Every skier in Europe and North America knew Andrea Mead Lawrence in the weeks leading up to the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway. The 19-year-old Vermonter was the captain of the U.S. Women's Ski Team and America's best shot at a medal. Her portrait was on the cover of TIME magazine and graced newsstands next to the Queen of England. The story described Lawrence as "a tall girl (5-foot-7.5-inches, 130 pounds), but willowy and slim," and went on to spotlight her diet: "She drinks a beer with her meals, and is usually ready to join a friend in a cup of Glüwein. She smokes a cigarette when she feels like it." And her personal style: "She wears no lipstick; she has never been to a manicurist or a hairdresser."
Lawrence cared about the critics as little as she did her hair. If anything, their remarks only gave her impetus to ski harder and faster, says her daughter, Quentin Lawrence. On opening day at the Oslo Games, Lawrence took gold in the giant slalom by 2.2 seconds. But the race everyone talks about, to this day, was the slalom. That's because, 66 years later, Lawrence's Olympic record still stands.
On her first run, Lawrence hooked a ski on a gate and fell. Despite the setback, she hiked to the missed gate and was in fourth place going into her second run. She wore a sweater under her race bib and wool pants. A scarf kept her hair out of her face. "When I took off for the second run, I was released as the full force and energy of who I am as a person," Lawrence told The San Jose Mercury News in 2002.
“Your life doesn’t stop by winning medals. It’s only the beginning,” Lawrence once said. “And if you have that true Olympic spirit, you have to put it back into the world in meaningful ways.”
That day in 1952, Lawrence displayed a will to fight against the seemingly insurmountable that would serve her until the day she died, on March 30, 2009. Twelve years after her Olympic victory, she spearheaded a grassroots movement that took her all the way to the California State Supreme Court, which laid the groundwork to expand and strengthen the state's environmental protection laws that still exist today. She won elected office in the Eastern Sierra, and mentored generations of environmental activists. "Andrea, in her lifetime, was the most significant and effective citizen activist in California," Antonio Rossmann, an environmental lawyer, told the LA Times in Lawrence's obituary.
Lawrence's passion for environmentalism was as central to her core as ski racing. But her success as an activist hinged on her Olympic celebrity, which she wielded into a platform to advance meaningful, lasting change. Not unlike the leagues of athletes who are doing the same today, using their voices to amplify a message beyond their sport. Whether they are fighting for public lands, climate change mitigation, or civil rights, skier activists follow in Lawrence's footsteps.
At Oslo, Lawrence crossed the finish line two seconds faster than any other racer and won gold in slalom by one second (in combined time between her two runs). She was the first American to win two ski racing gold medals in the same Olympics, and she is still the only American woman to do so. In 2002, filmmaker Bud Greenspan named Lawrence as the greatest Winter Olympian of all time, in part for the storybook comeback of a bonafide American skier whose competitive spirit, passion, and grit were plain to see. But more importantly, Greenspan, a sports documentarian who directed 29 films about the Olympics, chose Lawrence for the legacy she built next as an environmentalist.
"Your life doesn't stop by winning medals. It's only the beginning," Lawrence once said. "And if you have that true Olympic spirit, you have to put it back into the world in meaningful ways."
We are living in a watershed moment for celebrity activism, when athletes are using their fame to turn the spotlight on injustices and call their fans and audience to action. In recent years, Caroline Gleich has emerged as one of the most outspoken skier activists. She has campaigned for climate change mitigation and in defense of national monuments. This summer, she launched a fundraiser on her Facebook and Instagram pages (with a combined 150,000-plus followers), leveraging an upcoming ultra-marathon she signed up for as a campaign to reunite immigrant children with their families. She raised $1,000 in less than 24 hours.
"It's not enough to just be a professional athlete," says Gleich, who had recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she lobbied Capitol Hill for protection of public lands. "There's just so many pressing things right now that need attention. It's just not working to exist in a vacuum."
