For a moment in February this year, the late Andrea Mead Lawrence was on a few ski-racing fans’ minds. In 1952, at age 19, Lawrence won two Olympic gold medals at the same Games — in slalom and giant slalom. It seemed certain that this feat would be matched at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Mikaela Shiffrin had already won a gold medal in giant slalom at the PyeongChang Games. Surely the slalom phenom, who won the gold in that event four years prior, would follow up that medal with a gold in her favorite event.
But then weather and timing conspired against Shiffrin. To everyone’s surprise, she finished — gasp — fourth in the 2018 Olympic slalom.
A week later, Shiffrin won a silver medal in alpine combined, making her the eighth Team USA alpine skier to win two Olympic medals in the same Games. But they weren’t gold, like Lawrence’s.
Both Lawrence and Shiffrin were and are the dominant skiers of their time. But it is impossible to compare the two.
For one, the FIS World Cup tour did not exist in the 1950s, and although Lawrence competed in three Olympic Winter Games, her international dominance only lasted a few years. It was a different time, and Lawrence had three children between the 1952 and 1956 Winter Games, where her best finish was fourth.
Lawrence’s career stands on its own. She was a force on the mountain and in an environmental career that followed — at a time when women were discouraged from careers of any kind, let alone as athletes.
Born in Rutland, Vermont, in 1932, Lawrence developed an early love of the mountains and skiing. Her parents, Brad and Janet Mead, opened Pico Peak in 1937, and it became her playground. She joked that school was reserved for days when the weather was bad. On nice days, Pico was her classroom.
Brad Mead died in a boating accident in 1942. But Janet continued to operate Pico, a 29-year-old mother of two working in a macho industry at a time when banks would not give loans to women, let alone credit cards.
A budding ski prodigy, young Andrea helped put Pico on the map. In 1946, she qualified for the finals at the U.S. championships. Then at age 14, she was named to the 1948 U.S. Olympic Team. She finished eighth in the Olympic slalom (won by American Gretchen Fraser) but crashed in the downhill.
This was just the start of her ski career.
By comparison, Shiffrin competed in 26 world cup races this season, won 12 (or 46 percent) of the races she entered, and finished on the podium in 18 for her best season yet.
Andrea ended the 1951 season by marrying fellow skier David Lawrence on March 13 in Davos, Switzerland.
But it was the next ski season for which Andrea Mead Lawrence is best remembered. On the opening day of the 1952 Olympic Winter Games in Oslo, she easily won her first Olympic gold medal, beating Austria’s Dagmar Rom by 2.2 seconds in giant slalom’s Olympic debut (a one-run event at the time).
Then, like Shiffrin at the 2018 Games, her luck turned. Lawrence crashed in the downhill and finished 17th. A few days later, she hooked a tip on the first run of slalom and looked like she was out of it.
“I spun out of the gate and went below it and had to get back up and through the gate,” she recalled decades later. “I had experience to know how to do it without penalizing myself too much.”
Despite hiking to the missed gate, she sat in fourth, 1.2 seconds out of first.
Lawrence’s second run has become legend. She found what athletes call “the zone” and skied flawlessly. Her time of 1:03.4 was over two seconds faster than any other skier. Lawrence earned her second gold medal by 0.8 seconds.
Sixty-six years later, Lawrence remains the only U.S. skier, male or female, to have won two gold medals at the same Olympic Games.
After Oslo, Lawrence’s focus shifted. She had three children between 1952 and 1956, yet still qualified for her third Olympic Games. Her best result at the 1956 Cortina Games was fourth in the giant slalom.
She then retired from racing and focused on her growing family. Opening the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, she skied down a trail at Squaw Valley as the penultimate torch bearer. She was pregnant with daughter Quentin at the time.
The Lawrences moved West, and in the high mountains and vast open spaces, Lawrence discovered a passion for environmental work. Divorced in 1967, she then moved to Mammoth Lakes, California, where she helped found Friends of Mammoth. The group demanded smart development in the mountain community.
She also served on the Mono County board of supervisors from 1982-1999, and she was a long-time advocate of Mono Lake’s protection. In 2003, she founded the Andrea Lawrence Institute for Mountains and Rivers, a non-profit committed to conservation in the Eastern Sierra.
“You know, winning gold medals was a wonderful experience,” she said in 1998 when she had returned to Pico for a reunion of Olympians. “But it was just a starting point. It helped lay the groundwork for the rest of my life.”
At the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, filmmaker Bud Greenspan honored Lawrence as his top Winter Olympian ever.
Family remained important to Lawrence, and before the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Lawrence again carried the torch. This time, she handed off to daughter Quentin.
In November 2000, Lawrence encountered her fiercest opponent yet — cancer. Diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer of soft connective muscle tissue, she won round one with the disease after undergoing surgery and treatment. But it came back in the fall of 2008.
She remained undaunted and was never too tired to talk, whether with fans, young skiers, fellow environmentalists or pesky reporters.
In February 2009, Lawrence answered the phone when this pesky reporter called. Lindsey Vonn had just won two world championship gold medals, and her performance was being compared to Lawrence’s at the 1952 Oslo Games. (In 1952, the Olympic Winter Games doubled as the world championships, but winners were not presented with world championship medals in addition to Olympic medals.)
On the phone, Lawrence still sounded determined. She hoped to return to a more active life soon, she said, and recounted, no doubt for the umpteen-thousandth time, her Olympic victories.
“When I start talking to people about it, it feels like it was yesterday,” she said.
Asked to comment on Vonn’s double golds at worlds, Lawrence was empathic.
“I think we need to be careful not to confuse Olympic gold medals with world championship golds,” she stated, adding that the pressure of the Olympic Games is greater than at worlds.
“Or,” she chuckled, “maybe I’m just being covetous of my two golds.”
Lawrence died around midnight on March 30, 2009. She was surrounded by her five children.
In her honor, Peak 12,240 in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains was officially renamed Mt. Andrea Lawrence in January 2013.
Later that same year, the Andrea Mead Lawrence Lodge opened at Pico Mountain. It is the home base for Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports and a training facility for the Pico Ski Club’s Race Program — a program that began in 1949 to help foster the ski career of Andrea Mead Lawrence herself.