Since the opening of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1956 there have been 448 members inducted, only two of whom are female cross-country skiers. The Hall of Fame website states that, “the honored members voted into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame represent the highest level of national achievement in America, featuring prominent athletes and snow sport builders whose accomplishments showcase American skiing and snowboarding.”
The first woman cross-country skier to receive this honor was Martha Rockwell, who was inducted in 1986. Thirty-four years later, Rockwell’s teammate and a trailblazer in the sport, Alison Owen-Bradley was admitted to the Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2020.
The list of Owen-Bradley’s accomplishments is lengthy. A brief glance at her race results highlights her prowess as an athlete, beginning around 1970 when she competed at World Championships in Czechoslovakia at the age of sixteen. Speaking to this formative experience, Owen-Bradley said, “I was so involved in sport and loved the sports that are now pretty common for girls, but there wasn’t really a place for it [yet], and so we made our own places. I got to go to the national team camp with the U.S. Ski Team and then Europe and see these women racing, and really fit, and loving their sports and it was like, yeah I want this life…
“It heightened my world view of what was possible for a young girl from Washington to pursue.”
Owen-Bradley went on to represent the United States at two Olympics (Sapporo 1972 and Lake Placid 1980). In 1978 in Telemark, WI she won the first-ever women’s World Cup cross-country race (although FIS categorizes this race as a “test” event). At the conclusion of the 1978/79 race season, Owen-Bradley finished seventh in the FIS World Cup standings, the highest ranking for a U.S. woman for the next 33 years. The following season, she finished second in the Holmenkollen 10k in Oslo, Norway. “We had tremendous results [in that era] that I think sometimes aren’t known, or they’re overlooked,” reflected Owen-Bradley.
But numbers on a page are only half of the story. Owen-Bradley’s contribution to skiing, particularly to women’s skiing, goes far beyond her race results. Growing up in Wenatchee, WA as a member of an active family, Owen-Bradley started nordic skiing after her father saw an ad in the paper for the local cross-country ski team. “He said, ‘Hey, let’s go try that because we love running and hiking and [other outdoor sports],’ so we started that and it was all new,” explained Owen-Bradley. Not long after, Owen-Bradley became the first girl to compete at Junior Nationals. She relayed the story of how at the pre-race meeting the organizers wouldn’t let her compete, stating that “this is a race for boys.”
A team leader from the Pacific Northwest (PNSA) delegation responded, “show me that rule.” Since that rule couldn’t be found in writing, Owen-Bradley was allowed to compete. “I raced and then, the next year, and from then on, they had a place for girls,” she explained. “It was a fun time because women weren’t racing marathons, they weren’t really allowed or incorporated into the endurance sports world, and it was just fun to watch it [explode] like popcorn, it was happening everywhere,” she said, speaking to the rise of women competing in sports. “It was really fun to be there [at Junior Nationals] as the first girl, I think I was like 13 or 14 or something and almost everything you’re doing is new in your life, so that was just one more new thing.”
Owen-Bradley’s coach at the time was Herb Thomas, and it was he who presented Owen-Bradley her medal at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Thomas came from Middlebury to start the ski program in Wenatchee which she joined. “He let me do it. You know, he encouraged me. He broke open the door for me to do it,” said Owen-Bradley. In the years that followed, there were other men who played an integral role in Owen-Bradley’s success.
“At the beginning, for me, not having a lot of opportunity in sport, I can say that the opportunities I did have came from men,” she explained. “There were no women breaking trail for me, you know, I didn’t have them as coaches, I didn’t have women cheering me on.”
In particular, Owen-Bradley singled out Marty Hall in her acceptance speech, saying he was perhaps the most important person to thank in regards to her success. She shared an example of how when they traveled to Europe to compete, the first U.S. women’s national team coach was given the runaround by the European coaches with wrong addresses, no translator, and the more. It soon became clear that something needed to change and so Hall headed to Europe to take over. “He really made a place for us,” Owen-Bradley explained, “They didn’t hire him in the first place, because he was a bit strong and maybe not sensitive and everything, but he was strong in the coaches meetings. He read the rule books, he knew what was going on, legally, and he made them speak English.”
At a time when women’s racing was just being established this was more important than ever. “He kept a place for us,” said Owen-Bradley, “that we had a possibility to get good and we weren’t on the sidelines, we were right in the middle of it all, he knew what was going on and he made a place for us on the world stage.”
For his part, Hall corroborated this story and added, “my athletes meant everything to me. I would fight to the death for them.” When asked about Owen-Bradley specifically, Hall described her as “a woman before her time.” He said that she “had all the components.”
