‘A legend among us’: Freda Nieters, pioneering Keystone ski instructor, dies at 91 | SummitDaily.com

‘A legend among us’: Freda Nieters, pioneering Keystone ski instructor, dies at 91

Summit County legend leaves behind lasting legacy with her need for speed and focus on kindness

Bob Winsett/Courtesy photo
Freda skiing at Keystone in 1999 with Freda’s Flying Fossils.
Bob Winsett/Courtesy photo

Freda Langell Nieters, a world-class skier whose kind and fearless personality made her an icon in Summit County and at Keystone Resort, where she taught the sport for decades, died Dec. 9. She was 91.

Born Sept. 25, 1931, in Steinkjer, Norway, Nieters grew up in Oslo, where she would ski to and from school during German occupation. John Williams, who met Nieters around 2000 when she was an active member of the Dillon Community Church, remembered her as “a legend among us.”

“She had a well-lived life but not an easy one,” Williams said, recalling memories Nieters shared of Nazi bombers flying over Oslo. “She was too young to understand it but old enough to be frightened by it.”

Left: Freda at age 3 in Norway. Right: Freda in Oslo at age 6 on Norwegian Independence Day.
Freda Langell/Courtesy photo

At age 15, Nieters’ mother sent her by boat to Seattle to spend a summer abroad. After a brief return to Norway, she attended the University of New Hampshire on a ski scholarship. There, she won an NCAA championship skiing at the Middlebury Snow Bowl in 1951.

With the 1952 Olympics to be held in Oslo, Nieters trained furiously only to injure her knee just before the big event. Still, when her knee healed just weeks after the Olympics, she raced in the Norwegian national championships, where she beat the entire Norwegian women’s team.

In 1962, Nieters moved to Colorado — where she would raise five daughters — and started coaching at the Winter Park Eskimo Ski Club. While living in Denver, Nieters met the founders of Keystone Resort and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Max and Edna Dercum, who asked her to be an instructor. 

On Keystone’s opening day in 1970, Nieters showed up alongside the other instructors, who were mostly men in their 20s, in a yellow coat over green pants tucked into red boots and wearing a fur hat topped with a pompom. She taught there for more than 20 years before moving on to instruct at Arapahoe Basin.

Freda poses with some instructors at Keystone Resort. The speed at which Freda skied helped her group of colleagues become known as Freda’s Flying Fossils around the resort.
Bob Winsett/Courtesy photo

“Freda was not just a mentor in skiing skills but in life skills,” said Hank Theiss, who met Nieters after moving to Summit County in 1972 to teach at Keystone. “She was a godly woman, and the joy of life just exuded out of her.”

Theiss said those that met Nieters were initially struck by her warm, loving personality, which earned her the nickname “Freddie Bear.” Only later would people find out that she was a world-class skier known to outpace those half her age. Theiss recalled the potluck Thanksgiving dinners that Nieters hosted at her home throughout the ‘70s and the elaborate April Fools Day pranks she would pull at Keystone.

Every year on April 1, Theiss said, Nieters would come to the ski resort disguised in makeup and weird clothes to book a lesson with a ski instructor who wouldn’t recognize her.

“She would be the klutz of klutzes or the weirdest person,” he said, remembering how some of the other instructors would be tipped off to the bit and would laugh from a distance as she put the unwitting instructor through the wringer.

Alicia Spear, who skied with Nieters at Keystone and hosted Bible studies at her house that Nieters would attend, recalled one April Fools Day when Nieters showed up to the mountain in a goofy costume carrying skis without bindings. To the chagrin of the ski instructor, Nieters attempted to step into the bindingless skis, saying in a made-up accent, “How do I get these to stick on my feet?”

One of the most requested instructors at Keystone, Nieters taught all levels of skiers. In 1995, Nieters was named the National Ski Instructor of the Year and she has also been listed among Skiing magazine’s top 100 ski instructors. She coached the Summit High School race team and ski camps at Keystone hosted by Olympians Phil and Steve Mahre.

Freda skiing at Keystone in 1999 with Freda’s Flying Fossils.
Bob Winsett/Courtesy photo

“She just loved people,” said Kim May, who was Nieters’ lockermate for more than 25 years, first at Keystone and then at Arapahoe Basin. “I learned so much from her teaching and watching her just making people feel comfortable and gaining their trust. That’s why she was so successful.”

Nieters had a motto as a teacher, which May said instructors still repeat at Arapahoe Basin: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Friends described Nieters as having a fiercely competitive spirit. In her later years in Summit County, Nieters raced with the Mountain Ministries team in the Keystone Business League where she was the “ringer of ringers,” Theiss said, adding that she would beat skiers 30 years younger than her, while also earning handicap points due to her age.

“She loved to go fast. She wouldn’t turn a whole lot,” May said. “She could beat a lot of the boys — young boys — and she kind of liked that because nobody expected her to go fast because she was old.”

Freda Langell Nieters at Keystone Resort in 1999
Bob Winsett/Courtesy photo

Despite her positive outlook on life, Nieters faced tragedy. Her eldest daughter, Astrid, was killed in an Alaskan plane crash. One year later, her daughter Karin died in a car crash as the family prepared for her wedding. 

Then, in 2005, Nieters lost her grandson, Zachary Thomas Meade, to sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. That winter she channeled the heartbreak and grief into a marathon skiing event to raise money for SIDS research.

At 74 years old, Nieters — in a pink, one-piece skiing suit — zoomed up and down Keystone, wracking up more than 78,000 vertical feet in a little over eight hours and raising money for SIDS research with every foot she skied. The feat earned her a new nickname, “the pink flying fossil,” and a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. 

In 2009, Nieters was inducted into the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame in Vail and two years later, after four decades in Summit County, she moved to Vermont with her husband to be closer to her family. She raised over $250,000 for ski-related charities throughout her life.

Nieters leaves behind her former spouse, Sam Langell, and three daughters and their children: Lisa Langell and Whitney; Ingrid (Kendall) Butts and Garrett Butts, Michaela (Michael) Steed; Katie Meade and Alex and Leah Meade. She is also survived by her second family, husband Joe and his children: Heidi Nieters; Bo (Jill) Nieters and Allison (Kel) Trebon with great grandsons, Will and Eli, Cierra Summers, Isaac Nieters and Elliot Nieters; Carter Nieters and daughter, Maya.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.