In a pink button-down American shirt or in the light-blue silk-and-nylon downhill suit of the French racing team, Jean-Claude Killy (see cover) goes right on beating everyone down the curving snow trails of the world like no skier should (or ever has). Last weekend in the warm, sunny Rockies of Colorado, he recklessly added four more victories to an already imposing string of successes, and people who have been around the Alpine sport for awhile began to ask themselves why they had ever thought heroes like Stein Eriksen or Toni Sailer could ski a lick. No racer before Killy has even faintly approached his season of 1967. Years from now, in fact, when the spectator sport of watching people fall down mountains is better understood and more popular Killy's record may be regarded with all the misty-eyed reverence accorded a Babe Ruth summer.
The handsome, lithe Frenchman arrived in the U.S. a fortnight ago after winning all the big races in the Alps of Switzerland and Austria, France and Italy, and promptly won three more in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. No one would have thought the less of him had he gone to Vail, Colo. for the American international team races and smoked a few cigars, drunk a little Bordeaux and cooled it. Not Killy. All he did at Vail was win the slalom, giant slalom and downhill, leading the French to victory over the battling Austrians, the surprisingly good U.S. and the poor Swiss and Canadians, who finished in that order. Then, as a final sitzmark on the world, Jean-Claude won the Vail Trophy giant slalom on Sunday, rattling up a perfect score in the World Cup competition by beating the U.S.'s vastly improved Jimmy Heuga, his close friend, and for the third race in two weeks, his closest rival.
On the same day, Nancy Greene of Canada (who had won the giant slalom in the team races) narrowed the gap for the girls' World Cup (SI, March 20) by winning the Vail Trophy. This not only clinched the World Cup giant slalom medal, but sends her off to the last World Cup events at Jackson Hole, Wyo. this weekend with a shot at the cup itself. Marielle Goitschel still leads the girls with 169 points. Annie Famose, third in the Vail Trophy giant slalom, added 12 points to her overall, giving her 158. Nancy, who already had 65 World Cup giant slalom points, added 10 more, bringing her overall total to 151.
With his Vail Cup victory, Killy had swept seven races over a 10-day period in the U.S. against the best skiers in the world. His remarkable box score for the season shows that he has captured seven out of seven downhills, four out of five giant slaloms and four out of eight slaloms, or to put it more simply, he has outskied the world 15 of the 20 times he has left a starting gate. Toni and Stein can put that in their boot and try to buckle it.
The overwhelming proof of Killy's superiority has come in the downhill, skiing's most glamorous and dangerous event. Heretofore, if a racer took just one of the major downhills in the world, he could get free wiener schnitzel for months. Killy's seven downhill wins included the Lauberhorn, the Hahnenkamm and the Kandahar—the rough equivalent of a golfer's winning the U.S. Open, the Masters and the British Open.
The Vail downhill that Killy won last Saturday, a victory, incidentally, that virtually clinched the team championship for the French even before a late rally by the Austrian girls made the final point totals seem respectable (231-228), was not one of the most difficult on the circuit, but it afforded Jean Claude the opportunity to be everything that he is on skis. At the top of the Vail international trail, his supple body twisted around the control gates as if, at times, he might be headed for the woods. Through the flats he bent into a deep tuck to knife the wind and held, though his boards chattered and strayed. On the ridges he soared—"took air," as racers say—like a Nordic jumper and seemed to lose his balance for an instant, only to regain it and head even more aggressively down the course. Near the finish line, which led to an ill-prepared runout with a small snow wall that was supposed to keep the competitors from schussing over to Aspen, there was a horrible half second when one of his skis edged out. Jean-Claude dragged the ski back in as easily as a poker player would pull in the chips and sped under the finish banner one lunge faster than his nearest rival, Austria's Gerhard Nenning. To stop, he had to slide into the wall like Willie Mays stealing second base, but he was unhurt and a winner again.
It had been a typical Killy race, suspense all the way, far from the dainty waltz turns that instructors teach, and several carved gates from the stylish form that racers for years have felt was necessary. His equally close victories in the slalom over Jimmy Heuga, by a scant .58 second, and over teammate Guy Périllat in the giant slalom, by a little more than a second, had been just as rough-edged. He literally leapfrogged down those courses, swatting gate poles, springing back from awkward positions, nose-diving downward.
