One afternoon four months ago, Cindy Nelson won two six-packs of beer, a pizza and a pint of H√§agen-Dazs ice cream by playing squash and betting on herself. Although her take was highly caloric, the squash and other exercise would more than compensate for it. After 14 years on the U.S. Ski Team, Nelson was conditioning herself for yet another campaign.
She moved quickly about The Vail Athletic Club court in her downhiller's tuck, sweating profusely. Most squash players find a 45-minute workout exhausting, but Nelson had booked two hours of court time. She had already put in a morning of weight training and running in the Colorado Rockies. It was several days before the start of the 1984-85 World Cup circuit, and at Nelson's age, 29, competing requires an extra measure of fitness and determination.
Or maybe a quixotic nature. An American who tries to take on Europe's best after she has suffered five serious leg injuries and has been a member of four Olympic teams might well be considered a dizzy dreamer. Says Phil Mahre, who, after winning the slalom gold at the Winter Games in Sarajevo a year ago, retired at 26: "Skiers who stay on past their primes don't seem to have the confidence that they can do something else well." And on Nelson's decision to continue competing: "It's hard for me to understand. It's tough to finish 10th after you've been on top."
A look at results so far this season would tend to indicate that Nelson made a mistake. She hasn't been finishing 10th—usually quite a bit worse. She wound up 25th in the downhill and 15th in the combined in February's World Championships at Bormio, Italy. She has only one Top 10 finish and 13 World Cup points as the circuit finally heads to the United States this week.
March 4, 1985
So why does Nelson continue to ski? Why has she competed longer than any other U.S. World Cup skier? The answer sheds light on Nelson's remarkable career and the World Cup circuit itself.
In retrospect, it's easy to see that Nelson was born to be different. Lutsen, Minn., by the shores of Lake Superior, does not regularly produce world-class skiers. And though her parents owned a tiny winter resort, its ski run, with but a 700-foot vertical drop, was hardly a breeding ground for champions. Because Cindy didn't bother turning much on such a minor hill, she became a downhiller and, eventually, an accomplished one. She participated in her first national junior event at age 12. At 15 she graduated from the juniors and made a precocious jump to the U.S. Ski Team.
Nelson's career with the team has spanned no fewer than three generations of American skiers, and with each group she has played a different role. With the first it was Cinderella, as the media had it, who at 16 set her bright blue eyes on the '72 Sapporo Games. She was a child among veterans: Barbara Ann, Marilyn and Bobby Cochran, Susie Corrock, Tyler Palmer: they've been retired so long they're hall-of-famers. Cinderella crashed the old folks' party, then crashed on the downhill course at Grindelwald, Switzerland just before Christmas 1971; a dislocated hip put her into a Swiss hospital and out of the Games. "I thought about quitting even then," she says, "but really, there's no quitting when you're young." By the time she recovered, her teammates were considering retirement.
In the mid-'70s Nelson became a leader and an inspiration. This was her grande dame period. It was a difficult time for the team; coaches and athletes came and went. Year after year, greatness was predicted for others, but only Nelson produced. In '75 and '76 she was the only American in the World Cup Top 10. She won six U.S. downhill and slalom titles. At the 1976 Innsbruck Games she was the only American to win an Alpine medal, the bronze in the downhill. The pressure grew, and Nelson felt increasingly uncomfortable. "Sometimes I think it would be nice to play tourist," she said once, "eat a pumpernickel sandwich, drink a gimlet. A guy might look at me and...."
This is the stage at which most U.S. skiers quit the World Cup circuit. Because almost all Cup events take place in Europe, the French or Austrians can zip home between races. Americans, however, are in exile for the winter—between Thanksgiving and Washington's Birthday they have only a brief Christmas break. "It's not so much the physical toll, it's the stress," says Nelson. "Being away from home that long each year is horrible. If there were a World Cup circuit in the U.S.—or if even half the races were in the States, instead of three or four—our guys would ski longer."
