Gnawing tensely on her tongue, Cindy Nelson digs a ski pole into the crusty snow outside her Minnesota home and lunges around the final gate of her own slalom course. It is much less challenging than the runs she has faced this winter in World Cup competition, but during a brief layoff from the circuit the practice is good for her rock-hard leg muscles. Even in practice Cindy rockets down the icy perpendicular chutes with such abandon that her mother, a skilled ski instructor, long ago gave up watching.

Cindy's perfect features—blond hair, blue eyes and wind-stung cheeks—match a skill not recently found among American skiers. At 19 she is not only the highest-ranked all-around female skier in this country but is expected to place in the top five in overall World Cup points, the best showing ever for the U.S. Next February at the Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, she is being touted by teammates and coaches as a possible winner of two gold medals. "She is," says her older brother, Nibs, "the most determined little twirper you'll ever meet."

In 1972 with the Sapporo, Japan Olympics just three weeks off, Cindy, then 16, booted her first chance at the Olympics. The very day she made the team, she flew off a bump on a Swiss downhill course and careened into the hard snow, dislocating a hip. Broken-hearted, Cindy vowed to her good friend and teammate, Sandy Poulsen, "It could have been worse—I'll be back on my skis by August." And she was.

Since Cindy's return most of her old friends, like Poulsen, have retired from amateur competition, and Cindy is regarded by the new high school age ski kids, sometimes with a little contempt, as the grand old lady (partly because she has been skiing since she was 2). "They don't seem to understand my determination to win," Cindy says. "They seem to have goals to be top skiers—but within reason."

The top for the moment is blocked by Annemarie Moser-Proell, the spectacular 21-year-old Austrian champion. For the past five years she has dominated the World Cup and Olympics and has lost only six downhill races—half of them to Cindy. Now there are rumors Annemarie will retire. "In the years ahead," Proell once said, "Cindy may dominate the downhill as I have."

Pleased with her success, Cindy recently went home for three days to Lutsen, Minn., where her father owns a small ski resort. "When you're on the road there's not much time for family life," she said, gazing over the homestead her grandfather carved out of the Minnesota woods nearly a century ago. The trails and tows were added by her father, George, who skied with the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. Tutored by their mother, Patti, all five Nelson children (George III or Nibs, 22, Becky, 20, Cindy, and twins Tracy and Terry, 18) became expert skiers. The twins also hope to make the '76 Olympics. ("Hey, twinnies," Cindy tells them, "I know you can do it.")

"Even as a child Cindy was very free on her skis, absolutely fearless," says Mrs. Nelson. By 11, Cindy had won her first junior national downhill title, despite training on slopes better suited to cross-country skiing. Those modest hills still serve Cindy. In the summer she keeps in shape by jogging eight miles daily through the Lutsen woods. Occasionally she meets a bear. "When you see one," she laughs, "you back away...very...slowly."

Although she trains intensely, she is loose when it comes to preparations for a big race: she frequently will hit a local pub for a beer the night before. After a race she likes to unwind by "going to a disco with a warm honey." She detests hard rock music—"Can you imagine coming down from a race listening to that?"

With some wistfulness, she admits missing a normal high school life. "Sometimes I think it would be nice to sit and play tourist, eat a pumpernickel sandwich, drink a gimlet. A guy might look at me and..." But her mother quickly interrupts, "She'll just have to imagine that—there's not much time for her to be an ordinary, fun-loving skier."