Only one of Killy's best slalom runs of the year could have overtaken Heuga. The friendly and polished Californian, brimming with new-found confidence, set the pace as he did the week before in Franconia. But in Vail as in New Hampshire, there was one man left who could nip him on the clock—Killy. And he did it with a pink-shirted all-out run that had his teammates gasping down below.
"Jimmy is very good," said Killy. "I had to ski my hardest to beat him."
Killy's spectaculars unfortunately detracted from the brilliant showing of Coach Bob Beattie's Americans. As a team, the U.S. had its best weekend since it first emerged as a serious Alpine contender at the Innsbruck Olympics. Heuga not only grabbed second in the slalom, he placed second and fourth in the giant slaloms while Rick Chaffee got a wondrous third. Jim Barrows displayed a heartening consistency in the downhill, taking sixth after his unexpected third at Franconia, in each case only a second or two behind Killy.
Meanwhile the U.S. girls made their own contributions. Grinning, colorful Suzy Chaffee sped to a stunning third in the giant slalom. Through the first two days of racing, in fact, the U.S. threatened to beat Austria for second place, a prospect that had a lot of fans in Vail keeping bars open through the night.
That hope slowly disappeared with the downhill events, and it came to a concluding splat when Suzy Chaffee took one of the major league falls of the season. Though tall and pretty, Suzy is a fierce competitor, one who seems determined to take America to the peak of Mt. Everest as a ski team. The downhill is her best event, and through the first half of the Vail run her time was faster than any, even that of World Champion Erika Schinegger of Austria who eventually won the race. But Suzy suddenly went out of control coming off a curve and did a 50-yard end-over-ender, the result of which, sadly, was a dislocated hip.
Why Jean-Claude Killy never takes one of these eggbeaters with his daredevil technique—indeed, why he keeps on beating the stretch pants off everyone—is a mystery that is driving the other ski nations buggy. Killy has his own explanation of his success.
"In the past I have always concentrated on the difficult part of the courses," he said, softly. "But now I try to make time everywhere, especially on the flats and easy parts. I try to make time, especially where others may fail."
He said, "I also train harder now during the racing season. I think about nothing but ski, eat and sleep. I used to make jokes, you know, with my good friends, the Americans. But they are trying more seriously. They are not so much fun, because they are trying to beat me."
Not bragging, but simply stating a truth, Jean-Claude said, "When you are the best in the world, you can't make too many jokes, anyhow, no?"
The government-subsidized French racing program contributes to the edge, Killy feels. For example, Coach Honoré Bonnet has it so well organized that in early December training in Val-d'ls√®re, Killy's home, the team members can sometimes run 450 slalom gates a day without having to climb the hills to replace the knocked-down poles—and thus risk wearing themselves out. "We can better concentrate on technique," Killy said, explaining that from 10 to 20 team helpers stand by the practice course and man the gates. Such a broad program makes the Americans drool and the Austrians look troubled.
"We have never worked so hard, like the Austrians, that we got tired," he said. "We don't start skiing until Nov. 10. Before that we ride bicycles and run. After Jackson Hole I will not ski until next November, except for maybe 10 days this summer on the Col del'Iseran when I try out some new skis and boots."
Killy only grins at the claims of the Austrians that while he's good, he is also lucky. "I do not think it is so much luck," he said. "I am confident, and this is very important, of course. It was most important to me that I do well in Austria, and that is why Kitzb√ºhel was really my peak this year."
At Kitzb√ºhel in the Hahnenkamm races. Killy flashed to a new record in the downhill, burying the nearest Austrian by nearly four seconds—an incredible humiliation in skiing—and to make matters worse for Toni Sailer's home town, Killy had the fastest time in both runs of the slalom, and won it easily. That was in January. He could have stopped there and still been the biggest thing in France since Bardot's bikini. But Killy has forgotten how to lose.
"In a starting gate," he said, "it never occurs to me that I will not be first."
It doesn't occur to anyone else, either. As Austria's best skier, Heini Messner, summed it up at Vail, "I was at the top of the downhill, trying to concentrate, and suddenly it crossed my mind. Killy is going to win, not me."
Call it French on the brain.