The American teen slipped into her running shoes and headed out into a snowy morning. She wound her way through the East Tyrolean village of Lienz, crossing a bridge over the river Isel through the twinkling lights of the Hauptplatz, eventually finding her way back to the team’s hotel. Soon she would be up on the mountain, stepping into the starting gate.
It was the fourth season for the fledgling World Cup, created out of the vision of journalist Serge Lang, American coach, Bob Beattie and French coach, Honore Bonnet. Headlines blazed in the local Osttiroler Bote about the White Circus coming to Lienz, an isolated village in south central Austria, not far from the Italian border.
Washington state native Judy Nagel, and her friend Kiki Cutter, were the Mikaela Shiffrins of their time – both winning as teens. In 1968, Cutter, then 18, became the first American woman to win a World Cup. Ten months before Lienz, Nagel had won her first – a slalom in Vipiteno, Italy – beating older sister Cathy by 2.28 seconds despite having to take a re-ski her first run in a rutted course because of a timing failure. Nagel remains the youngest American to win a World Cup (17 years, five months, 13 days) – about three months younger than Shiffrin when she won her first in Åre, Sweden in 2012.
This weekend, Shiffrin will step into the starting gate on Hochstein as Lienz celebrates 50 years since its debut. Nagel, now Judy Johnson, will be watching from her home in Palm Springs, California.
“I was just kind of on that weekend,” recalled Nagel recently. “Most of all, though, I was just happy to be there. I was happy to be a ski racer.”
Nagel was part of a women’s team of rising stars including Cutter, the Cochran sisters Barbara, Marilyn and Lindy, plus Judy’s older sister Cathy.
The Nagels grew up in Skykomish, Wash., daughters of 1952 Olympic skier Jack Nagel, and skied at Stevens Pass. When Crystal Mountain opened in 1962, father Jack started a racing program and ski school there and the family moved to Enumclaw.
Judy’s rise to the top came quickly. As part of a ski racing family, Nagel started racing at five. “As a child, I think I wanted to retire at 12,” she says laughing. “We were so young when we had success. My sister was a junior national champion and on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 13. Our father was our coach and formed the race program. We had really fantastic coaches.”
As a 15 year old, Nagel and Cutter climbed Mt. Rainer to 14,710 feet to prepare for training in Portillo. Foreshadowing her future, she won back-to-back giant slalom races at the Kandahar of the Andes in Chile.
At just 16, she was a late entry to the 1968 Olympic roster. Having to wait for a passport, she didn’t fly over with the team. “I had to grow up really fast,” she said. On her own, she landed in Zürich and had to find her way to the train station and on to St. Moritz. A few weeks later in Grenoble, she led the first run of the Olympic slalom before straddling in the second.
Returning home after the Olympics, Nagel won the slalom and combined at the U.S. Alpine Championships on her home course at Crystal Mountain. Just a few weeks later she was on the podium at Heavenly Valley in a World Cup slalom.
Lienz was the second stop on the 1969-70 World Cup tour. A week earlier Barbara Ann Cochran had been second twice in a giant slalom and slalom in Val d’Isere. It was a long trip in the U.S. Ski Team vans from the French Alps to Lienz where snow greeted them for the mid-December races.
In the opening giant slalom, Nagel took the win over France’s Michelle Jacot by .37. Barbara Ann Cochran was third with sister Marilyn sixth to give the U.S. Ski Team three in the top 10. The next day, Nagel held on for a slim .16 win over Ingrid Lafforgue of France.
“Lienz was pretty special,” recalled Cutter. “We just had this special feeling on the girls team then – it’s hard to explain. Judy and I were together all the time – we were our own cheering squad.”
Nagel went on to score six World Cup podiums that season, bringing her career total to 12 over a three-season career. Cutter amassed five wins in her tenure.
That spring, at the age of 18 and with three World Cup wins, Judy Nagel retired, as did the 20-year-old Cutter.
“It was a silly thing,” Nagel reflects today. “I enjoyed competition and I enjoyed winning – being in the spotlight. I liked it but things changed. My good buddy Kiki was retiring. I felt alone. We were pretty young and closed in. Today, I think the athletes have a lot more guidance in how to handle the press and being in the spotlight.”
Nagel expresses no regrets. And in the half century since she’s retired, she’s stayed on skis and following the sport as a fan. She ran the Crystal Mountain Ski Shop after her mother retired and spent years living in the mountains around Crystal and in Sun Valley, skiing a lot. She still has a cabin in Bothell, Washington and skis at Big Bear from her home in Palm Springs.
The lessons of ski racing remain etched in Nagel today. “I was so impressed at the (1968) Olympics with Jean Claude Killy – how he could win every race,” she said. “It was the same with Lindsey Vonn winning so consistently.
“That’s what was so fun about competition – how you prepared yourself for the day, how exciting it was to compete and not let things get you down.”
“I’ve been watching ski racing a lot recently on television,” she said. “Mikaela is always in the news. She’s just wonderful to watch – I’ve watched her so much I feel I know her.” The two have never met.
Cutter (now Kiki Cutter Densmore) has retired and moved from her native Bend to Hanover, N.H.
Shiffrin will race on a different hill this weekend, set on the village course of Hochstein next to the medieval castle of Schloss Bruck. The city of Lienz will be even more festive than usual with its 50th anniversary celebration.
“It’s always inspiring to look back at the heroes of the past because they’ve paved the way for us to do what we do today,” said Shiffrin. “Lienz has always been a special place for me, as well.” Eight years ago, a 16-year-old Shiffrin scored her first World Cup podium there.
I’ve always enjoyed skiing,” said Nagel. “It’s such a great sport. We had a lot of fun those years we raced.”