While football players take a knee during the national anthem in silent protest of racism, skiers and snowboarders like Gleich, disturbed by the visible evidence of climate change they encounter in snow-covered environments, are loudly demanding policy changes to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Jeremy Jones, the founder of Protect Our Winters, whom The New Yorker called a "pro-snowboarder-turned-activist," published to his Instagram profile (179,000 followers) a link to a climate change voting guide. Meanwhile, after coming out as gay on the 2015 cover of ESPN Magazine, Gus Kenworthy, two-time Olympian and slopestyle silver medalist, is now a prominent figure representing LGBTQ athletes.
"It's honestly a privilege for me to use my success to give back and help raise awareness and help those charities with their causes," says Kenworthy. "I am so proud of the people that encouraged me to come out, and for me to do the same for others and spread the importance of living your life authentically and open."
Though today's athletes have a host of digital tools—and sponsorship opportunities—available to help their causes, 50 years ago, Lawrence found effectiveness using the same traits she showed as a skier: fierce tenacity and a never-say-die mentality. The first skier activist, she passed away at the age of 76 after a long fight with Leiomyosarcoma, a form of cancer that attacks muscle tissue. Her words and actions, though, have endured and they illuminate a connection that's still relevant today. At her memorial service, this quote was distributed on the program:
The spirit of sport is really the essence and ideal of all our human efforts. It is the exercising and joining of our individual energy with those of others in furthering the human race. Thus, competition strikes me as being for one another, and not against. I see it as participation, and unusual teamwork. Each contribution of spiritual and physical vitality establishes new plateaus from which others may thrust. It is a shared current: It is important to play well.
Born in 1932, Andrea Mead grew up in a stone castle that her parents built in rural Vermont, not far from Pico Peak, the ski area they founded. Her father, Brad, was an artist and an architect. Inspired by medieval towers in the Alps they would see on ski trips to Switzerland, he designed the castle for Andrea's mother, Janet. The North Towers—or Mead Castle, as the locals called it—were located about three-quarters of a mile up a steep, overgrown logging road from Highway 4. Come winter, the road became impassable and Andrea would ski to the bus stop, according to Linda Goodspeed in her historical book, "Pico, Vermont." Andrea's parents prioritized skiing and raised their children on a ski-first, school-second philosophy: "If the weather's good, you ski; if it's bad, you go to school." She never graduated high school.
"We discovered it was a lot easier to walk across the road and ski rather than drive nine miles to school in Rutland, so we played hooky a lot," Andrea told The Daily Gazette in 1992. "But we just beavered up and down the mountain as fast as we could."
When she was 6, her parents hired Karl Acker, a Swiss slalom ski racer from Davos, to lead the Pico ski school. Andrea emulated Acker and her parents, and entered regional races when she was 10 years old. Soon, she was competing against the best girls in New England.
At her first Olympics, the 1948 Winter Games in St. Moritz, Andrea raced the slalom and the downhill, placing eighth and 35th, respectively. At her next FIS tryouts, in 1949 in Whitefish, Montana, she swept the women's events, winning both slalom and downhill. That's also where she met and fell in love with David Lawrence.
When it came to men, Andrea told TIME, the only thing that really mattered was how well they skied. David, it turned out, was a good skier—just not as a good as Andrea. He was from a wealthy family and grew up skiing in Davos, Switzerland. The media mused that love distracted Andrea, and her focus drifted momentarily from racing. Her results were well below the podium at the 1950 F.I.S. Championships in Aspen and her coach, Friedl Pfeifer, told her to take some time off. "Friedl was right," Andrea told TIME. "I had been training for skiing night and day since 1947. I was losing the fun of it."
But she didn't quit. During eight weeks in Europe in 1951, according to documentation by Team USA, Andrea entered 16 international races and won 10. She finished second in four races.
Later that winter, Andrea married David at the courthouse in Davos. It wasn't a big ceremony. She didn't have flowers or a big white dress. A photo shows the newlyweds, each wearing thick wool coats and smiling, walking away from the courthouse under a tunnel of skis held overhead by friends.
