Andrea Mead Lawrence: Environmental activist and only non-European to win multiple Olympic skiing gold medals
Tuesday 07 April 2009
Alpine skiing has always been dominated by Europeans. The first cracks in their hegemony appeared in 1948 when Gretchen Fraser of the United States won two medals, including slalom gold, at the Winter Olympics in St Moritz. Fraser was the star, but the American attention-grabber was the 15-year-old Andrea "Andy" Mead. Four years later, in Oslo, the newly married Andrea Mead Lawrence won Olympic gold in the giant slalom. Six days later, she fell on the slalom's first run, but picked herself up to finish in fourth place. She took the second run by two full seconds to win her second gold. As she described it, it was "one of the few times in our lives where we become the thing we're doing."
The Austrian Toni Sailer would win three golds in 1956, but no woman would again take two until 1972. Lindsay Vonn won two golds at this year's world championships, but Lawrence remains the only non-European skier to win multiple Olympic golds.
After her skiing career, Lawrence was equally successful as an environmental campaigner, which, like skiing, came naturally to her. Andrea was born while her parents were creating Vermont's Pico Peak ski resort. They also skied in Davos every year, and when Andy was six, they brought back ski instructor Carl Acker. She learned by watching him and her parents. When she was 10, her father died in a boating accident, which, she said, "forced her to grow up", and the next year she was competing against adults. At 14 she qualified for the Olympic try-outs in Sun Valley, where her performance attracted Life magazine, which ran a picture of her in mid-air, wearing sunglasses and a sweater, pigtails flying. Sent to the Olympics without a chaperone, she managed an eighth in the slalom.
While winning the downhill and slalom at the US championships in 1949 she met Dave Lawrence, a Dartmouth College skier who was national giant slalom champ. After a disappointing performance at the 1950 international event at Aspen, the US coach suggested she take time off, and she realised she couldn't ski well unless she was having fun. She and Lawrence fell in love, and in 1951 travelled to Europe, where Andy dominated the season. One week after she won the Kandahar race, the unofficial world championship downhill, in Sestriere, they were married. Her success raised the profile of skiing so far that before the 1952 Olympics, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
After Oslo, the Lawrences began a family, but Andy returned to win the women's national downhill in 1955. In the 1956 Olympics, at Cortina, four months after the birth of her third child, she finished fourth, by a hundreth of a second, in the giant slalom. After retiring from competition the Lawrences moved to Aspen, where she became a member of the town's planning board, beginning a long career in conservation. The couple divorced in 1967, and Andrea moved to Mammoth Lakes, California, where she led the fight against high-rise condominiums in the Mammoth Mountain ski area. She helped found the Sierra Nevada Alliance, among other campaigning groups, and spent 16 years on the county board of supervisors. The environmental lawyer Antonio Rossman described her as the "most significant and effective citizen activist in California".
She was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2000; three years later she set up the Andrea Lawrence Institute for Mountains and Rivers to protect the Eastern Sierra. The Olympic film-maker Bud Greenspan ranked Lawrence first in his 2002 list of greatest Olympians, based on her achievements both within sport and in the wider world beyond. As Lawrence said, "your life doesn't stop by winning medals... you have to put back into the world in meaningful ways."
Andrea Bario Mead, skier and environmental activist: born Rutland, Vermont 19 April 1932; married 1951 David Lawrence (divorced 1967, two sons, three daughters); died Mammoth Lakes, California 31 March 2009.
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