Washington Skiers in the 1936 and 1948 Winter Olympics

  • By John W. Lundin
  • Posted 5/17/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10786
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Although the Winter Olympics began in 1924, athletes from Washington did not participate until the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where five local skiers went to compete. Two Northwest skiers, Don and Gretchen Kunigk Fraser, were on the team that would have participated in the 1940 Winter Olympics, but those games were canceled due to World War II, as were the 1944 games. Three Washington skiers, Gretchen Fraser, Dave Faires, and Don Amick, went to the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where Fraser won gold and silver medals. Tryouts for the 1936 and 1948 Olympics were held in the Northwest, showing how important local skiing was to the national skiing scene. This People's History was written by John W. Lundin, who is working to help open the Washington State Ski & Snowboard History Museum on Snoqualmie Pass. It is based on materials available from The Seattle Times Historical Archives, the Alpenglow Gallery website, and other sources.

Start of the Winter Olympics

An ice-skating competition first appeared at the 1908 London Summer Olympic Games. In 1916, a "Skiing Olympia" was to take place as part of the Olympic Games in the Black Forest of Germany, a week of winter sports to include figure and speed skating, ice hockey, and Nordic skiing, but the Games were canceled because of World War I. Figure skating and ice hockey were included in the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games. The 1924 Olympics held in France included a Winter Sports Week at Chamonix, featuring figure skating, speed skating, ice hockey, Nordic skiing, and bobsledding. More than 250 athletes from 16 countries competed in 16 events. Nordic countries "steamrolled the competition" and went home with the most medals, while the U.S. won two medals, a gold in the speed skating competition and a bronze in the ski jump ("A Brief History ...").

In 1925, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to establish Winter Olympic Games separate from the Summer Olympics, and selected St. Moritz, Switzerland as the host of the 1928 Winter Games. Sonja Henie of Norway made history by winning the figure skating competition at age 15. The 1932 Winter Games were held at Lake Placid, New York, where Henie defended her Olympic title. The 1928 and 1932 Winter Games featured Nordic skiing events -- cross-country, Nordic combined, and jumping -- and only men competed. The 1936 Winter Games were awarded to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.           

1936 Winter Games

On April 13 and 14, 1935, the U.S. National Championships and Olympic tryouts in downhill and slalom racing were held at Paradise on Mount Rainier, a major event in northwest skiing history. The Seattle Times of October 23, 1934, said the downhill course "is the toughest downhill you ever heard of," one and three-quarters of a mile long, dropping 3,280 feet, making an average grade of 33.33 percent, "and that's steep." There were 59 entrants, including 14 from the Pacific Northwest. The northwest men included Hjalmar Hvam, Don Fraser, Carleton Wiegel, Ken Syverson, Hans Grage, Darroch Crookes, John Woodward of the U.W. Ski Team, and Emil Cahen. The event's three best U.S. skiers were Dick Durrance of Dartmouth College, first of all U.S. competitors; E. D. (Ed) Hunter Jr. of Dartmouth, third in the combined competition; and Robert Livermore Jr. from Boston. They were "almost certain to be selected to the Olympic squad" to compete at Garmisch, according to The Seattle Times. In the women's competition, Tacoma's Ethelynne "Skit" Smith won the slalom title, and her sister Ellis-Ayr Smith finished first in the downhill, and fourth in the slalom, and won the Combined National Championship title. Seattle's Grace Carter was second in the downhill and second in the combined.

"The Olympic Games," an article by Hans Otto Giese, appeared in the premier edition of Ski Magazine, published in January 1936. It contained pictures of Washington skiers going to Europe for the Olympic Games: National champions Skit and Ellis-Ayr Smith from Tacoma, and Grace Carter, Darroch Crookes, and Don Fraser from Seattle.

In Europe, the U.S. would select eight men and eight women racers to compete for four men's and women's slots to race in the Olympic Games. All of the northwest skiers except for Skit Smith made the eight-person Olympic teams, but none were selected to race, although Grace Carter was the first substitute on the women's team. Showing how good skiing in Washington was in 1936, four or five of 16 best racers in the United States came from Seattle or Tacoma.

