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Gretchen Fraser Goes Gold

Published: 2/17/2012

Gretchen Fraser in Sun Valley Skiing poster (Amazon.com)It’s Feb. 5, 1948, and Gretchen Fraser is experiencing one of the longest moments of her life. Earlier in the week, this 28-year-old athlete, dismissed by one member of the press as a "pretty Western housewife," shocked the world by taking the silver medal in the women's combined race, becoming the first American – male or female – to medal in an alpine skiing event. And on this morning, the first of her two slalom runs has put her in the lead. Now she stands crouched in the start gate atop the mountain, waiting for the signal from below to begin her final run. A minute passes. Another goes by. Word arrives that there's a problem with the innovative electronic timing system just introduced during these Olympics. Coaches and officials argue. After ten minutes, Fraser exits the gate to stretch her legs, to keep them from stiffening in the cold, but an agitated official orders her back inside. She tries to stay focused, to keep her adrenaline in check. When the race finally gets underway, she'll have spent seventeen anxious minutes confined to the start gate, longer than anybody could reasonably be expected to maintain the composure necessary to perform in an elite competition where winners and losers are decided by fractions of a second.

But then Gretchen Fraser has waited a long time for this moment. What's another few minutes?

Born in Tacoma, Wash., to an immigrant mother from Norway – the country where competitive ski racing was invented – Gretchen didn't begin skiing until she was 13. The sport was just then beginning to take root in the United States. President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps had been tasked with cutting ski trails in the mountains, and America's first ski lodges were run under the auspices of the National Park Service. Ski instructors were imported from Europe. It was Austrian coach Otto Lang who perhaps first recognized Fraser's potential when she started lessons at 17. Though still a beginner, she had an intuitive grasp of technical points and quickly improved. Said Lang, "In a very short time, I detected that this young lady had the determination and doggedness to go places." The first race she entered was a mass-start, 3.5 mile downhill best described as a "high-speed melee" (won, coincidentally, by her then unknown future husband Don Fraser). She had her first big victory at 18, winning the 1937 Northwest Championships. A place on the 1940 Olympic team seemed within reach. In the meantime, coach Lang had learned that his friend, ice skater Sonja Henie, had been signed to a film contract at 20th Century Fox and would be making a winter sports movie. Lang arranged for his young pupil to be Henie's action double in the film Thin Ice. Fraser would reprise her Henie doubling duty for 1941 Sun Valley Serenade, a hugely successful film which is still screened daily at the Sun Valley Opera House. In both cases, she refused to be paid in order that she not violate the IOC’s amateur status rules. She had her eye on the Olympics.

But history intervened when the 1940 Olympic Games were scrapped with the outbreak of WWII. Her husband – she'd married Fraser in 1939 – took a job with Union Pacific in Denver. She was still able to train in nearby Aspen, and by 1941 – a scant seven years after taking up the sport – she'd become the U.S. alpine combined women's champion.

As the war dragged on, her husband enlisted in the military and was shipped overseas. Fraser moved back to Sun Valley, where the ski resort had been repurposed by the U.S. Navy as a convalescence facility for wounded sailors. She still skied recreationally, but most of her time was spent as a volunteer helping the wounded and occasionally working with Lang on instructional ski films for the military.

By the time the war ended, what were then considered a skier's best years were already behind her. Though she didn't start skiing competitively again until 1947, she did well enough to earn a place on the Olympic team.

Training for the 1948 Olympics started disastrously. The women were told to keep in shape on their own – with the warning that they refrain from high heels as wearing them would shorten their Achilles tendons. They had no full-time coach, but were assigned eight rotating part-time coaches from the men's team, each pushing his own technique and training regimen. Dispirited, the team only started coming together with the late hiring of Swiss coach Walter Haensli.

When the Olympics got underway in St. Moritz, nobody thought Fraser would come home with a medal. Few in America even knew who she was – most of their attention was on precocious 15-year-old Andrea Mead (Mead would go on to win two gold medals in the 1952 Games).

But then came the unexpected second place in the combined. And then that first slalom run that made Fraser the skier to beat. And finally, after those excruciating seventeen minutes trapped in the starting gate, the beautiful, flawless run that secured the gold. Overnight, Fraser became America’s sweetheart. A parade was thrown in her honor in New York City, her face appeared on the obligatory Wheaties box and her pigtails were emulated by girls across the country.

She retired from ski racing after the Olympics and found other outlets for her competitive streak, becoming one of the leading equestrians in the Pacific Northwest and later earning her pilot's license and racing twin engine planes. And just as she had during WWII, she continued to help others, working with the handicapped in Sun Valley. She also served on the board of the Oregon Institute of Rehabilitation and founded the Flying Outriggers club for amputee skiers.

Fraser continued visiting the slopes right up until her death Feb. 17, 1994, at age 75. When she died, her ashes were scattered over "Gretchen's Gold" – a ski run in Sun Valley that still commemorates that amazing day in St. Moritz.

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