Kristen Thorsness
Olympic Trailblazer

Kris Thorsness keeps her Olympic gold medal in her sock drawer, but she isn’t afraid to take it out and let other people wear it. “My poor medal shows its wear,’’ she said. “Mine has been touched and put on and dropped. It’s been well-loved.’’

Alaskans have done their share of the loving. People still revel in Thorsness’ victory at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles because Thorsness was the first Alaskan to win an Olympic medal, the first to prove Alaskans belong on the world’s biggest sporting stage. She turned the impossible into the possible, even though she had improbable written all over her.

A 1978 graduate of West High in Anchorage, Thorsness didn’t learn to row until she was at the University of Wisconsin. She was good enough to get the attention of national team coaches, but at 5-foot-9, 150 pounds, she was tiny by rowing standards. “I was three inches too short and/or 20 or 30 pounds too light,’’ she said. “I was told by some of the best coaches in the world I was too small to row at the elite level.’’

But Thorsness was strong, fit and hard-working. Her work ethic is such that she managed to get through 21/2 years of law school while training for the 1988 Olympics.

She’s the perfect Olympic trailblazer for Alaska, one who believes she has a duty to share her experience because by doing so, she shares the Olympic ideals of brotherhood and sportsmanship. As a little girl, Thorsness was so enchanted by the 1972 Winter Olympics that she eagerly sent a $5 donation to the U.S. team. Today, she just as eagerly accepts invitations to speak to classrooms and clubs, where she shares her medal — and her story of overcoming the odds.

“I like to talk to them about setting goals and dedicating yourself to a goal and not to listen to people who discourage you,” she said. “They may have good intentions but they don’t know what’s in your heart, and if you can tap into what’s there, the possibilities can amaze you. I’m certainly living proof of that.’’

– Beth Bragg

First Alaskan to win an Olympic medal (1984) Olympic gold-medal winner in women’s 8 rowing (1984) Inspired the creation of the Anchorage Rowing Association Inducted into U.S. Rowing Hall of Fame World Rowing Championship silver medals in ‘82, ‘83, ‘87