‘Once an Olympian, always an Olympian’
VAIL — Cindy Nelson loves to open her Olympic mail because it reminds her, “Once an Olympian, always an Olympian.”
“That always makes me smile. It’s always true,” Nelson said.
Nelson is a four-time Olympian and competed in three Winter Games. A dislocated hip two weeks before the 1972 games left her flat on her back while she watched it on TV and recovered.
She won the bronze medal in the downhill in the 1976 Winter Olympics in Austria.
Winning is good and competing is better, she says, but the biggest thrill of her athletic career wasn’t on a podium. Nelson carried the American flag in the 1976 opening ceremonies.
“That was probably my most magical moment in sports, although I probably didn’t realize it at the time,” Nelson said.
She was one of the world’s top ranked alpine racers and said she was going to skip the opening ceremonies so she could concentrate on training. However, she jumped on a plane almost the second she learned she’d been elected by the rest of the U.S. Olympic Team to carry the American flag into the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremonies.
“It was unbelievable. It’s so much bigger than any other Olympic moment or World Championships moment I experienced. You’re carrying your country’s flag, and you have your whole team behind you,” Nelson said.
MEETING FRANZ KLAMMER
And it came coupled with this thrill.
“It’s also when I met Franz Klammer for the first time,” Nelson said.
For the uninitiated or the historically-impaired, during the 1970s and early 1980s, Austrian downhill-skiing star Klammer won 25 races on the World Cup circuit. His five World Cup downhill titles (1975, ’76, ’77, ’78 and 1983) are still more than any other skier in history (no one else has four).
Those 1976 Winter Olympic opening ceremonies were in the ski jumping stadium, and the teams entered in alphabetical order with the host country, Austria, going last. That meant Klammer, the Austrian flag bearer, and Nelson had a few moments to chat while they waited for their turn to march into the stadium.
Klammer introduced himself, saying, “So you’re Fraulein Nelson.”
Nelson answered, “And you’re Heir Klammer.”
“I don’t understand why you didn’t win gold,” Klammer said.
Thinking back on it, Nelson jokes, “I polish it every day, and it’s still not gold.”
This year’s American flag bearer was Nordic skier Todd Lodwick.
“I was thrilled for him. This is his sixth Olympics, and he’s the first Nordic skier to carry the flag,” Nelson said.
Future of the sport
Nelson says she loves the new skiing and snowboarding events and watches the Olympics as much as she can.
“I have totally enjoyed watching the slopestyle. If I was that age, I’d probably be doing that. I loved airtime,” she said.
Nelson grew up in Minnesota and spent her days on a trampoline. She went from Minnesota to the Lake Tahoe area, where she became acquainted with Dr. Richard Steadman, the U.S. Ski Team surgeon. He would house some of the athletes he worked on and when he moved to Vail, so did Nelson as well to continue treatment.
She has lived in the same house in the Vail Valley for 35 years.
During this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, watching Julia Mancuso and Ted Ligety ski to the podium has been great, she said, but the most touching moment was when injured freestyle skier Heidi Kloser was in the hospital and asked, “Am I still an Olympian?”
She is, Nelson said, and will be again.
“She’ll be the peak age in 2018, and there’s no substitute for that kind of experience,” Nelson said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and email@example.com.