‘I was filled with pride’ – Cindy Nelson | VailDaily.com
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‘I was filled with pride’ – Cindy Nelson

Bret Hartman/Vail DailyEagle County local Cindy Nelson poses in front of the Gore Range Thursday in Vail. Nelson is an Olympian who won a bronze medal in the downhill in 1976.
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VAIL ” Cindy Nelson vividly remembers the day she found out she made her first Olympic team. Nelson, then 16 and at a World Cup stop in Switzerland, was handed her U.S. Olympic uniform and attended a team meeting as it readied to leave for Sapporo, Japan, where the Games would be held.

The next day, elation turned into shock.

On the World Cup course, Nelson made a mistake, fell and dislocated her hip. As her team left for Japan, she lay in a Swiss hotel bed staring at the white ceiling.



“I was in shock, I was envious,” she said. “I had all those feelings. I want to go, I want to go, how come I can’t go?”

She wasn’t sure if she’d ever have a chance to get back to the Olympics. But four years later, she stood on the podium in Innsbruck, Austria, after winning a bronze medal in the downhill. She ended up going to three Olympics, capped by her 1984 comeback trip to the Sarajevo Games months after a serious knee injury.

Participate in The Longevity Project

The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.



High expectations

Nelson moved to Vail in 1979, and served for many years as Vail Associates’ director of skiing for Vail and Beaver Creek mountains. In 1992, she started her own business, which offers ski and golf programs. She now lives in Eagle-Vail.

Nelson won’t be attending the Olympics this year for the first time since that injury in 1972. But she’ll be following the Games closely. She expects great things from fellow Minnesotan and former Ski and Snowboard Club Vail skier Lindsey Kildow.



“She is the best talent the U.S. has seen,” Nelson said. “She’s on par with Bode.”

Just as the young, blond, attractive Kildow is a medal favorite in these Olympics, the young, blond, attractive Nelson was a favorite in the 1976 Innsbruck Games. So much so that she was chosen as the flagbearer for the U.S. team in the opening ceremonies.

Being the flagbearer can put on the pressure ” he or she is usually expected to be a medal winner. But Nelson said she was able to put her competitive focus on hold and revel in the honor. As she entered the stadium with the U.S. athletes behind her, she felt an energy that almost knocked her over, she said.

“I was filled with pride, filled with patriotism,” she said. “All these things hit me.”

A medal-worthy run

The Innsbruck downhill course suited her because it was technical, rough and gnarly. But she was making mistakes on practice runs, missing a gate in the same place again and again.

“I thought, ‘I’m just sick,'” she said. “‘How am I going to do this?”

She still vividly remembers the starting gate on the day of the race, mimicking the beeps that indicate the start. She got through the troublesome section with no problem.

“I wanted to go, ‘Yeah!'” she said. “But I had another third of the course to go.”

She came through the finish line and saw she was in third place. She was whisked into drug testing, and then the press mobbed her.

“All of a sudden, your world goes from something you’re used to to something totally different,” she said.

And she got noticed back in the States, too, appearing on Wheaties boxes.

She would go to two more Olympics: the Lake Placid Games in 1980 and the Sarajevo Games in 1984. She credits Dr. Richard Steadman of Vail’s Steadman Hawkins Clinic for treating her knee after a serious injury before the 1984 Games.

Just getting to Sarajevo is among her greatest accomplishments, she said.

An early start

Nelson’s dad was a member of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, training at Camp Hale and seeing action in Italy. He then founded Lutsen Resort and Ski Area near the shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.

Instead of getting babysitters to watch over their four daughters, Nelson’s parents put them on skis. Cindy was skiing at age 2.

“I don’t remember learning,” she said. “I always knew how.”

By 6, she was racing at her parents’ ski area, and found she was pretty good. At 11, Nelson was already competing in the Junior Nationals, and the U.S. Ski Team was taking notice. She was on the U.S. Ski Team by age 15.

She was so focused on what she was doing, she didn’t comprehend how quickly she was rising, she said.

“I was so naive, because I knew nothing about the world of international ski racing,” she said. “I hadn’t failed, I hadn’t broken down, I hadn’t been severely injured yet.”

Later in her World Cup career, she became the first American to win a downhill race and the first American to win a super-G.

Nelson is now a board member for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Foundation and the Steadman Hawkins Sports Medicine Foundation.

Nelson is also staying busy with business ventures. Besides Cindy Nelson Ltd., she’s working a lot on a real estate project with her family in Minnesota, and she’s started a concierge service for orthopedic surgery patients called Here to Help of Vail.

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14623, or estoner@vaildaily.com.

Vail, Colorado


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