The next time Andrea returned to the Olympics, in 1956 in Italy, she was a mother of three. Despite giving birth four months earlier, the 23-year-old placed fourth in giant slalom. Two years later, she was inducted to the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame and, while pregnant with her fifth child, Quentin, she carried the Olympic torch to the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley. Prior to the Olympics in Italy, the Lawrences bought a ranch in Parshall, Colorado, where David worked as an architect and Andrea was appointed to the Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission. "We decided that was the life for us," she told the Lewiston Sun Journal in Maine.
Her life with David, though, wouldn't last. She followed him from Colorado to Vermont to Malibu, where they divorced after 16 years of marriage. He left the kids, moved to Mexico, and eventually remarried. She did not.
"My dad was my mom's love of her life. That's why she never remarried. It broke her heart," says Quentin. "She was a romantic. She really loved Dad. And when that didn't work, she put her heart and soul into what she loved the most."
In 1968, Lawrence returned from a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada and told her kids they were moving to Mammoth. She rented a house from James Whitmore, the movie star, which had a long staircase at the top of a steep hill the county did not plow. The next winter, Quentin remembers 40 feet of snow in Mammoth. Lawrence did not have a 9-to-5 job. To feed her family, she relied on food stamps. At a time when women could not own a credit card unless their husband signed for them, Lawrence turned her back on an opportunity to cash-in on her fame in Los Angeles.
"She could have been a celebrity," says Quentin. "She was one of the biggest stars in the world. She used to play poker with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She could have taken the reigns and made millions and millions of dollars. But she just didn't like that. She did not choose celebrity. She did not like superficiality. She liked people who were doers."
In Mammoth, Lawrence was again living a few miles outside of town, in the forest. A true Vermonter, she read Robert Frost to her children at night. But out West, the Ponderosa and Jeffrey pines, huge and spacious and old, that grew outside her door, inspired her. "The mountains were sacred to my mom," says Quentin. "That's what motivated her." Lawrence was also selected for jury duty, Quentin remembers. There, she glimpsed the power that could come from civic service and politics.
In 1972, Mono County was California's third smallest, with a population of just more than 4,000 (today, it's home to roughly 14,000). The economy was mostly ranching, with some tourism thanks to Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, which was growing as a destination and beginning to attract developers.
One such developer, from San Diego, received permission from the county, without any environmental consideration, to build six 45-foot-tall concrete high-rise buildings (near what is now the ski resort's Canyon Lodge).
Dismayed by the lack of oversight, Lawrence feared the development would tear down old growth forests and forever alter the natural landscape. In her first step as a citizen activist, she and the Friends of Mammoth sued. Renny Shapiro, a Los Angeles resident who had a second home in Mammoth, was alerted to Lawrence's plight in a Los Angeles Times story with the headline: "Olympic Star Fighting High Rise at Resort."
"This is when Andrea stepped up and said, 'No, no, no. We've got to do something about this,'" says Shapiro, now 87. "She was brilliant. She was not opposed to the high rise, which this project was, per se. But she felt it needed to be managed in a responsible way and this particular project was not. It just sailed through the old boy's club up in Mono County with no forethought whatsoever."
Lawrence recruited volunteers, like Shapiro, to her cause. Quentin remembers stuffing envelopes with her mom at their kitchen table. Eventually, Lawrence found an attorney in Orange County who took their case to the courts and argued it all the way to the California State Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the developer moved quickly to clear trees and lay the foundation before the court made him stop, on January 13, 1972. Lawrence garnered a lot of support from her work, but she also encountered adversity from local contractors who stood to gain from the project. "She endured a lot of hate mail and threats," says Shapiro.
Any time a person takes a stand in the public domain, they put themselves at risk for criticism. In today's world of social media, the same platform that makes it easier for athletes to speak out also gives critics a microphone. Kenworthy and Gleich see the disrespectful language and harassment regularly in the comments on their Instagram posts. "You are on a pedestal. You are going to get pushback no matter what," says Gleich, who has spoken out against cyberbullying after being the recipient of threatening messages and stalking. "Someone is going to say something that is very harmful about you. But what is more scary is to not speak up about the things that matter."