At the Lake Placid Games in '80, Phil Mahre had emerged to take some of the pressure off Nelson, but still the women looked to Nellie for results. Her performances were disappointing. She placed second in the combined but won no medals. Now friends were certain Nelson would hang 'em up. "I was pretty OD'd on racing and all the things that went with it," she says. "But it was strange; I just never took the skis off."
Four years ago, after reassessing her values and desires, Nelson moved her training site to Vail, Colorado. "After I left home, I had to develop my own life," she says. "Ski racing became my job. I became more comfortable. The travel was like taking the subway to work. Skiing became a 12-month-a-year thing. After all, it was time for me to get a job and, with the money now in racing, it was possible for me to choose this." Nelson had become, arguably, America's first professional on the World Cup circuit.
Her new businesslike approach paid dividends. "I became a better athlete," she says. "I was a clearer thinker—and my sense of competition was as intense as it was when I was 17." Nelson finished in the Top 10 in the World Cup standings each year from '81 to '83, winning one World Cup race, plus a silver in the World Championship downhill in '82. And all of a sudden she had company. Kids who had followed Nelson's career when they were in junior high were now skiing alongside her—if not in front. "It was tough to get beaten by girls coming along," says Nelson. "Christin Cooper, Tamara McKinney. But then, they pushed you harder. It was a good situation, a healthy one." And so the grande dame became Grandma to a talented brood of American skiers. In 1982 the U.S. women won the Nation's Cup trophy, symbolic of the world's best female team, and in '83 finished fourth.
Then Nelson's world collapsed. On Dec. 11, 1983, skiing a grand slalom at Val-d'Is√®re, she hooked a gate and damaged the anterior cruciate ligament of the right knee and its secondary lateral support and suffered a partially torn lateral meniscus. The 1984 Winter Olympics, two months off, seemed out of the question. Nelson was flown home, where arthroscopic surgery was performed by the ski team's orthopedist and resident miracle worker, Dr. Richard Steadman. This was followed by four weeks of rehabilitation at the doctor's Lake Tahoe home. On January 29 Nelson was ready for some cautious skiing.
Steadman observed her progress, then sent her to the Winter Games in Sarajevo with his blessing. She entered only the Olympic GS, finishing 18th as her protégée, Debbie Armstrong, won the gold. Nelson limped around the Olympic Village during the rest of the Olympics, looking every bit the hobbled old veteran, but determined to go all out the rest of the season. To everyone's surprise, she had two Top 10 finishes in World Cup giant slaloms as the circuit ended.
More repair was needed on her right knee, and Steadman went to work again last April. Damaged ligaments were replaced with Gortex—"It was a special situation," says Steadman of the procedure. "There was looseness in the knee, and she had previous damage." Nelson's body had been put back together once again, but many were astounded to learn that she was thinking of racing this year.
Money wasn't the problem. Nelson, who earns six figures a year on skis, could make just as much money if she got off them and turned to ski marketing. "Finally," she says, "I kept coming back to one thing: I didn't want to quit. I love my job. I made the right decision."
In the season's first World Cup downhill—at Puy St. Vincent—she finished 15th, the highest among the nine Americans entered. Then came a string of so-so performances, Nelson picking up a World Cup point here, another one there. But all the while, she has been contributing in other ways. "I'm glad she's with us," says women's downhill coach Bill Bourton, "no matter what. She's a buffer between the new coaches and the team, and to everyone on the team she's a link to so many things."
She's a link unlike any in the history of U.S. skiing. No other American Alpinist has ever been a member of four Olympic teams; Nelson has nearly twice as much world-class experience as any teammate. The U.S. Ski Team hasn't been left many legacies, but Nelson is leaving one as she heads to her final homecoming. This weekend the circuit is in Vail. Nelson promises there will be no more World Cup skiing after '85, but she means to go full force one last time.