating coach from 1969 to 1980. She also helped her parents operate a candy store at Santa’s Workshop and served as town of Wilmington Supervisor.
Before her death, she graciously donated her bronze medal to the Lake Placid Olympic Museum where it is on display for visitors. Jeanne Ashworth was inducted into to the National Speedskating Hall of Fame in 1975 and into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame in 1993.