Lawrence knew this well. "I remember a conversation that Mom and I had, even after her brain surgery," says Quentin. "She said, 'The hardest thing, people just misunderstood me.' She was not against development or growth. She just wanted people to think about it before they do it."
On September 21, 1972, after hearing the Friends of Mammoth's case, the court ruled in a 6-1 vote that state and local governments could not approve private or public construction projects without analyzing the environmental impacts. The decision shut down the entire construction industry in California, Shapiro recalls, because building and planning departments had yet to catch up with the concept of environmental reporting.
"It shocked all of us. We never thought we'd get that far, believe me when I tell you that," says Shapiro. "Andrea was so proud. I was so proud. Everyone involved was so proud and so grateful for everything that happened."
After the Friends of Mammoth victory, Lawrence followed her passion to the next cause and she turned to public office. In 1982, she was elected to the Mono County Board of Supervisors. Soon after, she heard about a group of students who were camping in the sagebrush desert and studying the health of Mono Lake, a 760,000-year-old saline body of water that sits at the foot of the Eastern Sierra. For backcountry skiers on the Dana Plateau and Tioga Pass, the lake is a striking visual reminder of the desert below. That the lake has any water at all, however, is credited to a group of scientists and activists. Lawrence was among them.
In 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) started diverting the lake's inflow to an aqueduct that delivered water to the city, more than 300 miles away. The diversion halved the water in the lake, doubled its salinity, and was slowly killing its ecosystem, which plays host to thousands of migratory birds and trillions of brine shrimp. Quentin and her mom drove to visit the campers and talk about their work around a fire. With Lawrence's support and mentorship, the students formed the Mono Lake Committee and fought the LADWP in court until 1994, when they won back the water rights to restore the lake.
She never wrote a speech. "She just got up there and spoke from her heart," says Quentin.
"[Lawrence] knew the big picture, she knew what the goal was," says Geoffrey McQuilkin, the executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, who had worked with Lawrence when he started as an intern in the 1990s. "She was very solution oriented."
Lawrence kept her drive until the very end. As a county supervisor, she testified before Congress in support of public lands and the Wilderness Act. She never wrote a speech. "She just got up there and spoke from her heart," says Quentin. She also founded nonprofits and alliances (the Andrea Lawrence Institute for Mountains and Rivers, the Sierra Nevada Alliance, the Southern Mono Historical Society, and more) that connected people and communities to their natural surroundings.
To honor her achievements in environmental activism, President Obama dedicated a mountain in her name in 2013. Riding up the Mammoth gondola, one can catch a glimpse of Mount Andrea Lawrence in the distance, guaranteeing her legacy as a champion of the environment.
"I have no idea what the seminal moment of her life was, when she decided to protect the environment in the Eastern Sierra," says Shapiro. "She remained devoted to her causes every moment of her life."
As well, Lawrence skied. She taught ski lessons to local school children, and memorably, left her poles at home. "She thought they were crutches," says Quentin. She never stopped fighting, even for the last eight years of her life when her foe was cancer. She skied until the surgeries from the illness made it so she couldn't any longer.
A photo of Lawrence hangs on the wall at the race headquarters at Mammoth Mountain. In it, she's wearing a race bib and her teeth are bared as if she's swinging into a left-footer with all the fury and might she can muster. Another photo on the wall, this time without the race bib, shows her crouched low, her smile expressing delight and joy, as if she was cresting a snowy wave. Every day, Mammoth ski racers walk past those photos on their way to lap gates on "Andy's Double Gold."
"She was absolutely one of the most beautiful skiers to watch," says Quentin. "Smooth, graceful. You couldn't tell—unless you were her kid—when she switched edges. All of a sudden she'd be turning one direction, then the other direction. It was a beautiful thing to watch. It really was."
This story originally appeared in the October 2018 (47.2) issue of POWDER. To have great stories like this delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.