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Fraser, Gretchen Claudia

FRASER, Gretchen Claudia

(b. 11 February 1919 in Tacoma, Washington; d. 18 February 1994 in Sun Valley, Idaho), first U.S. skier—male or female—to win an Olympic medal and an Olympic gold medal.

Born Gretchen Claudia Kunigk and raised in the shadow of Mt. Rainier's slopes—her family owned a resort in the area—Fraser did not begin skiing until she was a teenager, much to the dismay of her Norwegian-born, ski-loving mother, who had campaigned for the development of public skiing on Mount Rainier.

Fraser finally ventured out to the slopes on a sightseeing tour and was instantly hooked. While she honed her skiing skills, she met a young man named Donald Fraser, a member of the 1936 Olympic ski team. He was impressed with her—he found her form awkward yet promising. They married in 1939 and spent their time training for the upcoming Olympic tryouts. They each made the team, but the 1940 Olympic Games were canceled because of World War II.

Fraser continued skiing and in 1940 won the first ever Diamond Sun event, held in Sun Valley, Idaho. She won the race again in 1941, beating out men's skiing ace Dick Durrance. That year she also won the national alpine combined and downhill titles. In 1942 she skied her way to the national slalom championship. Fraser also worked as a movie double for numerous stars in ski pictures, appearing in Thin Ice (1937) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941).

Meanwhile, Don Fraser spent several years as an aerial gunner in the U.S. Navy. Fraser retired from skiing but kept active by giving swimming, riding, and skiing lessons to veterans in U.S. Army hospitals. With her husband at war, Fraser was lonely. She took flying lessons, earned a pilot's license, and joined the Ninety-niners, an international women's flying organization.

When World War II ended and Don Fraser came home, the couple opened a oil and gasoline distribution business based in Vancouver, Washington. It was a team operation; Don Fraser drove the trucks, and Gretchen Fraser kept the books.

As their lives settled down, Don Fraser encouraged his wife to start skiing again. He wanted her to try out for the 1948 Olympic Games. Running their own business kept them busy, and Fraser did not have much time to practice, but the twenty-eight-year-old underdog nevertheless handily made the Olympic team and headed for the 1948 Winter Games at St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Fraser won two medals at the Winter Olympics, breaking the U.S. ski drought––they were the first medals ever won by any U.S. skier. Her achievement is especially impressive given that the women's ski team did not have a coach. Female skiers of Fraser's day received very little support because during the 1940s there was still debate as to whether or not ski competitions were "ladylike." Thus when Fraser and the other women skiers gathered in Europe to prepare for the Games, their only training was that every day a different skier from the men's team came to coach them. Three weeks before the Games, the women's manager Alice Kiaer was so fed up she used her own money to hire Walter Haensli to coach the U.S. women skiers. Haensli, a Swiss who had almost made the Swiss Olympic team, worked out a regular training regimen for the women.

Fraser pulled through for the United States and won a silver medal in the alpine combined—a downhill racing and slalom event that has since been discontinued. A few days later, on 5 February 1948, she made history by winning a gold medal in the giant slalom despite adverse circumstances. The first problem was that she wore bib No. 1, generally a bad starting position. The slalom is a timed downhill race where skiers zigzag through a course of flags or gates. Because she skied first, Fraser broke in the course and did not have the benefit of watching others go before her to see where the slick spots were.

Fraser stood in first place after the first run of the two that make up the race. Before her second run, there were technical difficulties with the gates, and she was forced wait in starting position for more than ten minutes while technicians fixed a glitch in the telephone line. For most skiers, the delay would have killed their concentration, but not Fraser. When she got the signal to go, she zigzagged down the course with reckless abandon at nearly sixty miles per hour, ultimately winning the gold.

Newspapers loved the story of the unknown, pigtailed homemaker who had won the gold. Fraser, later seen on the front of the Wheaties cereal box in 1951, was an inspiration to all. She proved that years of coaching were not necessary to become an international star.

Although Fraser left competition after the Games, her tireless promotion of the sport never ended. During the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo, Norway, she served as manager of the U.S. women's ski team. In 1960 she was inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame.

Fraser's yearning for adventure and the outdoors never left her. She and her husband spent a portion of their lives training field dogs. Along with their son, they spent long stretches of time on hunting and fishing trips in the Washington wilderness. The couple also owned a seaplane and flew to the Canadian lake region. One year the world traveler and news personality Lowell Thomas invited the Frasers to join him on Alaska's Juneau Ice Cap to film one of his High Adventure television episodes.

Even into her sixties, Fraser remained an active promoter of skiing. She raised funds for the national team and served on the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation. She also helped found a ski club for amputees and helped with the Idaho Special Olympics.

Women athletes of Fraser's period received little attention. As late as 1982 an article in the Washington Post overlooked Fraser's medals when it reported that "Jimmie Heuga was twenty years old when he won an Olympic bronze medal on a snow-covered Australian alp. It was 1964, and the United States had never before won an Olympic medal in skiing." Never mind that Fraser had won an Olympic medal sixteen years before, when Heuga was a small child.

Fraser had heart bypass surgery in 1986, but she continued skiing nearly every day until her death. She died at the age of seventy-five, just five weeks after her husband.

Several books contain short chapters on Fraser's life. Among them are Phyllis Hollander, American Women in Sports (1972); Al J. Stump, Champions Against Odds (1952); and Joe Layden, Women in Sports (1997); although many of the books, written in the 1950s and 1970s, are sexist in their depictions of female athletes and tend to brush over their abilities. For a more recent biography, see Luanne Pfeifer, Gretchen's Gold: The Life of Gretchen Fraser, America's First Gold Medalist (1996). Newspaper articles to consult include "Buried Gold," Washington Post (24 Feb. 1982); "3 Gold Medalists' Words of Advice," the New York Times (5 Feb. 1984); and "First Lady of Skiing Blazed Trail For Others," the Idaho Statesman (9 Feb. 2001).

Lisa Frick

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