One of the less familiar sights in sport, something that ranks right up there with the Green Bay Packers losing a football game, is an American male winning a big international ski race, the kind with your Jean-Claude Killys and your Karl Schranzes in it. American racers usually spend their time trying to make a fourth-place finish seem absolutely immortal. Every two or three years, however, one of them will come along, like a Bud Werner, a Chuck Ferries, a Jimmy Heuga or a Billy Kidd, and for one glorious day, either on some strange Alp or on a high Rocky, a lonely American will outski a major European field. Such an afternoon came last week in Aspen, Colo. in the Roch Cup, when Billy Kidd finally beat the whole world again, including, yeah, J. C. Killy. And it was so neat a victory, in fact, with Kidd taking both the slalom and the combined championships, that for a few hours it made the U.S. fan want to do a lot of those corny, patriotic things like kiss mom, eat some pie and stop swearing at Coach Bob Beattie.
As a matter of fact, it was, schuss for schuss, one of the giddiest weekends in history for U.S. skiers. Not only did Kidd defeat Killy and all of the other glamorous madcaps of world racing on a long, tough, tricky slalom hill that had good racers falling out like wounded soldiers, but 4,750 miles away another American was pulling off an equally improbable victory. In Oslo, at the Holmenkollen, John Bower, a 27-year-old ski coach from Middlebury College, won the Nordic combined, the first time an American had won any Holmenkollen Nordic event in 76 years. Bower had been 13th at Grenoble in the combination 15-km. cross-country and 70-meter jump. When Bob Beattie heard the news he said, "It's as if I won the Masters."
At the same time, back in Aspen, Kidd was getting set up for a good shot at the Roch Cup combined title. He finished fourth in the downhill race on Friday, while two of his pals, Kenny Phelps and Spider Sabich, placed in the top seven. Three Americans in the first seven of a World Cup downhill, you say! Could that be a put-on? No. And right there was enough, by normal standards, to have made Aspen a happy occasion for the beleaguered U.S.
But there was even more. In between the downhill performance and Kidd's slalom victory five American girls, led by grinning Kiki Cutter in third place, finished among the first nine in a women's World Cup slalom. That slalom was taken by that terrific north North American, Nancy Greene, winner of last year's World Cup. Nancy had come to Aspen with an Olympic gold medal in giant slalom that had put her back into World Cup contention but 49 points behind Isabelle Mir of France. By sweeping the downhill, the slalom and Sunday's giant slalom, she earned 75 cup points and began to look uncatchable.
The old mining town of Aspen—because of its superb mountains, snow, accommodations, food and fun—had been designated from the start of the season as an important stop on the World Cup schedule. Only the Grenoble Olympics had more events counting toward the overall season championships, which the World Cup provides for ski racing. As a result, the only thing longer than a lift line was a dinner line, and the only thing shorter than the skirt on your waitress was her smile. But the resort wound up doing exactly what it was expected to do, serving as a splashy host to the elite of skiing, and providing a decisive juncture in the World Cup competitions.
Kidd's success, for example, boosted him back into at least a decent fifth position in the overall cup standings, and Kiki Cutter moved into fifth in slalom and eighth overall. Both Kidd and Cutter are better than this, as even the French and Austrians know, and they may be able to prove it in the remaining World Cup events in Rossland, B.C. and Heavenly Valley, Calif., all of which follow next week's five-nation American International team races at Sun Valley.
More important as far as the men are concerned is that Jean-Claude Killy did what surprised no one, wrapping up the overall World Cup championship with a slightly unglittering third in the Aspen downhill while at the same time losing the individual downhill cup to Austria's ageless, easygoing Gerhard Nenning, which surprised everybody.
Last year Killy won all of the crystal available to him in the World Cup with a perfect score, meaning three victories each in downhill, slalom and giant slalom. So far he has equaled that feat in giant slalom only, largely because of his victories at Grenoble and at Méribel just before fighting his way through a few thousand autographs en route to Aspen. He still has a chance to win the slalom cup from Switzerland's Dumeng Giovanoli. But the downhill belongs to Nenning, who merely won three of the four he ran this year on some of the most famed courses in the world. Killy beat him only in the Olympics, where Gerhard was ninth, a performance that still has the Austrians mystified.
At Aspen it was Nenning's starting number, 3, that made the difference on a sunlit course, which Killy claimed had softened by the time he came out of the gate in the No. 12 spot. "There were big holes, and I couldn't hold my line," Killy said. "I would have won with a lower number."
You would think that Killy could care less about having a win or a loving cup escape him now and then, since he is certainly the greatest racer ever and one who has practically become a Frank Sinatra in stretchies. Killy has enormous pride, however, the kind that kept him training and in hiding in tempting old Aspen and that seems to make him flame almost uncontrollably down every course he gets on. He simply doesn't like to lose, ever, and believes there must be a freaky reason when he does.
