Gretchen Fraser was the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in skiing at the 1948 Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Fraser was selected for the 1940 Olympic team, but those Games were cancelled due to World War II. While her husband 1936 Olympian skier Don Fraser, went to war, Gretchen spent the war years helping to rehabilitate injured soldiers by helping them to learn how to ski, the start of a lifetime passion for working with disabled skiers.
When the 1948 Olympic Games came around, Fraser was ready even though the U.S. women’s alpine team wasn’t regarded as a powerhouse. They didn’t rate a team photograph, Fraser said.
“We didn’t even have a coach when we went to St. Moritz. Members of the men’s alpine team would take turns coaching us each day. They resented being with us, and did pretty much what they wanted,” Fraser said. “If one wanted to sleep in, he’d show up at 11.” A donor provided money to hire a coach, a Swissskier who’d missed making the host nation’s men’s team.
She started with the downhill, not her specialist category, and finished in 13th position. That didn’t yield a medal, but perhaps it calmed some nerves for her next event. That was the combined, and now Fraser was on more familiar and comfortable ground. She was only 11th quickest after the downhill runs, but was second quickest in the slalom section to finish second overall. After so many years of waiting, she now had an Olympic medal.
The next day, on February 5, 1948, the 28-year-old stunned the field by recording the fastest time on the first run of the slalom. Despite a 17-minute delay caused by a problem with the timing system, Fraser managed to produce the second-fastest second run, which meant a relative unknown would stand atop the podium. Fraser had won the silver medal in the alpine combined event the day before.
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.
The Washington native retired from competition after the Olympics and went on to become a mentor to many of America’s brightest skiing stars. Known for her warmth and modesty, caring for others and giving generously of her time and talents, Gretchen was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1960. She passed away on February 17, 1994 – a month after her husband died.