In 1945, one Robert Killy, also a native of Alsace and a World War II Spitfire pilot for the Free French, brought his wife, Madeleine, daughter, France, 4, and son, Jean-Claude, 2, to the village and opened a small ski shop. Robert later built a 17-room inn called La Ber-gerie. The natives called the Kiilys "Chinese," their term for anyone not born in the village. To this day Killy, Val's most famous citizen and No. 1 tourist attraction, is considered Chinese because he was born in the Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud.
Outsider or not, Jean-Claude held his own with the mountain-born boys—particularly when it came to skiing. Two of his fondest childhood memories are of schussing down steep, snow-covered Val-d'Isere rooftops into soft snowbanks and of speeding down a mountain pursued by a priest on skis, robes flapping, because he had cut catechism class.
Killy's life has been marked by extremes—at one moment blessed with great luck and then suddenly devastated by tragic events. The pattern emerged early. His brother, Mic, who was born in 1950, was a bright and scrappy tyke who grew up to be a good painter, a superb powder skier and Jean-Claude's closest pal. But soon after Mic's birth, Madeleine abandoned her family and went off to live with another man in the southern Alps. The loss was searing. "I have no explanation for what happened," says Killy. "We never really established a relationship after she left. It was very painful to find yourself at seven or eight, a little boy by himself."
Robert did his best to care for his three children, but they were mostly on their own after Madeleine left. Jean-Claude was sent to boarding school in Chambery, 80 miles down the valley, but he despised being shut up in a classroom. "It was a matter of physical suffering," he says. "I couldn't breathe; I suffocated inside school. I was always called by the outdoors."
Jean-Claude often cut classes. He would hitchhike back up the valley to Val-d'Isere, where he would spend all the time he could on the mountain, skiing or hunting. His father remarried in 1957, and the second wife, Renee, was a warm and loving stepmother. Even so, Jean-Claude continued to play the recalcitrant truant, and when he was 15, his father realized that school was a lost cause and let him drop out.
As a boy Killy won lots of local prizes for skiing, and at 16 he was chosen for the French national junior team. But the pattern of bad following good was always with him. At 14, he was selected for an important international junior competition in Cortina, Italy, but when he got there, he broke his leg in the downhill. At 16, he swept the national junior championships, winning the slalom, giant slalom, downhill and combined gold medals. But later the same year a borrowed car he was driving, a convertible, skidded and overturned on an icy road in Morzine, France, and his best friend, who was riding in the passenger seat, was crushed under the car. Jean-Claude, who had no driver's license, was not hurt.
Despite such jarring experiences, he never lost his intensity about skiing. Even in his early teens, he brought to the sport a hard-headed, quasi-professional attitude that set him apart from many of his easygoing peers. "I always believed that skiing was something serious, that it was a way of living a whole life," says Killy. "Others didn't. They used it only as a form of play. One of our group, Gerard was his name, was always the best, always ahead of me. But he never really believed in his skiing, never thought it could actually form your life. He went down in the valley somewhere and began driving a truck."
For a young man who saw ski racing as a serious calling, Killy took a decidedly crazy approach to the sport. "I was mad when I was young, and I took many chances," he says. "Many times I didn't come in first." Many times he didn't come in at all.
Honor� Bonnet, now 70 and a member of Kil-ly's COJO staff, coached France's fantastic ski teams of the 1960s. Sometimes as many as eight or nine French skiers would finish among the top 15 of a race, and at the 1966 world championships, in Portillo, Chile, French men and women won 16 of the 24 medals. Killy won two of the events—the downhill and the combined—but Bonnet's recollection of Killy's years preceding that triumph is of a young man in a perpetual free-fall.
"I took him on the team in 1960-61, and he never finished a race," says Bonnet. "He'd be ahead by two seconds halfway down, but he'd fall. I encouraged him. I told him that I selected people not by their finish but by their performance in the gates on the way down. I reminded him that, of course, if he wished ever to win he would have to arrange to also finish. But at the time I believed this young man had everything. Eventually I was proved right."