In Aspen Jean-Claude hid in a large apartment at the Coachlight Chalet with Marielle Goitschel, her sister Christine and Christine's husband, Jean Béranger, the French women's coach. He played cards, slept and, as the mood struck him, autographed things sent up to him. He cooked his own meals—steaks and trout, mostly. The longest he got out in public anywhere, aside from on the slopes, was an hour at the Red Onion for a Calcutta pool on the downhill race. After Austria's Karl Schranz had sold for an impressive $2,200, Killy showed a flash of his natural good humor. To a friend, he said, "Well, now, I must sell for at least five thousand, eh?" Funny thing was, he did.
Killy's mere presence in the field and the more important fact that his competitors are running out of opportunities to beat him before he retires were the obvious things that made Billy Kidd's victory so exceedingly delicious. It also probably increased by several hours the life expectancy of Bob Beattie, the hardworking U.S. coach who spends most of his time being criticized, misunderstood and unappreciated. "Where can I find a manual on how to conduct a winning interview?" Beattie joked. And, finally, it partly began to compensate Bill Kidd for his sad fate in Grenoble.
Billy had looked like a sure bet for some kind of Olympic medal this year. He had proved he could fight back from a series of injuries, including a broken leg, by consistently finishing among the top five in slalom and giant slalom in the pre-Grenoble races. And without even trying for speed. "I'm not really hustling," he confided then, "just building some confidence." He honestly felt as he went up to Chamrousse that he was poised for a gold medal in something, Killy or no Killy, and he felt it right up to the instant he fell during nonstop downhill practice and suffered another ankle sprain. After that, except for the day he rather miraculously had the fastest second run in giant slalom with a pound of tape on his foot, Kidd had a dismal stay in France.
The worst day of all had been in the last event held in the fog, the hidden-gate slalom. In what was his last Olympic event—he will continue racing only through 1970—Kidd crashed, going all out, in the first heat and slowly came wandering out of the gray haze to sit and suffer for, and in the midst of, his tearful parents, sister and little brother, Peter. "I already had a silver," he said. "It was a gold or nothing."
But this was all behind him last week in Colorado, when his ankle was finally back in shape again and the big-time race atmosphere had engulfed Aspen. "You really get up when it's like this," he said in midweek. "Just Killy being here after winning three gold medals makes it. I'm running out of chances, you know. Even if I have a really good year next year it won't be the same because he's quitting."
The first heat of the slalom on Saturday had elements that made it almost as goofy as the one in the French fog. It was long and old-fashioned, without rhythm, with crazy combinations and tight, almost illegal gates that the racers could barely get between. The course had been set by Anderl Molterer, the 36-year-old ex-Austrian star who now instructs at Aspen and races in the pro league. Molterer, who still has a golden mane for hair, was a forerunner and had obviously set a course for himself. The pros love to have themselves clocked when they forerun against the class amateurs, and they usually rip out all of the poles trying to win the race, unofficially. Most often they are three or four seconds behind the winner. This time, however, Molterer wiggled through his own funny gates in a time that encouraged him to dance around, accepting a lot of congratulations.
As Molterer celebrated, the poor competitors up on the hill were falling, missing gates and being disqualified or barely surviving. Killy, displaying his noted acrobatic skill on the mystery course, grabbed a two-second lead on the field, almost three seconds ahead of Kidd and, for what it's worth, five seconds ahead of Molterer. "I really feel like I'm on 'em today," Kidd said between runs, "but Killy has too big a lead."
It wasn't big enough. Kidd's second run, down a long and difficult but far more conventional course set by Swiss Coach George Gruenfelder, was as good as he may ever ski. Down the first 10 gates at the top the watches had him so much faster than anyone else the coaches who held them thought they needed Murine. Through a middle section that deceitfully invited speed, he was cautious. Then he fired again at the finish—hauled, as the racers say—took the lead and waited for Killy.
Kidd's splendid run had averaged about two seconds faster than others who had come down, so Killy could not cool it even if something like that ever entered his mind, which it didn't once he was out of the gate and plunging as always. Well, if Killy did it like that all the way, Kidd was surely no better than second. Just then Jean-Claude slid off the course past a gate halfway up the hill and did a full stop. He got back quickly and spun downward again, but in that instant Billy Kidd had won a big race for the U.S. Not even Jean-Claude Killy, virtually diving down the course again now, could make up enough time to pull it out. But, you know, he almost did anyhow, which is why it is so seldom a Billy Kidd has a day like the one in Aspen.