“Some of the things that she got pushed into or taken to go way beyond when she should have been ready, but it didn’t bother her,” he reflected. “She didn’t crack, never had any problems doing what she was supposed to do.” Hall shared that it is great to coach an athlete like this. “She understands movement real well, she was good at anything she did as an athlete,” he said.
When asked about important elements in the progress of women’s skiing, Owen-Bradley responded, “I really appreciate the men who said ‘no, come on women do this. It’s really fun. There’s no reason women can’t do this stuff.’” She emphasized the important role these men played saying, “I really appreciate the men in my life, who opened the door, kept them open, kept the naysayers away- and then as things have evolved and grown, obviously, naturally, women are taking more of a role in allowance in helping other girls and women do that.” She went on to say, “and that’s awesome. That’s, you know, the natural progression, and I love to see that. And that’s why, with US NOW, the Olympic women’s group, taking initiative, giving awards, leading the way for other women and showing that we are a leader in sport and with each other. So that’s the natural evolution of it that I see.”
In her acceptance speech at the Hall of Fame ceremony, Owen-Bradley reflected on how much progress there has been in women’s skiing since she first began saying, “where are we going to be in another 50 years?…[it’s] so exciting to think of the barriers we break.” Particularly in light of the recent Olympic results from the U.S. women’s team, Owen- Bradley said, “even now, it makes me so teary eyed, to think about that in in one lifetime, my lifetime, to go from girls not having sports, not having a place, to being a shining star on the world stage of a sport that that was there was no place for girls. It’s so fulfilling.” She gave a shout-out to Kikkan Randall as well, saying, “and the icing on the cake of that was Kikkan doing the absolute best coverage, covering her teammates… She brought so much understanding and furthered everyone’s knowledge.”
Having witnessed the sport achieve these major milestones, Owen-Bradley pondered the future of cross-country skiing, “You know, it just feels like my life journey of being in sport, and being in cross-country especially, where will we be in the next year? That’s for this generation to lead now. And where are we going and what’s next for the women, but also the men, of our nordic community and sports community?”
She continued by saying:
“It’s not an easy road ever, but you know, that’s why we’re in it because we challenge ourselves and if we didn’t want challenge, we wouldn’t be in sport. And what you do is you come up against your weaknesses and you figure out how to get through them or you don’t get better… I mean, that’s the cool thing about sport is you test yourself and then you get better.”
When asked what it means to both her and to the cross-country sport community, to receive recognition for her achievements and to be the second female cross-country skier inducted to the Hall of Fame, Owen-Bradley replied, “Well, it is interesting that I’m getting the recognition now.” She explained that they give the award for different categories and said, “maybe part of the recognition comes from, you know, a lifetime involvement in skiing. I think maybe I cross over a little bit, you know, my life has been very influenced by and I participate in a lot of ways in cross-country skiing.” She continued by saying, “I think it’s important because it shows where we’ve been, and hopefully, where we’re going. So, it’s fun to get the award.” Owen-Bradley acknowledged that her “life has moved on.”
Though skiing still occupies much of her time, “I’m focused on a lot of things,” she explained, “ I didn’t wait for [the award] to happen to make my life good or anything. I’m doing a lot of really great things that I enjoy.”
These days, Owen-Bradley can be found near Boise, Idaho on a small farm she calls her “sanctuary”. Still quite active, she is an engaged participant in a program called, Starting Strength. “It’s a weightlifting program that I have found a lot of benefits for myself,” she explained. Additionally, Owen-Bradley is very involved with her family; she has three grandkids and a daughter who coaches skiing in Bozeman, Montana. “It’s really fun to have that continuity,” she said, referring to generations of skiing families. “I think it really helps to have grown up in it, and [to have] parents that know about it and can pass it on and build it generation to generation.”
Speaking more broadly to the growth of a cross-country ski community and culture in the U.S., Owen-Bradley emphasized the importance of recognizing the contributions of those who have encouraged and shaped this growth. “There’s a lot of people that have [put] their life-force energy on building the ski culture in our country, and that’s why I like to see more awards given.” She explained that she is working on nominating another woman for the Hall of Fame to “shine the light that the women’s lives have been growing the sport and yet [we] only have two women in the Hall of Fame after sixty years.” Given the numerous different categories that you can be nominated for, Owen-Bradley has a list of ideas and possibilities.
“There’s a lot of women that deserve a lot of credit for where the women’s program is now. Men too, but I’m focused on the women.”
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.