This is a bonus track of sorts, In researching an upcoming piece for Ski Racing on the value of mentoring, I posed the following two questions to a large list of US Ski Team alumni:
I got a flood of impassioned responses from alumni of many eras. When I read Christin Cooper’s, detailing the impact Don and Gretchen Fraser made on her, I thought it should be required reading for any aspiring athlete. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and that it offers perspective to mentors and mentees alike. Following are my two questions, and Cooper’s response.
1. On your way up the ranks, what advice or observable skill(s) or behavior(s) from an athlete(s) made an impact on you. How did it help you and why does it stand out?
2. When you were no longer the rookie, what advice/skills/behavior did you pass along or try to pass along to the athletes coming up behind you? Did you enjoy sharing that knowledge or feel a responsibility to do so?
By Christin Cooper
Gretchen and Don Fraser made their home in Sun Valley for most of their lives together. Gretchen won the first Olympic medals in alpine skiing by an American, male or female, in the 1948 Games in St Moritz. Don was seven years older, and an accomplished racer too, a 1936 Olympian who won the inaugural “Silver Skis” race down Mt Rainier in 1934. Mass start at 10,000 feet. 4,400 foot descent. They hiked up, of course.
I was pretty young (16) when I started world traveling with the USST in the late 1970’s. In those years, Gretchen and Don would invite me over for tea as soon as they learned I was back in the valley. We would sit in front of the fire and they’d ask me about my trip and my experiences and my hopes and fears and whether I was having fun. They were in their late 50’s and early 60’s then. Roughly 40 years of life experience separated us, but I loved those chats, and felt so special. Chosen. Gretchen was always dressed elegantly, as was Don, for even the most casual encounters. They were old school that way.
Gretchen was the first to set in my mind that I was going to be a role model whether I liked it or not. That how I dressed and spoke would be noticed and copied and sometimes judged. She stressed that I would set an example with my conduct, on the hill and off, even when I didn’t think people were paying attention, even when it felt unfair that they were paying attention. It could be that they were both looking at my ripped jeans and the sweatshirt wrapped around my waist and gently suggesting I consider another way, but they never mentioned it. I know now that Gretchen was speaking from her experience of being a reluctant icon of the sport. It was a responsibility she never asked for, but bore with incredible grace for a lifetime.
Gretchen and Don’s example of owning your talent and good fortune, and caring about those who followed you, was always a light for me. It took a while before I stopped chafing against the “burden” of it. I eventually grew up and embraced it, in no small part because of their example.
When I flippantly addressed Ronald Reagan with “Hi Ronnie” on a phone call from the Oval to me and Debbie [Armstrong] in Sarajevo after winning our medals, I felt empowered in the moment, disempowered soon after. It wasn’t planned. It was an immature release of nervous tension: announcing my politics, betraying my headspace of disappointment with my own performance (not cool to admit) and a veiled F U to Bill Marolt [USST Alpine Director 1979 – 84] for not filling the team quota, and thus denying us all a more collective experience, a rejection of the media circus around what I thought (naively) should be a private moment, not a staged one, between the POTUS and us. I immediately regretted it. Why? I thought of Gretchen and Don, and what they would think. Their disappointment in my not meeting the moment graciously. I also knew they would never mention it to me. And they never did.
Maybe that’s mentoring at its best. Not judging, but caring, and modeling good behavior. What works for you, and also the world that supports you. The price to be paid for not considering both things. Sometimes speaking out is worth any price. But a good mentor knows and admits it’s not easy, any of it. I recall being struck in those days with how everyone responded to my early talent and success, with starry-eyed awe about how cool and amazing and glamorous it all must be. Of course, it was… and it wasn’t.
Gretchen and Don made it OK to say, to a couple of legends who had been there, that it’s hard, and not all fun, and often quite lonely, scary and exhausting. They also always reminded me how blessed we are to be skiers. That we are the fortunate ones, and that I should find a way to embrace it all: Europe, learning languages, making friends, skiing the world. When it gets you down, go to a Konditorei, don’t retreat into a shell. That type of thing. And that I carried with me, and try to pass on today. Whatever you’re doing, get into it. Find a way to thrive.
Finally, their tight relationship, their great lifelong friendship, their marriage while still competing had a massive impact on me. They married in 1939, and would have been on the 1940 Olympic Team together had those Games not been cancelled. Gretchen made history in 1948 and was the more successful, by a mile, than Don, with Don being her greatest champion while not inferior to her in any way. Right away, I just knew it could work; I’d seen it in action.
Bill Marolt and some of my coaches were, shall we say, not overjoyed when in the spring of 1980 I took off in a van from the Spring Series in Park City with the men’s team’s three musketeers: Hansi [Hans Standteiner], Buxie [John Buxman] and long-haired Mark Taché. He and I had just fallen for each other, and that was it. Little did I know as we motored off into the desert that my entire junior team and coaches would be showing up at the little airport in Hailey, Idaho, every day for the next week, to welcome me home and celebrate my finishes in that year’s Lake Placid Olympics. The kids had flags and hand-written posters and banners and a crown for me. Yeah… I never showed up. I think they’ve forgiven me.
Bill Marolt was eating breakfast at a table of coaches at a café where we stopped on our way out of town (now Squatter’s Pub?). We all recall their wide-eyed, speechless reception as we breezed past their table, the four of us, a ragged pirate crew, exuberant and high on the adventure of life. The brass saw nothing but trouble ahead, right when my star was rising. They were wrong about all of us.
Mark and I were rarely apart after that, and because Gretchen and Don were never far from my mind, and checked in with me so often, I think that I just knew that this relationship had nothing bad in it. It was going to strengthen me and my skiing, not derail it. And it did. We had to fight for it, give it room to breathe, within the strictures of the US team then. Thankfully, my coaching staff trusted me. Or maybe both Mark and I were such strong spirits that they knew they couldn’t control us. But we had Gretchen and Don guiding us. Like, who can argue with Gretchen Fraser?!?
To your 2nd question: I love passing on what life has taught me. I always stress that I threaded the needle in winning my medals. I could just as easily have not won medals. And for most racers, that can’t be the point. It can be the goal but take care, if it is. It is the whole experience of ski racing in Europe, and traveling the world, that I so value and cherish. OMG, are we the lucky ones, or what? In terms of passing it on, I’m an introvert, and don’t seek out speaking engagements, or being in front of a camera. If NBC had allowed me to stay in the booth as an expert analyst, which I loved, and think I was genuinely good at, instead of turning me into a finish line reporter [Cooper did network expert analysis for 30 years, retiring from the mic in 2015], I still might be doing it, but I digress….
I do think ski racing has every lesson in it worth learning. I’ve channeled everything I learned from skiing, to the best of my ability, into a successful career as a journalist and then a restaurateur. Totally unschooled in both. But the questions were all answered on the hill first: the value of spirit, teamwork, respect, boundary setting, humility, time management (huge!), honest communication, agility of mind and body, tenacity (definitely), humor (above all).
Whatever I learned from getting up after getting slammed to the snow at speed, or by finally winning after first crossing a lot of finish lines way behind, has been applicable to life off the hill. We have access to qualities, and a set of life skills, that many people just don’t. For us it’s not intellectual. It’s not theoretical. You wanna feel better right now? Get outside. Go for a hike. Go skiing. Get out of your head. We know so much more than we think we know as skiers. The mountains have taught us so much. It’s a matter of applying it to whatever field we’re now playing on. And then modeling that behavior, those values, in the way you act and the way you speak and live. Someone might be picking up on it right now. You never know.