The 1936 winter games, held at Garmisch-Partenkirchen from February 6 to 16, 1936, featured Alpine skiing for the first time, with downhill and slalom racing and a combined event (downhill and slalom), along with Nordic events (cross-country, Nordic combined, and jumping). Both men and women competed in the Alpine events, but only men were allowed in the Nordic events. Don Fraser hurt his hip before the Olympics, taking him out of the competition. Crookes took fifth in the downhill trials, just missing the cut to race in the games. Dick Durrance, who learned to ski in Garmisch in the early 1930s, was the highest-finishing U.S. skier, coming in 10th. Germans took gold in the men's and women's downhill. The U.S. team placed eighth overall, winning four medals.

According to The Seattle Times, the U.S. ski coach said that Darroch Crookes had significant potential for the future, and if Crookes had come to Europe sooner and had practiced more, "he would have given the rest of the boys a run for their money." Grace Carter was called "the most brilliant youngster to flash into the American skiing picture since the sport took hold," and her coach said "with proper coaching could easily become one of the world's great skiers."

The Washington skiers stayed in Europe and entered other competitions to improve their skiing. The United States entered six men and six women in the International Ski Federation races at Innsbruck, Austria, in February 1936, including Grace Carter, Donald Fraser, and Darroch Crooks, with Dick Durrance and Elizabeth Woolsey of New Haven, Connecticut, leading the U.S. contingent. Six American men competed in the two-day Kandahar race at St. Anton, Austria, in March 1936, including Fraser and Crookes. Eleven American women competed, including Carter and the Smith sisters. Emile Allais of France won the downhill, and Durrance finished highest of the U.S. men.

Preparing for the 1940 Olympics

Preparations began in 1939 to select the U.S. Olympic team for the 1940 winter games. The National Ski Association decided that the American Olympic Team would be the team selected for the Federation Internationale de Ski (F.I.S.) Championships to be held in Norway in February 1940. In April 1939 the National Ski Association announced skiers who were eligible to compete for the F.I.S. team, including six with a Seattle connection: Grace Carter Lindley, Dorothy Hoyt, Shirley McDonald, Bob Barto, Peter Garrett, and Bobby Blatt.    

Idaho's Sun Valley ski resort was to play a major role in preparing the F.I.S. team for the event in Norway and the Olympics. The Seattle Times of August 30, 1939, reported that Dick Durrance, then working for the Sun Valley resort, came to Seattle to discuss the resort's plans for the team, and to talk to two Seattle candidates for the American team, Don Fraser and Peter Garrett (a Garfield High School graduate who had enrolled in Yale University):

"Sun Valley, the Union Pacific's Idaho resort, wants to employ the eighteen first-string American skiers next winter -- legitimate employment too -- and at the same time give them training under Friedl Pfeiffer and Peter Radacher, two great European racers, for the more strenuous skiing they'll get in the F.I.S. meet."

According to the article, Durrance said that when the U.S. went to the 1936 Olympics in Germany, team members learned that:

"[A] hastily-recruited ski team had no chance against the Europeans....They were training for a year. We had only a few weeks. If the team can go to Sun Valley, however, and work on the Bald Mountain downhill course, which needs a lot of work, it can get in condition before the first big snow ... and then we can dig in and really learn some skiing before going to Norway."

Northwest skiers Gretchen Kunigk, a Tacoma native, and Don Fraser, of the 1936 Olympic team, were married in October 1939, a union of two of the most successful local ski racers. Both Gretchen and Don were invited to be members of the American F.I.S. teams to race in Norway. However, international events intervened and led to the cancelation of the 1940 Winter Olympics after a series of twists and turns.

War Cancels Two Winter Olympics 

In 1936, the 1940 winter and summer games had been awarded to Tokyo, Japan. Japan forfeited the Olympic Games on July 16, 1938, after the second Sino-Japanese War broke out. The 1940 Summer Olympics were then awarded to Helsinki, Finland, and the Winter Olympics to St. Moritz, Switzerland. Then a dispute arose over the eligibility of professional ski instructors to participate in the winter games. The International Olympic Committee ruled that ski teachers were professionals and could not participate in the Olympics, which allowed only true amateurs to enter. As a result, skiing was eliminated as a competitive sport from the 1940 Olympics, making it an exhibition sport. When Switzerland refused to host unless skiing was restored as a competitive event, the 1940 Winter Olympics were transferred to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, site of the 1936 games. After the I.O.C. ruled that a belligerent country could not hold the Olympic Games, the German Olympic Committee canceled the games in November 1939.

