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Fraser, Gretchen (1919–1994)

Fraser, Gretchen (1919–1994)

American skier. Name variations: Gretchen Kunigk. Born Gretchen Kunigk in Tacoma, Washington, on February 11, 1919; died of natural causes, at age 75, in Sun Valley, Idaho, on February 17, 1994; daughter of William Kunigk and a Norwegian skier (name obscure); married Donald Fraser (a skier), in 1939.

Won the National and Combined Downhill Championships (1941); was National Slalom champion (1942); won the gold medal in the women's special slalom event in the Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland (1948), the first American to win a gold medal in skiing since 1924.

Gretchen Fraser's mother, Norwegian by birth, was a ski enthusiast on the slopes in the Northwest who worked for the development of Mt. Rainier as a public ski resort and encouraged many to try this new sport. Though her daughter Gretchen skied, she did not enter competition until she was 16. When Gretchen met Donald Fraser, a member of the 1936 Olympic team, they fell in love and were married in 1939. A year later, both qualified for the 1940 Olympic team. The Games were canceled, however, with the outbreak of World War II, and Donald joined the Navy, leaving for four years.

Fraser continued to ski, winning the Diamond Sun event in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1940 and 1941. She also won the National Combined and Downhill championships in 1941. In 1942, after she became the National Slalom champion, Fraser left competitive skiing to work as a volunteer in army hospitals teaching swimming, riding, and skiing to amputees. Then Donald came back from the war and encouraged his wife to begin skiing again.

By the time Gretchen Fraser entered the 1948 Winter Olympics, much was against her: she was 29, not the youngest athlete, and no American had won a gold medal in skiing since 1924. She was also the first of 31 skiers on Mt. Piz-Nair in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Although her first run was flawless, her caution had cost her precious

seconds. On her second run, because of a foul up with a telephone connection from below, she stood in the starting gate for 17 minutes, a mass of raw nerves. At last given the signal, she took off downhill, reaching the finish line in 57.7 seconds, giving her a combined time of 1:57.2. (The next best time was 1:57.7, posted by Switzerland's Antoinette Meyer ; Erika Mahringer of Austria won the bronze, with 1:58.0). To everyone's surprise, an "unknown American housewife" had upset the Europeans. Gretchen Fraser was, in fact, a skilled professional when she shocked the competition. She then went on to take a silver medal in the slalom-downhill combined (an event discontinued in 1988).

sources:

Hollander, Phyllis. 100 Greatest Women in Sports. NY: Grosset and Dunlap, 1976.

Porter, David L., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Basketball and Other Indoor Sports. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Karin L. Haag , Athens, Georgia

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