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Ski Like a Girl

Ski Like a Girl

By Edith Thys Morgan
posted: 12/01/1998

U.S. ski history is filled with successful female athletes—pioneers such as Mead Lawrence who never questioned that women belonged in sports. From Gretchen Fraser's silver medal in 1948 to Picabo Street's gold in Nagano, American women have been a far stronger force than their male counterparts. The record speaks for itself.

In World Championships, women have earned 26 medals to the men's nine. In the Olympics, the women lead 19 to eight. And since the season-long World Cup circuit began in 1967, the women have outscored the men in all but one year of competition.

These statistics are not intended to slight male skiers. Indeed, the imbalance has much to do with the fact that men mature later, that many potential stars get forced out of the sport well before they reach their prime and that men have many other sports from which to choose. But the records do indicate that skiing has traditionally offered better opportunities for women. Fierce battles to include more women in sports have been waged on the courts and fields (see Title IX), not on mountains. Women never had to ask permission to climb a hill and slide down. Alpine skiing was first contested at the 1936 Olympics, and women were included. Americans thrived, becoming role models in their respective eras, and in their own ways. Thanks to their strength, independence and sometimes their audacity, American women skiers have ensured that to "Ski Like a Girl" will never be construed as an insult. Gretchen Fraser was the first American alpine skier to win an Olympic medal and she did so in her late 20s, ancient by today's athletic standards. But Fraser was not the stereotypical tom-boy. Teammates remember her as being very social, very girl-ish. When Tamara McKinney met Fraser before an appearance on The Today Show, she remembers being struck by how feminine she was. "This pioneer of sports was a lady, not a jock," remembers McKinney. "It showed me that you can be both."

After Fraser came Mead Lawrence, at the opposite end of the age spectrum. In 1952, she competed in her second Olympics at only 19. Then came three kids in three years, which led one coach to lament, "If she'd only stop having babies...." But sport was integral to life, and no heart-felt pursuit precluded the other. "It was not sport for the sake of sport, but what I learned from it along the way that counted," Mead Lawrence explains.

On the mountain, Mead Lawrence learned that competition was for one another—not against. "Our gift to each other as competitors was getting each other to a higher effort. On any day, the best thing you can hope for is the best competition in the world," says Mead Lawrence, who now resides in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and is finishing her fourth term as Mono County Supervisor. "My politics are driven by the same inner values that drove my skiing. You can only be a world-class athlete for so many years. It's the rest of your life that counts. Ski racing left me with a strong sense of autonomy."

Strength and independence are a hallmark of female skiers, but it's not always a quiet strength. Suzy Chaffee, though best known for her post-competition endorsements, was an outspoken force in women's skiing. As an alpine skier, she remembers being the first to compete in plastic boots, in the 1966 World Championships in Portillo, Chile (this despite knowing that her coach had bet $50 with Bob Lange, the designer of the boots, that "only Daffy Chaffee will be using those").

Chaffee moved on to freestyle skiing and through her own efforts started the Women's Freestyle Tour, raising $1 million from corporate sponsors. After retiring from competition, she led the charge for Title IX in Washington, and for the Amateur Sports Act (which mandates 20 percent athlete representation on all Olympic sports boards). She was also the first woman on the U.S. Olympic Committee. Tamara McKinney, one of skiing's youngest successes, was as quiet as Chaffee was ouutspoken—yet no less forceful in her pursuits. "My mom's theory was that if you keep children occupied with sports they'll find their way through life," she says. McKinney was a talented figure skater and equestrienne. But skiing was her freedom, and keeping up with her older brothers and sisters was her challenge. At age 9, she watched Barbara Ann Cochran win gold in the Olympic slalom—and had her first pang for Olympic competition.

Four years later, watching the 1976 Olympics, McKinney remembers thinking, "I can do that." She didn't have to wait long. By the time she was 15, she was racing with those heroes from the TV screen.

McKinney went on to capture the overall World Cup title and 18 World Cup race wins. What she remembers from her early days as a wunderkind was encouragement, not intimidation, from her much-older competitors. After placing third in her first World Cup race, she was congratulated by her then-untouchable hero, Annemarie Moser-Proell. There was no jealously, just a peer welcoming her to the athletic sisterhood. "It makes the sport bigger and better when athletes can do that. And the best ones can," observes McKinney.

As important as the sisterhood is the brotherhood, even in women's sports. Hilary Lindh, the 1996 World Champion in downhill and 1992 Olympic silver medalist, embodies the athleticism of modern female athletes who have grown up playing a variety of sports...hard. Lindh was involved in every sport that was available in Juneau, Alaska, from the time she was 6. That included soccer, t-ball, track and field and Little League baseball—all of it co-ed. Lindh believes that those early experiences were especially valuable because none of them were divided by gender until the top level.

"It was a big adjustment in skiing at the point when there weren't guys," says Lindh. "I wasn't used to traveling and competing with girls. When kids are younger it should be co-ed because the girls are often better at that age. And," she adds, "it teaches the boys to respect girls."

At least on the mountain, American women have earned their respect. So if anyone says you ski like a girl, be sure to thank them.

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