2018 is the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Winter Olympics. Dubbed the “Games of Renewal,” the 1948 Olympic Games were the first games held after a twelve year gap due to World War II. Much of the pageantry of the event was symbolic of a world that was ready to move on from the devastation of years of global conflict. The selection of St. Moritz was further symbolic in that Switzerland had remained neutral throughout World War II. Also, it was one of the only places in a war shattered Europe that was untouched by warfare and because it had previously hosted the Games it contained the infrastructure for the event. Twenty-eight nations participated in the Winter Olympics that year, though Germany and Japan were not invited due to their role in World War II. The Soviet Union elected not participate, as well.
Closer to home, the 1948 Winter Olympics held great significance as well. Two Grand County skiers qualified for those games, Robert Lloyd “Barney” McLean and Gordy Wren. Barney McLean grew up in Hot Sulphur Springs and began skiing there at the age of seven. McLean was chosen as the captain of the United States Olympic Ski Team in 1948. Gordy Wren was a native of Steamboat Springs, but at the time of his selection to the U.S. Olympic Ski Team, he was the director of the ski school at Winter Park. Wren became the only American in history to qualify for ski jumping, Nordic combined, downhill, and cross-country in a single Olympic Games. The two men were also the closest of friends during all their years of competition against each other.
Both McLean and Wren had a lengthy resume of championship trophies leading up to their qualifying for the 1948 Olympics. Barney McLean leaped onto the national stage in ski jumping at the age of 13 when he won a regional title at Salt Lake City in 1931 and in 1935 he won the National Championship for class B. As a result, he qualified for the Olympics in 1936. Unfortunately, due to a severe injury and other reasons, McLean could not attend the Games held in Germany. In November, 1937, due to the urging of Florian Haemmerle and Thor Groswold, Barney McLean tried out Alpine skiing on Berthoud Pass. Two months later he competed in the Arlberg Race on the Mary Jane trail and won that cup. By 1942, McLean had won the national championship in downhill, slalom, and downhill combined, as well as the Harriman Cup and another Olympic qualifier in 1940. Unfortunately, the 1940 Olympic Games had been canceled due to the war that raged in Europe, Asia, and North Africa and Barney McLean missed his second Games.
Gordy Wren, like Barney McLean started his stellar ski career on the ski jump. As a youth, he competed regularly at the winter carnivals of Steamboat Springs and Hot Sulphur Springs. It was during this time that Wren met his lifelong friend in Barney. At the age of thirteen, Gordy Wren took up Alpine skiing and built a slalom course on the hillside behind his house in Steamboat Springs. In 1940, he qualified for the canceled Olympic Games. Wren won the 1946 Harriman Cup in Sun Valley.
There is no doubt that both McLean and Wren would have made it to the 1944 Olympics had it not been canceled due to the ongoing world conflict. Nonetheless, both great skiers had their championship careers sidelined by military service in World War II. Gordy Wren naturally volunteered as an instructor in the 10th Mountain Division “ski troops.” As an enlisted man, he was often charged with instructing officers on the slopes. Though it would seem a natural course of service, Barney McLean did not join the 10th Mountain Division and instead elected to join the Army Air Corps and train as a pilot. McLean became a flight instructor. Eventually, McLean’s skills on the snow would land him as an instructor training downed pilots Arctic survival skills in Canada.
Following their war time service, both men resumed their skiing careers, winning national championships and finally going on to compete in the Winter Olympic Games that had eluded them in the past. Upon arriving in St. Moritz, Gordy Wren decided not to compete in the Alpine events and concentrated on Nordic competition. He did not do well in the cross-country and Nordic combined events, but was stellar on the ski jump, placing 5th overall and barely missing the podium. This was the best ranking ever for a native born American in Men’s Ski-Jumping in the Olympics. Anders Haugen had won the bronze medal for the American Team in 1924, but he was a native of Norway. As for Barney McLean, as the captain of the U.S. Ski Team, he was considered America’s best Alpine racer. Unfortunately, his highest ranking was 24th in the Men’s Slalom in the Games and he injured himself in the downhill race when he hit an icy spot and slid off the course. Nonetheless, just two weeks before, McLean had beaten the entire Swiss Ski Team, considered the world’s best, in their own country in the Swiss National Championships. He considered that his Olympic victory.
The 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz were indeed the “Games of Renewal.” Twenty-eight nations came together peacefully for the purpose of the greatness of friendly athletic competition. No other Olympic Games held such a significance on the world-wide stage as the shattered continents of Europe and Asia healed from the wounds of a conflict unlike any the world has ever witnessed. For America, we got to rejoice when Gretchen Fraser won the first U.S. gold medal in skiing when she took the podium for the Women’s Slalom event. For Grand County, we got to cherish our own hometown heroes in Barney McLean and Gordy Wren.