Women of Winter Sports: The First U.S. Olympic Ski Medalists

A photograph of snowy mountains with a village at the bottom on the left and an image of a young woman holding skis on the right. Text of a headline reads U.S. Wins Three Olympic Contests.

“U.S. Wins Three Olympic Contests,” Life (Chicago, IL), February 16, 1948, p.32.

The ski slopes are busy and the Winter Olympics are just over the horizon. Soon men and women from all over the world will compete in a variety of skiing events including alpine skiing and ski jumping. The U.S. won its first medals for skiing at the Olympics in 1948. Did you know that the first three U.S. Olympic athletes to get medals for skiing were all women?

An image of a young woman wearing a winter hat sits in the upper left corner of a newspaper article, surrounded by text.

“American Skater and Skier Take Olympic Titles: Crowns Are Won by Button and Mrs. Fraser,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), February 5, 1948.

Referred to in newspapers as a “skier-housewife,” Gretchen Fraser was an incredible force on the slopes. She surprised everyone in 1948 when she placed first in the women’s slalom, winning a gold medal–the first medal ever for the U.S. in any skiing event. She continued her Olympic streak by also winning a silver medal in the women’s alpine combined. The Evening Star notes that not only were those the first medals for the U.S. in skiing, but “the first Olympic ski medals ever taken to the Western side of the Atlantic.”

Although Fraser announced soon after returning from the 1948 Olympic games that she was retiring from competition, and gave birth to her son less than a year later, she continued coaching for many years. She even became a coach and trainer to the next U.S. Olympic ski medalist, Andrea Mead Lawrence.

Three young women stand close together, arms around each other, heads touching, smiling.

“Winter Olympic Hopes,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), January 15, 1952.

Andrea Mead first competed in the Olympics, at just age 15, in the 1948 Olympics with Fraser. Four years later, after she married U.S. Olympic skier David Lawrence, the 19 year old skier was back at the Olympics and ready to compete again. This time, Fraser was at her side as her coach. Her incredible performance that year won her gold medals in both the slalom and the giant slalom.

Newspaper article text surrounds two photographs of a young woman dressed in ski gear. In the photograph on the left she has just completed a race and is lifting her goggles up, in the photograph on the right she is drinking from a small cup while holding a saucer in the other hand.

“Andrea Mead Lawrence Wins First Gold Medal of 1952 Olympics,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), February 14, 1952.

Lawrence’s win in the slalom is one for the records. She fell partway through the first run and finished fourth. The fall was so quick, Lawrence hardly knew that it happened. “[E]verything happened so fast I don’t remember whether I actually hit the ground,” she said in the Evening Star. “I just knew I had to get back on my feet fast and get through that gate.” She came back in the next run far ahead of her competition and won gold for the event, making it one of the few times in skiing history when a competitor fell, but came back to win a medal. Her win in the slalom was also the first time that any Olympic skier had won gold in more than one event.

The incredible Andrea Mead Lawrence didn’t stop there, though. Over the next four years she went on to have three children, win the national slalom title and national women’s downhill title, and then compete in the 1956 Olympics where she placed fourth in the giant slalom. She later turned her career to environmental activism, working to protect the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After her death in 2009, one of those mountains was officially named for her (Mt. Andrea Lawrence Designation Act of 2011).

The next medalist for U.S. skiing was Penelope “Penny” Pitou in the 1960 Olympics. Pitou missed the gold in the downhill ski race by only one second, winning her a silver medal. She blamed it on a curve that made many of her competitors fall. “It’s a 90-degree turn but you don’t dare slow down. If you do, you lose a heck of a lot of time on the straight stretch below. I started my turn a little too high and slid into the whole thing sideways,” she later said.

“Graceful Olympic Games Candidate,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 26, 1959.

These incredible women, who paved the way for future U.S. Olympians, continue to inspire us. We wish our Olympic team all the best this year and hope that you get to enjoy watching some of the skiing and other winter sports. Do you have a favorite winter Olympian? Let us know in the comments.

Additional Resources

The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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