In April 1940, Finland had to cancel the summer games because of the war. While all this was going on, the 1944 Summer Olympics were awarded to London and the Winter Olympics to Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. Those too were canceled because of the war. 

During the war, Gretchen Fraser skied in Otto Lang's military training films and helped rehabilitate wounded and disabled veterans through skiing. She also did the ski scenes for Sonja Henie in the film Thin Ice in 1940 and Sun Valley Serenade in 1941.

Northwest Competitions to Select 1948 Olympic Team 

During the ski season of 1946-1947, a series of competitions was held in the Northwest leading to the selection of the U.S. Olympic skiing team for the 1948 Winter Games at St. Moritz, Switzerland, in both Alpine and Nordic events.

Events leading to the selection of the Olympic Alpine team began with the Pacific Northwestern Ski Association (PNSA) Annual Amateur Downhill and Slalom Championships at Stevens Pass in early February, where skiers competed for a chance to enter the Olympic tryouts held in March at Sun Valley. The Stevens Pass event was followed by the National Championship Downhill and Slalom in Ogden, Utah, and the action-packed year ended with the Olympic tryouts at Sun Valley on March 8 and 9, 1947.

Sixteen skiers from the PNSA competed to qualify for the Alpine team, including four Seattle ski stars -- Jack Nagel, Rees Stevenson, Don Amick, and Paul Gilbreath. Other PNSA racers included Dave Faires, Karl Stingl, Don Goodman, Leon Goodman, Gene Gills of Sun Valley, and Bill Bowes of Portland. The woman included Gretchen Kunigk Fraser, then of Vancouver, Washington; Rebecca Fraser; Alma Hansen and Dodie Post of Sun Valley; Mary Alice Peal of Washington State College; and Ann Volkmann of Portland.

At the PNSA Downhill and Slalom Championships on February 8 and 9, 1947, at Stevens Pass, Dave Faires ("the Rabbit"), who dropped out of the University of Washington that winter to race for the Sun Valley Ski Club, won the combined downhill and slalom title, barely edging out Jack Nagel. Gretchen Fraser, "whose downhill running was matchless" (Seattle Times, February 2, 1947), won the women's combined title, after finishing third in the slalom.

On March 3 and 4, 1947, the National Championship Downhill and Slalom races were held at Ogden, Utah. The first 50 men and the first 20 women would be eligible to compete in the Olympic tryouts at Sun Valley. Karl Molitor from Switzerland took the national combined championship, and many of the Washington skiers qualified to compete at Sun Valley.

The Olympic tryouts, in downhill and slalom were held at Sun Valley on March 8 and 9, 1947. Salt Lake City's Jack Redish won the men's downhill, and Gretchen Fraser won the women's. After the slalom race and the combined titles were awarded, four Northwest men were in the running for selection to the U.S. ski team by finishing in the top 20 in the combined: Don Amick, Jack Nagel, Dave Faires, and Paul Gilbreath. Amick, the veteran Washington Ski Club star, placed highest of the four, winding up sixth overall in the combined. Fourteen-year old Andrea Mead of Rutland, Vermont, was "by far the outstanding entrant in the trials" (Seattle Times, March 10, 1947), winning first in the slalom and second in the downhill, and finishing second in the combined after Gretchen Fraser.

The U.S. Alpine ski team for the 1948 Olympics was announced in Sun Valley on March 18, 1947, and westerners got 11 of the 19 downhill and slalom berths. Two Washington skiers made the team: Gretchen Fraser and Dave Faires, one of five alternates on the men's team. A separate combined team was named, that would participate in more than two events. The women's downhill and slalom team was led by Fraser and Mead. The team stayed in Sun Valley for two weeks of intense training.

In the March tryouts, Seattle's Don Amick ran brilliantly in the downhill and slalom events, but his age -- he was in his late 30s -- was the reason he was not initially picked as an alternate. But in October "the veteran Washington Ski Club speedster" (Seattle Times, October 12, 1947), was named to the Olympic team.

