Gretchen Fraser, the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in alpine skiing, was born Gretchen Kunigk to Norwegian-German parents in Tacoma, Washington. She took up skiing at age 13 after she and her brother received skis for Christmas. The family skied the south slopes of Mount Rainier and once her brother, Bill, earned his driver’s license, the two siblings regularly visited the mountain. Fraser’s skiing career began with several novice race wins on Mount Rainier in 1936.
In 1937, she met Don Fraser, who had competed for the U.S. at the 1936 Olympic Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The Frasers were married in 1939. In the 1940, husband and wife were named to the U.S. Olympic Ski Team, but the Games were canceled due to World War II.
Gretchen maintained her training and in 1941, she won every major race that year, including her first national alpine title in the combined. In 1942, she won the U.S. title in the slalom. As World War II raged on, Don entered the Navy. Sun Valley became a naval rehabilitation center and Gretchen stopped skiing for four years.
By 1948, Fraser was nearly 30 years old and no longer a favorite. However, she qualified to compete in St. Moritz, racing in the downhill, slalom and combined events.
In the slalom event, Fraser was the first skier down in the first run. Pigtails flying, she posted the fastest first-run time by 0.2 seconds. As she prepared to lead off the second run, a problem in the timing system developed and there was a 17-minute delay. Despite this, Fraser skied the second-fastest second run to clinch the gold, the first American to win an Olympic alpine skiing title.
Fraser also took silver in the combined. Her medals were the first medals of any color for the U.S. in alpine skiing.
Fraser retired after the 1948 Games, returning to Sun Valley with her husband, Don. Fraser was a member of the Olympic Selection Committee in 1952 and served as the Women’s Olympic Team manager for the Games in Oslo. She was elected to the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame in 1960.
Outside of her competitive career, Fraser also earned a pilot’s license, logging more than 3,000 flight hours. She acted as a skiing double for Sonja Henie in the films Thin Ice (1937) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941).
Gretchen Fraser passed away on February 17, 1994, 36 days after her husband. Her Olympic medals are on display in a Sun Valley Lodge restaurant that is named for her.