Olympians from here have won medals on both snow and ice — remember soul-patched short-track speedskating phenom Apolo Ohno from Federal Way, who won his first Olympic medal by crawling to the finish line after a multi-skater pileup? Ohno went on to win more medals (eight) than any winter Olympian in the nation. (He retired after the 2010 Games.)
But when it comes to Washington, skiing has the richest tapestry, with Mount Rainier providing the earliest canvas. At 14,411 feet, the mountain is the highest volcano in the continental U.S., with the most glaciated surface. The snowfall was sometimes so deep you could ski off the rooftop of Paradise Lodge without having to jump. No wonder there used to be a popular ski area at Paradise, rope tow included. The mountain’s legacy grew as one of the nation’s most insane ski races ever, the Silver Skis, was held on the mountain’s flanks — starting at Camp Muir (elevation: 10,080 feet). First one to Paradise wins. Skiers had to avoid falling into crevasses. After a fatality and other casualties, the race was discontinued.
The Olympics were a safer route. The inaugural winter Olympics were held in 1924 in Chamonix, France, but Washington athletes did not attend until the 1936 Games in Germany’s Garmisch- Partenkirchen. The Olympic trials in skiing, for those Games and for 1948, were held at Paradise, proof that Washington state was an important hub in skiing’s national landscape at the time, according to historylink.org.
Back in the day, racers dressed like regular people, rather than helmeted aliens in speed suits. The nation’s best skiers raced in long, baggy wool pants and button-up sweaters, hair flying, eyes peering through round, Amelia Earhart-type goggles. They often didn’t even wear a hat, much less a helmet, and raced on wooden skis with leather-strap bindings.
In April 1935, sisters Ellis-Ayr and Ethlynne “Skit” Smith of Tacoma won national titles in downhill and slalom at Paradise in the first women’s national ski championships and Olympic tryouts ever held. Olympic ski events were not open to women until 1936, and even then, they were allowed to race in only the alpine events. Nordic competitions (cross-country, Nordic combined, and jumping) were men-only. Don Fraser of Seattle was among five Washington skiers to qualify for the 1936 Games from Paradise. Three years later, he would marry a native Tacoma woman named Gretchen Kunigk. Gretchen Kunigk Fraser would become the first American Olympic skiing champion when she won surprise gold and silver medals in 1948. Even before that, though, she was a ski celebrity in wartime, using the sport to help wounded soldiers rehabilitate and appearing in famed Mount Rainier ski school instructor Otto Lang’s military training films.
She helped found the Flying Outriggers, the country’s first amputee ski club. In the popular 1941 movie, “Sun Valley Serenade,” Fraser was figure skating star Sonja Henie’s “ski double.” Other Washington skiers of that era would qualify for the Games as ski jumpers, soaring high from jumps at Snoqualmie Pass’s Milwaukee Ski Bowl and Leavenworth. Leavenworth’s giant jumps are gone, replaced by “starter” jumps, but photos of the hill in its heyday, with thousands of spectators lining the outrun, remain.
Mount Rainier’s ski area closed in the 1970s, but Washington continued to have success on the slopes. Twins Phil and Steve Mahre of Yakima, whose family ran White Pass, won three Olympic medals, including Phil’s gold in 1984, when Seattle’s Debbie Armstrong, a Garfield High alum, won gold also. While no Washington residents are in the running for this year’s Olympic alpine team — Western Washington University’s Breezy Johnson (Read her story here), from Idaho, is an Olympic team candidate — Washington has snowsport athletes of a different type aiming to compete in South Korea — Nordic and snowboarding, along with speedskaters.
So sure, root for the U.S. team, but save some lung power for the following Washingtonians too*
Washington’s Olympic Ties
J.R. Celski Short-Track Speedskating Washington tie: from Federal Way
Cool fact: After 2010 Games, collaborated on a documentary on Seattle’s hip-hop scene that included the not-yet-famous Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
Three-time Olympic medalist grew up at the same rink as an older Apolo Ohno, winner of more Winter Olympics than any other American. He currently holds the 500-meter world record (39.937 seconds). In a crash at the 2010 Olympic trials, his skate blade sliced into his leg, requiring emergency surgery, 60 stitches and five months’ recovery time. In a near-miraculous comeback, he won two bronze medals in Vancouver. He added a silver in 2014.
Aaron Tran Short Track Speedskating Washington tie: from Federal Way
Cool fact: A surprise to make the Olympic team, he skated the races of his life at December trials
Tran attended the same middle and high school (Todd Beamer) as J.R. Celski, who is six years older, and remembers seeing Celski give a presentation at a school assembly. Tran works as a sales associate at Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has a flexible work program designed for Olympic hopefuls.
Sadie and Erik Bjornsen Nordic Skiing Washington tie: from Winthrop
Cool fact: Sadie and brother Erik grew up racing in the storied Methow Valley’s Nordic program, where they had a ski trail outside their back door
Sadie is part of a talented, tight-knit women’s squad with a solid chance to win the first women’s Olympic cross-country ski medal in U.S. history. Erik is less likely to medal in South Korea, but his future is bright. The two were part of a three-person Methow contingent to make the 2014 team.
Vic Wild Snowboard Racing Washington tie: from White Salmon
Cool fact: Racing for Russia, won two gold medals in the last Olympics in Sochi
Wild left the American team after the 2010 Games when it shut down the snowboard racing program. He now lives in Moscow with his wife, Russian snowboarder Alena Zavarzina, who won bronze in 2014. It is not certain whether Wild and Zavarzina will compete in Pyeongchang after the Russian team was banned because of a doping scandal. Individual Russian athletes who are ruled eligible may compete under a neutral flag.