The Mountain Times

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Once upon a time in history: Andrea Mead Lawrence, America’s legendary olympian

Photo courtesy of Pico Mountain Resort
Andrea Mead Lawrence, daughter of Pico's founders, raced with steely determination and sheer exhilaration. She competed in three Winter Olympics capturing two gold medals in the 1952 Olympics, a feat still unequalled for an American.

As Pico celebrates its 75th anniversary this month, it's appropriate to recall its first great homegrown competitor, the daughter of the mountain's founders and the best female racer in America for many years.

Andrea Mead (Lawrence) competed in three Winter Olympics, winning two Golds in the 1952 games, a feat still unequalled by an American for a single Winter Olympics Alpine event.

She skied that year in boots secured to her skis with a leather thong wound around each ankle and instep and threaded through a hole mortised in the ski. An iron toehold kept her foot locked in-a far cry from today's safety bindings.

Few skiers remember those years, but they were heady times for the U.S. Women's Ski Team.

Starting with the 1948 Olympics held at St. Moritz, the second Games that they entered, the women were on a roll. Gretchen Fraser won Gold and fifteen year-old Andrea Mead, the youngest member on the team, finished eighth in slalom that year. Then in 1952, the newly wed Andrea Mead Lawrence took fourth in downhill and first in giant slalom and slalom, despite hooking a tip.
In those days when a skier fell or went off course, they were not automatically disqualified. Spinning off the course after she caught the course pole with her ski tip, Mead climbed back up to the gate and finished her run. A spectacular second run put her in first place.

It was a time when she was skiing out of the sheer exhilaration of the sport, channeling her enjoyment of competition and all-out energy to an ideal that incorporated her experience, concentration, balance, and timing. That combined with her love of "going fast" propelled her to victory.

"My purpose was to do the best job I could. I set a standard for myself that every single time I left the starting gate I would put 150 percent of my effort into it. I extend myself to the maximum all the time," she said of her 1952 races.

In 1954, she withdrew from F.I.S. races because she was pregnant with her second child. In 1955, she won every race she entered. A mother of three, Lawrence participated in the 1956 Olympics, just missing another medal in slalom by a split second and came in fourth in giant slalom. She won her final race in Norway that season, ending an amazing career that spanned 14 years. She was inducted into the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame in 1958 and the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum's Hall of Fame in 2002.

So how did this young Vermonter come to do so well?

Movement and mountains were a fundamental part of Lawrence's life since she was born in Rutland in April 1932. Her parents Brad and Janet Mead "dreamed a mountain" and built it, so Andrea grew up skiing at Pico Peak as it was known then.

By the age of eight, she had climbed up Pico to ski the 2.5-mile Sunset Schuss with her father and Karl Acker, Ski School Director.
Her father, Brad Mead, died in a tragic drowning accident in 1942.

Acker became a coach and friend to the young girl who possessed a singular love for having fun and going fast. However, she was on her own during the war years as Acker joined the 10th Mountain Division.

At the age of ten, Andrea foreran her first slalom and captured the prestigious Kate Smith trophy in February 1943. She became the first North American racer to win the Arlberg-Kandahar Downhill in 1951, another highlight in a career of winning important ski titles.

She married David Lawrence in 1951, who was the first winner of the Men's National Giant Slalom title in 1949 at Slide Mountain, Nevada. Both raced the Sugar Slalom at Stowe in 1951 on the same course. Andrea won for the women and Dave for the men. Her time was second only to his, causing a male competitor to comment, "Some damned woman beat me."

In her book A Practice of Mountains, Andrea wrote (in response to having overheard that), "I was not aware that, for women, the need to excel was supposed to apply only to husband, home and children."

Having moved to the Sierras in Mammoth Lakes, California, Lawrence also became a climber. "We have mountains inside us. A mountain is never there simply to ski or climb. It is a challenge to physical mastery and spiritual possibility to which one goes toward risk with as much abandon as possible," she wrote, a fitting explanation of how she achieved so much.

She raised her five children in California after having divorced in 1968. She also became a environmental activist and led a group fighting unchecked development at Mammoth and served on the Mono County Board of Supervisors for 16 years. She founded the Andrea Mead Lawrence Institute for Mountains and Rivers, working for balance between economic growth and environmental preservation.

3--AML-Former -Olympians -with -ISHA-Pres -Vale

Photo by Karen Lorentz
Andrea Mead Lawrence, second from right, at the 2006 International Skiing History Association's awards banquet  in Vail, CO. Also, from Vermont Olympian Billy Kidd left.

She died in 2009 and was lovingly and glowingly remembered in a well-attended memorial service at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland. The many tributes hailed her as "a hometown Olympian" as well as California's "most significant and effective citizen activist."

Hers was a life of "striving for high-quality perfection" in skiing and applying that same striving "to something good, something relevant to life" as she explained to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky in 1998.

Her life was both well lived and one that made a difference, not only in skiing and Olympic history but in her passion for the preservation of wilderness places and the earth's beauty.

Lawrence's book, which was co-written with Sara Burnaby and published in 1980, explains her passions, and the roles that the ideal of the Greek Athlete and mountains played in her life. It is one of the best tributes to skiing as a way to explore and extend one's awareness that you will likely ever read. It is a challenging book, but one that rewards with insight and inspiration the role of sports in our lives.

Lawrence left us a powerful gift in sharing her covenant with mountains and her life at Pico started it all.