Golden Gretchen made history at '48 Olympics

Vancouver resident Fraser accomplished much more than glory at the Olympics

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Did you know?

Former Vancouver residents Don and Gretchen Fraser are both in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

This week, American skiers will be trying to follow the route pioneered by a Vancouver housewife in 1948.

Gretchen Fraser won America's first Olympic medal in alpine skiing, taking a silver in the combined.

The 28-year-old Vancouver woman did even better in her next event, winning a gold medal in the special slalom.

Fraser's medals in the 1948 Winter Games at St. Moritz, Switzerland, remain a landmark achievement for American Olympians.

In the years before her death in 1994, Fraser did two interviews with The Columbian. She recalled her path to the gold medal, in what actually was a second chance at Olympic competition.

In 1948, she was the bookkeeper for Fraser Oil, the family business she operated with her husband, Don.

Don was an Olympic-caliber skier, too, and that's how the couple crossed paths. Gretchen grew up in Tacoma and the family took her skiing on Mount Rainier.

Don, a Vancouver native who'd been named to the 1936 U.S. ski team, was a prominent Northwest skier. They met in 1937 and were married in 1939.

Gretchen quickly developed into a top-flight skier, and both Frasers were named to the U.S. team for the 1940 Games. However, the Olympics were canceled because of World War II.

Don, who died shortly before Gretchen in 1994, served with a Navy fighter squadron during World War II.

Worked with wounded

Gretchen spent the war years at Sun Valley, Idaho, as part of a ski program for amputees who'd lost limbs in military service.

After the war, "We were trying to develop an oil business in Vancouver when the next Olympics came up," Gretchen Fraser told The Columbian. "Don said I'd never know what I could do unless I tried, and he said I'd always regret it if I didn't go to the tryouts.

"I won the Northwest trials, then won the Olympic qualifying in Sun Valley," she said.

The U.S. women's team wasn't exactly 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 Swiss skier who'd missed making the host nation's men's team.

Cooling her heels

Fraser broke Europe's medal monopoly with a silver in the downhill-slalom combined.

She followed it up on Feb. 5 with her gold medal effort in the special slalom. The competition was based on total time over two runs. Fraser took the lead with her first run, then she endured an agonizing delay before the second run that clinched the gold medal.

"I had to wait 18 minutes at the starting gate while they fixed a phone connection that was part of their timing system," she said.

This is how The Associated Press described the result:

"It was an historic day for the Red, White and Blue from the moment Mrs. Gretchen Fraser, the flying housewife from Vancouver, Wash., flashed across first in the women's special slalom."

Fraser announced her retirement from competition a couple of weeks later, while visiting her mother's family in Norway. The AP story was dated Feb. 24, 1948, a week after her 29th birthday.

Fraser said that "at 29, I think it's too exhausting to be training and travelling around all through the winter.

"Furthermore, I have a husband whom I haven't seen for three months, and in the future I prefer living the family life," she told Norwegian reporters.

Fraser didn't capitalize on her Olympic success.

"I did what I could to help out our business. I had a contract (for endorsements), but I had to be an all-American girl. I never smoked anyway, but that was one of the things the contract didn't allow."

Keep it wholesome

What she endorsed was wholesome indeed, including Wheaties cereal and the Wheat Flour Institute.

"I worked four years, then we decided that was it."

The Frasers lived in Vancouver from 1947 to 1976, when they moved to Sun Valley.

Although she got an enthusiastic welcome home, there wasn't a civic tribute to Fraser until 2006. That's when Donna Roberge was part of an effort, through the Vancouver branch of the American Association of University Women, to get some recognition.

"I wanted it to be as public as it could be," Roberge said.

It resulted in Gretchen Fraser Neighborhood Park, at Southeast Mill Plain Boulevard and 155th Avenue. There isn't much information at the site, Roberge said, and she hopes an interpretive panel can be installed.

Vancouver author Pat Jollota also gave a nod to Fraser in her recent book, "Legendary Locals of Vancouver" — and it wasn't just for her medals.

"I believe that what Gretchen did off the slopes was an indication of the merits of the woman," Jollota said. "Not only did she help wounded soldiers during World War II by teaching amputees to ski, she joined with Eunice Shriver in the Special Olympics to encourage disabled kids to ski."

Fraser was manager of the U.S. women's ski team at the 1952 Winter Olympics, and continued to represent the Olympic movement in appearances with her gold medal. It was not a gold-plated medallion, Fraser noted. It was six ounces of solid gold.

"I've worn it to dinner, and had it swing forward as I was being seated," Fraser said. "It broke the dinner plate."