Karl Lindholm: Winter Carnival, Panther Olympians: Becky Fraser
I don’t ski and never have, though I grew up in Maine and have lived here in Vermont for a very long time.
Actually, I skied once. I took a lesson at the Snow Bowl from legendary Middlebury Union High School coach Gail Jette. After falling off the chair lift (at the top, getting off: no harm), I skied for about three hours on the beginners’ slope.
I thought, “There, I’ve done it,” like jumping out of an airplane or riding in a raft down the rapids of a fast-moving river. I didn’t understand why anyone would ever want to do it again.
This weekend is the 100th Middlebury Winter Carnival and I find myself absorbed, perhaps ironically given the above, by Middlebury ski history and culture. I’m doing research on the great Middlebury skiers of the past.
I remember keenly when I was a student myself, piling on to one of the score of yellow school buses, like just about everyone else at the school, to watch the Carnival ski races at the Bowl. The ski jumping on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning was de rigeur, not to be missed. We had Friday off, no class, in order to get us to the events.
While there were big social events like the Carnival Ball, Klondike Rush (a concert in the field house with big name bands), the Ice Show, and parties with live bands at all the fraternities, there was no question but that skiing was truly the centerpiece of the weekend.
It seems inconceivable then that there would be Winter Carnival without skiing, but that’s the way it is this week, due to a change in Carnival scheduling in the East. This week Middlebury skiers are at the Williams Carnival. For many years, the Middlebury Carnival was the Eastern Championships and results were consequential indeed for both athletes and teams.
From the 1940s to the ’70s Middlebury and Dartmouth reigned supreme in the East, on the men’s side anyway, as Dartmouth did not see the wisdom of enrolling women till 1972, and UVM was late to the party, not becoming a powerhouse until the mid-1970s.
A history of Middlebury skiing written by Mike Schoenfeld ’73 in 1984 on the sport’s 50th anniversary at Middlebury makes for stimulating reading. He recounts that the men’s ski team dates back to the 1930s and the women’s team to the early 1940s.
Middlebury has had women’s sports forever, back to the early 1900s. Women students, however, didn’t engage in actual intercollegiate team competition until about the time of groundbreaking Title IX legislation — with this one very notable exception: skiing!
Of the 58 members in the Middlebury Athletics Hall of Fame at present (new inductees will be identified in June and celebrated in November), 11 are skiers, six women and five men, including Coach Bobo Sheehan ’44 — and the bench is very, very deep indeed. It’s quite apparent that there could be a Middlebury Ski Hall of Fame as a separate entity.
Middlebury’s first Olympic skier was Rebecca Ann Fraser, class of 1946, who competed in the ’48 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland (the first Olympics in 12 years, due to World War II). She finished in the middle of the pack, 17th in the slalom and 22nd in the downhill.
There were those who thought she had won gold in the slalom and silver in the downhill as abbreviated newspaper accounts showed the winner as “Fraser, USA.” That was her roommate at the games, Gretchen Fraser, from Washington state.
Becky grew up in Bridgewater Corners, Vt., and attended Woodstock High School. She was a student at Middlebury at an interesting time, 1942-46, during World War II. In 1944, the student body included 71 men and 520 women (and another 200 or so men in the V-12 program, a Navy officer training program). In 1947, by contrast, the war over, the enrollment was 703 men (many on the G.I. Bill) and 484 women.
She was a brilliant skier at Middlebury and a school leader, selected by her schoolmates for her accomplishments as Carnival Queen in 1945. She swept the Carnival slalom and downhill events that year and again in ’46, competing against McGill, UNH, Syracuse, UVM, St. Lawrence, Colby Junior College, Skidmore. She won or placed high at other prominent open events throughout the region and was celebrated in the Campus (student newspaper) as “among the top-most skiers in the country.”
The Campus described her “complete mastery” of the slopes in the 1945 Carnival: “Rebecca A. Fraser, star and captain, . . . made the torturous mile-long downhill run in her flawless style, seldom checking her terrific speed,” and in the 35-gate slalom, “her seemingly effortless negotiation of the difficult course was a thrilling spectacle of precision.”
After graduating with a degree in math, Becky undertook a “token job” in Sun Valley, Idaho, competed in several Olympic tryout races, and was selected for the ’48 Olympic team. She sailed with her team to France on the S.S. America, trained in Davos, Switzerland, and competed in “several Olympic warm-up races.” She called her Olympic performance “sort of mid-stream.”
In May 1947, Becky married Tom Cremer, a Minnesotan, who entered Middlebury in 1944 after serving in the military during the war. Also a skier, he was captain of the ’46 men’s team when Becky led the women’s team. He earned graduate degrees in both optometry and education and worked as an optometrist in Colorado and as an educational psychologist in California.
While fighting in the Aleutian Islands against the Japanese, Tom suffered from severe frostbite that later required the amputation in 1952 of his left leg below the knee and most of his right foot. After these amputations, he won four national ski titles, a world title in the Amputee Olympics in France, and a national championship in an amputees’ golf tournament, according to his obituary.
Becky remained an athlete throughout her life, skiing as a member of the National Ski Patrol Association and becoming an avid and skilled golfer (two holes-in-one!).
She and Tom raised four children and were married for 46 years. They were living in Hawaii when Tom died in 1993. When Becky passed away in 2006, her family gathered together to celebrate “Our Olympian.”
Here at Middlebury, she was our Olympian too.
Karl Lindholm Ph.D. is the emeritus dean of advising at Middlebury College. He served in many roles at Middlebury, including dean of students from 1988-91.
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