Cindy Nelson sees ski interest in US on rise

Until her retirement from ski racing last winter, Cindy Nelson was generally out of touch with recreational skiing in the United States. That's because so much of her time was spent in Europe, exploding out of starting huts and schussing down steep, gate-punctuated inclines. But this winter, for the first time in years, she's had the chance to rub shoulders with American ski area patrons, and she likes what she sees.

``I've seen a lot of new skiers on the slopes, and that's what you need,'' she observed during a recent visit to Boston. ``It doesn't matter what age they are as long as they're new skiers.''

This is an encouraging development for a sport that constantly grapples with its elitist, expensive image. ``I think the industry saw a plateau in the sport about five years ago,'' Nelson acknowledged. ``But it realized what was happening and now is making good, solid efforts to open up the sport again, rather than just cater to those who are presently skiers. Those of us into skiing 24 hours a day see the trend going the other way.''

Nelson, a member of four US Olympic teams, not only wants to see her sport grow, but wants to be a part of that growth. Consequently she has gone to work in the business as a special consultant to Vail/Beaver Creek, a premier resort in Colorado ski country.

The assignment keeps her busy with marketing, public relations, the ski school, and special programs -- quite an exciting opportunity for someone who began her association with the sport at age 2 in the skiing hinterlands.

Cindy's parents owned and ran Lutsen Ski Resort in Minnesota's isolated, northern reaches, where her playmates were four miles away, ``with not a whole lot between us except for timberwolves and deer.''

Now the former grande dame of the US ski racing team is a ``big picture'' person, one who wears a stylish white jacket, carries a briefcase, and comes prepared to talk about a broad range of ski topics.

She is pleased by the heightened awareness of ski racing in this country, which she says is largely attributable to the emergence of such prominent American skiers as Phil and Steve Mahre, Tamara McKinney, Bill Johnson, Christin Cooper, and, yes, Nelson herself.

What makes the future brighter still is the attention ski racing will attract leading up to the World Alpine championships at Vail in 1989, when the event will make only its second appearance ever on American soil and its first since 1950 at Aspen, Colo.

``With the proper public education we can bring ski racing to the foreground of American sports,'' said Nelson. ``My expectations aren't on the same level as football, baseball, or basketball, because I'd have to be a little crazy to think that. But skiing will definitely be up there as a sport people will read about and be knowledgeable about, much the way they are with golf or tennis.''

Though she has finally parked her own racing poles in the closet, Nelson didn't make a snap decision to retire. In fact, she claims to have thought about it off and on since 1976, when she won an Olympic bronze medal in the downhill at Innsbruck, Austria. By that time she had already been on the US ski team four years, or since she was 16.

After becoming the lone American alpine medal winner in '76, Cindy remembers wanting to go home and have a good time. ``I didn't think I was skiing for fun anymore.''

Partly what kept her going was the pursuit of an elusive goal: to win the World Cup overall championship. This is the ultimate in ski racing, the prize for being the best all-around performer in three major events -- slalom, giant slalom, and downhill -- over an entire season.

``I thought I was somebody very capable of achieving this,'' she said. ``I could ski every event in all kinds of conditions. I was a good competitor and a naturally good athlete. Basically I had no obstacles standing in my way, but I never did it.'' Of course, then again, neither has any other American female except McKinney.

In her quest for excellence, however, she did collect other World Cup hardware, including a silver in the giant slalom standings in '83, a feat that showed she wasn't really a downhill specialist.

Although not necessarily a first-place finisher that often, Nelson enjoyed an amazing tenure at or near the top world level. Perhaps no American skier has ever matched her 14-year longevity, and Nelson doubts that McKinney, now an eight-year US ski team veteran, will break her record. ``I don't see her staying around until the 1992 Olympics,'' said Nelson, who expects that most veteran US skiers will step down after the '89 world championships.

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