Summit County pioneers: Freda Langell Nieters
Special to the Summit Daily News
Freda Langell Nieters was born with her skis on. Growing up in Norway in the same neighborhood as one of the great legends Stein Eriksen, skiing was her transportation as well as her pastime. Skiing has remained her lifelong passion. After instructing for nearly 30 years in the United States, Freda boasted about her “beautiful office” on the majestic slopes of Keystone Resort.
Freda became a ski instructor and began teaching at Keystone on its November 1970 opening day. With most of the other Keystone instructors being 20-something men, Freda needed to make a statement. She showed up in a yellow coat over green pants tucked into red patent-leather buckle boots. Resembling a human traffic light, she completed the outfit with a fur hat topped by a pompom as an exclamation point. Freda got noticed.
Yet they knew nothing about her race background.
“No one thought I even knew how to stop on skis,” she said. “I didn’t do it very often.” And Freda hasn’t stopped since.
Sharing the beauty of the mountains
Freda skied to and from school as a young girl. She remembers many a day when she and her classmates would sit in their wet wool ski suits all day until classes let out. At age 15, her mother thought it would be a good experience for Freda to spend a summer abroad. So, off she went on a boat to Seattle.
“I’m probably glad to be alive,” Freda laughed thinking back to her first three-month stay in the United States. “I don’t think I’d even send my daughter on a bus to Denver.”
Returning to Norway, Freda continued her skiing and began training furiously for the 1952 Olympics that were to be held in Oslo. Unfortunately, she injured her knee right before the big event and was unable to compete. She did, however, race in the Norwegian national championships, which was held just a few weeks after the Olympics, and managed to beat the entire Norwegian women’s team.
As fate would have it, nearly 42 years later, one of Freda’s five daughters, Ingrid, competed for the United States in cross-country skiing at the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. (Ingrid qualified for three U.S. Olympic teams and also traveled to Calgary and Albertville.)
“When she was competing in Norway, I was there to cheer her on with two flags and a box of Kleenex,” Freda said. “It was a family dream come true.”
Helping skiers’ dreams come true remained Freda’s forte. She treasured a memory of a weak skier on the Keystone beginner runs. Though the woman’s progress was lackluster, Freda sensed she needed a breakthrough.
“I gambled and took her to the top of Keystone mountain. She lacked the skill, so I skied backward, holding on to steady her.”
To Freda’s surprise, the woman began to weep, not in frustration, but in joy. She confessed to Freda that, having once been a skier, she had suffered paralysis and was never supposed to walk — much less ski — the panoramic Keystone summit again.
“I try to share the spirit and beauty of the mountains with my students,” Freda said. “Skiing is more than making turns.”
‘Get up after you fall’
Freda’s refusal to settle for mediocre sets the stage for her long list of achievements: 1995 National Ski Instructor of the Year, listed among Skiing magazine’s top 100 ski instructors, Professional Ski Instructors of America chief examiner in cross-country skiing, Colorado River raft guide, Ride the Rockies bicyclist, Summit High School race coach, Ski for Light participant, avid hiker, tennis coach and player, mother of five and grandmother.
Freda jumped feet first into these activities because she remains unruffled by fear of failure. She values the process of reaching the goal and accepts the outcome. Her philosophy: “Be productive, no matter what you do. Set your goal. Be aware of the sacrifices, but learn to enjoy the journey, even if you don’t meet that high goal. In school, skiing or life in general, learn to get up after you fall.”
Freda has experienced rising after a fall. Grief struck her happy Summit County family when 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.
“Before this, I was a self-reliant competitor. But without God, I wouldn’t have overcome these losses. Before this, God was there when I had time. Now God is there all the time.”
A practical joker
The recipient of one of Freda’s practical jokes would never suspect such sadness in her past. Each year on April Fools’ Day, she poses as a ski student seeking a private lesson with one of her ski colleagues while disguised as snow bunny in a Tina Turner wig and pink suit or as Olga from Eastern Europe in lumpy knickers and on wooden skis
Freda’s third daughter, Lisa, had a girl named Whitney who played with her prankish grandmother.
“You are lucky to have a grandmother your own age,” Lisa remarked to a young Whitney.
As if in retaliation, nature seemed to play pranks on Freda. One summer afternoon in the Dillon Valley home in which she was operating as a bed and breakfast, Freda removed the last tray of chocolate chip cookies from her oven. She decided to take a nice nap while the cookies cooled. She awoke to the sounds of a noisy guest rummaging in her kitchen, probably sneaking her cookies. Freda emerged irritated from her “den” to find a large bear devouring the treats.
No wonder the bed and breakfast was called “Freddie Bear’s,” and Freda answered to the same name, sometimes shortened to “F.B.”
F.B. always led a simple life. She wasn’t the type for makeup or flashy cars. When she arrived from Oslo at the University of New Hampshire to begin her freshman year, she carried a “Mary Poppins” suitcase and a homemade ski bag.
“My roommate arrived with daddy and a U-Haul,” she said.
Ski students, tennis pals and hiking companions respond to Freda’s simplicity. On a recent trek across a slippery cornice above Hoosier Pass, she took the hand of a frightened hiker. She does that with shaky ski students sometimes, and the quiet gesture builds confidence.
Freda points out the many people who have helped her. Max and Edna Dercum, the ski legend couple who founded Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and Keystone Resort, raced with Freda in the Masters Alpine Competition and encouraged Freda and her family to move to Summit County. Employees of Keystone and its then-owner Ralston Purina Co. enabled Ingrid to train for the Olympics with fundraisers and contributions. Ingrid’s three-time Olympic success stands as Freda’s peak life experience.
“After the tragedies, our crumbled family reunited with happiness at these big events,” Freda said.
Into the late 1990s, Freda used her resources to coach skiers and instructors in the famous Flying Fossils, a group she founded at Keystone. These instructors, ages 50 and older, participated in Freda’s clinics and were known for their strong people skills. Keystone even named a run after their longtime instructor and her supportive style of teaching. It’s called, “Freda’s Way.”
It was through the people she met and worked with — their experience of the mountain beauty and their delight in feeling competent on skis — that was Freda’s reward for teaching and coaching. While living in Summit County, she seized upon Alpine sports as a way to help others live their lives as fully as she lived her own.
“Teaching technique is just a small part of teaching skiing,” Freda said. “To me, teaching is also enabling students to learn to really enjoy the experience of being outside.”
Editor’s note: Freda Langell Nieters now lives in the Northeast.
This story previously published in the book “Summit Pioneers,” which was printed in 1999. The book was written by Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz with photos by Bob Winsett in partnership with Wilson-Lass Creative Communications. It was published to raise money for The Summit Foundation. Read more about the history of Summit County at summitdaily.com/news/history.
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