The year was 1948. In the snow-covered mountains of Piz Nair, St. Moritz, Switzerland, a young pig-tailed woman from Tacoma, Washington waited with a nervous smile before the stopwatch signaled her turn. Slaloming downhill between poles and flags, Gretchen Fraser made a mark in America’s history as the first-ever American Olympian to win a gold in skiing.
But like any athlete, her journey to victory wasn’t easy. In fact, it was a tumultuous path that was only surmounted through years of patience, hard work, and unwavering hope.
A Natural Talent
For Willibald and Clara Kunigk, two immigrants from Germany and Norway respectively, it didn’t come as a surprise when their daughter Gretchen developed an affinity for skiing. Clara was an avid skier, and it didn’t take long for Gretchen to have the same passion for the sport as her mother.
When she was 13, Gretchen and her family spent some time in Paradise Valley, Washington. Located in the south slopes of Mount Rainier, this often lush locale in the summer would often be covered under thick blankets of snow in the winter. This was her first time skiing. And on these same slopes, Willibald and Clara saw Gretchen’s natural talent.
The view of Mt. Rainier from the Skyline Trail in Paradise, Washington. Gretchen Fraser skied for the first time on the mountain’s south slopes in December 1932.
The Start of a Promising Career
Throughout his lifetime, Otto Lang explored careers as an author and filmmaker. Both of his ventures later proved to be a success as he helmed several critically-acclaimed films during his time. But before his cinematic work, Otto Lang was known as a skier and a pioneer ski instructor from Bosnia and Herzegovina. After teaching in Austria, Lang was given a chance to teach in the United States.
It was his time in the country where Otto met Gretchen. Under his tutelage, her natural skiing talent when she was a child soon translated into adulthood excellence.
Before she was 20, Gretchen became a proficient ski racer and later joined the ski team at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She was not also a stranger to the limelight, having appeared as a skiing double for the 1937 film “Thin Ice” and the 1941 film “Sun Valley Serenade”.
As she continued to hone her skills, Gretchen met a man named Donald Fraser, a fellow skier. Little did she know that this same man would become the person who would wait for her at the altar in 1939. A member of the 1936 Olympic ski team, Donald knew how to spot talent and commend it when needed. He found Gretchen’s skills to be impressive yet he found her form awkward but promising nonetheless.
Donald (left) and Gretchen (right) Fraser (Photo: Heather Fraser)
Their marriage saw several moments of supporting each other’s goals of competing in the Olympics. Their times were mostly spent tirelessly training for the upcoming tryouts, and their dedication eventually paid off when they both made the team.
A Dream Almost Forgotten
When World War II sent several countries, including the United States, into total unrest, the 1940 Olympic Games had to be canceled. But Gretchen’s passion for the sport that became a part of her childhood and who she was didn’t falter. That same year where any hope of competing in the Olympics was bleak, she joined the first-ever Diamond Sun Event in Sun Valley, Idaho, and won.
A year later, Gretchen won the race again where she beat Dick Durrance, a 17-time national championship alpine ski racer. Her name was also etched on the 1942 National Slalom titles. Truly, her winning streak made Gretchen an unstoppable force in the world of skiing. But her dream of bagging the Olympic gold seemed so impossible for the athlete as World War II continued.
Gretchen eventually retired from skiing, but it didn’t stop her from becoming physically active as she spent most of her time riding, swimming, and providing skiing lessons to veterans in the U.S. Army hospitals. Donald, on the other hand, served the U.S. Navy as an aerial gunner. This separation from her husband made Gretchen lonely.
To ease this loneliness, she turned to flying to cope. When she earned her pilot’s license, Gretchen joined the Ninety-Niners, an international women’s flying organization. By the time the war ended, Donald finally came home and opened an oil and gasoline distribution business in Vancouver, Washington. This business kept the couple busy. But Gretchen still found herself yearning for the times she spent at the slopes.
Gretchen Fraser during her time as a pilot. (Photo: Heather Fraser)
The Journey to the Olympics
When Donald encouraged Gretchen to ski again, she was adamant at first. The 1948 Olympic Games was just announced, and Donald suggested that she try out for the games. But running a business was challenging, and Gretchen didn’t have enough time to practice. Her skill and years of experience were the only things that she brought with her when she finally made it to the U.S ski team roster in St. Moritz.
The town of St. Moritz, Switzerland served as the host of the 1948 Winter Olympics.
The 1940s was a time where women skiers were met with dismissals from the naysayers. It was a sport that’s not ladylike and as such, Gretchen and her fellow female skiers received little to no support.
The fact that the women’s ski team didn’t have a coach added another obstacle to Gretchen’s hopes of winning the Olympics. The women’s team even had to make do with receiving training from foster coaches, each demonstrating different techniques. But despite these challenges, she skied all the way to victory by winning a silver medal in the alpine combined.
On February 5, 1948, Gretchen participated in the giant slalom event. She was the first one to race, and it put her in a bad position. Not knowing where the slick spots were, Gretchen zigzagged through a course of flags. Beneath her gentle exterior, her years of experience and undeniable expertise showed. She was, without a doubt, the dark horse in the competition.
During her winning run, Gretchen Fraser’s ski goggles fogged up leaving her with no choice but to wear them on her head instead. (Photo: Heather Fraser)
Her second run was met with technical glitches, causing a delay of 17 minutes. But this didn’t faze her. More than anything, Gretchen used this time to collect her thoughts so she could focus more. She won the gold, besting the top names in skiing.
Alternating pairs of red and blue poles make up a typical slalom course.
Overnight, the then-unknown Gretchen became a household name. Newspapers from all over the country told the tales of the 28-year-old skiing underdog who didn’t let the odds that were against her hinder her victory. Her face even graced the cover of the Wheaties cereal box in 1951, where her story served as an inspiration to all.
Gretchen retired from skiing for good in 1948, but she continued to promote the sport for several years. At the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo, Norway, Gretchen managed and mentored the U.S. women’s ski team. Eight years later, she was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1960, and into the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame and the University of Puget Sound Hall of Fame.
Gretchen Fraser (left) with the 1948 Women’s Alpine Olympic Ski Team
She eventually became a mother, an ambassador for Sun Valley and skiing, and mentored the likes of female skiers such as Christin Cooper, Picabo Street, Susie Corrock, Andrea Mead Lawrence, and Muffy Davis. Even during her later years in life, Gretchen still continued until the time of her death on February 17, 1994. She was 75 years old. Donald passed away a month earlier.
Gretchen Kunigk Fraser might be long gone, but her legacy will continue to live through the athletes that she mentored and the intense passion that she had for skiing. And even after all these years, she would always be remembered as ‘America’s pigtailed sweetheart’.