It is impossible to visit Sun Valley and not run across the legacy of Gretchen Fraser, the first American to win an Olympic medal in skiing. You might ski down Gretchen’s Gold run commemorating her 1948 slalom win, or eat at Gretchen’s in the Sun Valley Lodge. You will likely pass the two larger than life-sized bronze statues of her, or one of two vintage posters featuring her image. Long ago, her accomplishments landed her in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, among others.
On June 24, she will join the next class of Olympians and Paralympians to be inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame. The honorees include three skiers, Lindsey Vonn, Muffy Davis, and Fraser, spanning 70 years of Olympic Games.
The Class of 2022 is the 17th, and the first to be voted in since 2019, bringing the total members in the USOPC Hall of Fame to 168. Eligible athletes in each of five categories—athlete, coach, team, legend, and special contributor—are first nominated by NGBs and the Olympic and Paralympic family. The field is then narrowed by committee to a final ballot which is voted on by the Olympic and Paralympic family as well as the public (the public does not get to vote in the legend, coach, and special contributor categories).
The legend category is reserved for athletes who are at least six Olympic cycles (24 years) after their Olympic competitions. Fraser, who passed away in 1994, has been eligible since the Hall of Fame was established in 1983, and her nomination had long been in the works. Tom Kelly headed communications for the U.S. Ski Team for three decades. He wrote Fraser’s nomination and credits persistence—more than 20 years worth—in her finally getting the nod. Kelly explains, “It’s not so much a case of lobbying, but more just making sure the right nominees are getting into the process.”
Gretchen’s Journey to Olympic Gold
Fraser was unquestionably one such nominee. Born in 1919, Tacoma native Gretchen Kunigk started skiing at age 13, hiking up the slopes of Washington’s Mt Rainier. Under the tutelage of Austrian ski instruction pioneer Otto Lang, she took to ski racing naturally and eventually raced for the University of Puget Sound. Competing in prestigious races like Sun Valley’s Harriman Cup, she met her future husband and 1936 Olympic team member, Don Fraser.
Both were named to the 1940 Olympic squad, the second to include alpine skiing. With the 1940 and ’44 Olympics cancelled due to World War II, Fraser shifted her work to nursing, rehabilitating war veterans in Sun Valley and teaching amputees to ski. Having already doubled for figure skater and actress Sonia Henie in the films “Thin Ice” and “Sun Valley Serenade,” for which Lang directed the ski action, she also skied for his military instruction videos.
After the war, her competition time seemed past. But in 1948, at age 28 and after five years away from competition, she qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team headed to the Winter Games in St Moritz. There, the unheralded “housewife” (so described by the press at the time), beat long odds—braids flying—and blazed to silver in the combined, and gold in the slalom event.
She returned home to a hero’s welcome, a parade in New York and her choice of companies to represent. She appeared on a Wheaties box and a series of trading cards, and accepted the role as spokesperson for Sun Valley.
Hall of Fame nominees are considered for their behavior and contributions during their entire careers on and off the field, and how they represent the Olympic and Paralympic ideals. Here, too, Fraser shone. Continuing her work with amputee skiers, Fraser founded the Flying Outriggers Ski Club in Oregon, coaching and advocating for adaptive skiing. An accomplished pilot, mentored by Chuck Yeager, she organized aviation education programs for children. Once retired in Sun Valley, she remained active in the community, quietly supporting causes and lending her name to them. Founder of Sun Valley Center for the Arts, Glenn Janss, remembers Fraser as an unsung community leader who always showed up, but never wanted the spotlight. “She and Don were always there supporting, but they did so in a quiet way.”
One person who fully grasps Fraser’s impact is her fellow Olympic Hall of Fame inductee, Paralympian Muffy Davis.
When Davis was a kid in Sun Valley, she remembers seeing Fraser’s medals on display, and skiing down her run thinking,“ some day I’m going to win a medal and they’re going to name a run after me.” Fraser often reached out to young local skiers, among them future Olympians Christin Cooper, Susie Corrock, Picabo Street, and Davis.
As Davis started having ski racing success, Fraser sent her notes of encouragement or congratulations, often with one of her signed trading cards. At age 16, a serious ski accident left Davis paralyzed from her chest down. While she was in the hospital, Fraser dropped off a letter and a four-leaf clover pin that Sun Valley’s founder Averell Harriman had given her before the Olympics, in 1948. In the letter, Davis recalls, “she said she’s carried it on her throughout her life and it has brought her good fortune and she wanted to share that with me.” When Davis got home from rehab, she met Fraser for the first time, and the two became close. Davis would go on to win seven Paralympic medals in both para-skiing and para-cycling.
For Davis, the timing of Fraser’s induction couldn’t be more significant. “The Hall of Fame—it’s one of those things you don’t even dream of,” says Davis. “It’s like an above-bucket-list thing. To be able to be in the same class as Gretchen, one of the heroes that I carry with me daily … that’s probably the most meaningful thing to me out of all of it.”
The People’s Choice
Perhaps nobody is more educated on Fraser’s massive impact than John Bechtholt, a Tacoma native who picked up a donated copy of “Gretchen’s Gold” at the Sun Valley Starbucks. He was shocked to learn that Fraser was, in fact, from Tacoma, and set about reviving, chronicling, and celebrating her history in their hometown. Bechtholt has amassed his own library of memorabilia including photos, magazine covers and features, trading cards, and 13 comic books in which she appeared, and shared his finds with Fraser’s two grandchildren who will be on hand for the induction in Colorado Springs on June 24.
To Bechtholt, who continues to uncover Fraser’s character and contributions, athletics is but one small piece of what makes her a champion. As Bechtholt puts it: “I don’t know how you get closer to an American hero than Gretchen. She’s pretty cool.”