The winter's jumping events began in early February 1947 with a tournament at Leavenworth. Art Devlin, the national champion from Lake Placid, N.Y., jumped 286 feet, but fell on the landing and wrenched his knee. Art Granstrom of the Everett Ski Club edged out Olav Ulland, the defending champion, to win the meet.

The PNSA Jumping Championship, held at the Milwaukee Ski Bowl at Snoqualmie Pass on February 16, was won by Joe Perrault, from Ispeming, Michigan, who boosted his national and Olympic Games stock by making two spectacular jumps in front of more than 3,000 spectators.

On March 22 and 23, 1947, the Milwaukee Ski Bowl hosted tryouts for the jumping events of the 1948 Olympic Games. Perrault finished first. Six jumpers were selected to the U.S. Olympic team after the event, the first five finishers -- Perrault, Sverre Fredheim, Gordon Wren, Ralph Bietila, and Walter Bietila -- plus Art Devlin, who had injured his knee at the Leavenworth tournament but who earned his berth "with flossy jumping" (Seattle Times, March 24, 1947) in other events. After the competition, the jumpers left for Sun Valley for two weeks of training.

1948 Winter Olympics          

The big skiing story of 1948 was the Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the first held since 1936, and the first to feature a full array of Alpine events, consisting of three men's and three women's events, although a few Alpine events were held in the 1936 Olympics. Otto Lang, who covered the 1948 Olympics as a special correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, later described the U.S. team in his book A Bird of Passage:

"The United States had a very competitive squad of athletes. Foremost among these was Gretchen Fraser, nee Kunigk, who had learned to ski at my school at Mount Rainier. Now a resident of Sun Valley, along with her husband Don, also a renowned racer, Gretchen was touted by the American press as a dark horse and potential threat to the elite European women skiers in downhill and slalom, as was the up-and-coming Andrea Mead, the youngest member of the Olympic squad. Art Devlin from Lake Placid, New York, a stylish internationally acclaimed ski jumper, and courageous Gordon Wren from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, headed the jumping team" (Lang, 269).

The U.S. men failed to live up to the country's hopes and did not win a medal in skiing. Gretchen Fraser was the "unexpected heroine" (Seattle Times, February 4, 1948) of the games, winning a gold medal in the slalom and a silver in the Alpine Combined, which she narrowly lost to Trude Beiser of Austria. U.S. Gold medals were also won by 18-year-old Dick Button in figure skating and the men's four-man bobsled team.

Norway's Birger Ruud, who had competed in the Northwest in the late 1930s, won the silver medal in jumping, to go with his gold medals in the 1932 and 1936 games. Ruud was the coach of the Norwegian team, but decided to compete after arriving in St. Moritz. U.S. Jumper Gorden Wren kept up with Ruud's length of jumps but could not match his "impeccable style in the air" (Lang, 272) and finished fifth. Fifteen-year-old Andrea Mead was three seconds ahead of the field at mid-course in the downhill, but took a bad fall and did not finish. She came back to win gold medals in slalom and giant slalom events in the 1952 Olympics at age 19.

While the Olympics were going on in Europe, the National Jumping Championships were held at the Milwaukee Bowl in March 1948. Arne Ulland, "a visiting Norwegian flyer, who makes ski jumping look so easy, topped one of the best fields of American skiing" to win the National Championship with a 280-foot jump, according to The Seattle Times of March 9, 1948.


The Seattle Times Historical Archives; Lowell Skoog, Alpenglow Gallery website accessed March 12, 2014 (http://www.alpenglow.org/); "A Brief History of Winter Olympics," History of the Olympics website accessed May 9, 2014 (http://www.historyoftheolympics.net/history_of_winter_olympics.html); "Stories About Coloradans in the Winter Olympics: 1936-52," Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum website accessed May 9, 2014 (http://www.skimuseum.net/pdf/1936-52.pdf); Hans Otto Giese, "The Olympic Games," Ski Magazine, January 1936; "1940 & 1944 -- Winter Olympics," TSN website accessed May 9, 2014 (http://www.tsn.ca/olympics/feature/?fid=10267); Otto Lang, A Bird of Passage (Helena, MT: SkyHouse Publishers, 1994).

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