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William Johnson
December 18, 1972
Suddenly Super Racer has returned—much wealthier than before and handsomer than ever—bringing star quality to pro skiing's ragtag circus. But can Jean-Claude Killy wriggle his way to the very top again? Mais oui, mes sponsors!
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December 18, 1972

Back Again, Booming His Way Into Your Hearts

Suddenly Super Racer has returned—much wealthier than before and handsomer than ever—bringing star quality to pro skiing's ragtag circus. But can Jean-Claude Killy wriggle his way to the very top again? Mais oui, mes sponsors!

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Since the glories of Grenoble he had spent most of his time in the jet streams of the world, sharing the company of famous men and beautiful women. He had come to play a passable game of golf. He owned a splendid villa overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland. His fianc�e was movie star Dani�le Gaubert, his next door neighbor-was Petula Clark. He was a man of means, of fine manners and fast cars, of celebrity. He had starred in his own television show, made a movie in which he played a swashbuckling schussboomer and enjoyed the adoration of uncountable lovely ladies. At 29—just 29—he was a millionaire, a world citizen of enormous sex appeal. There was not much that Jean-Claude Killy did not have.

And yet, here he was standing in a shivering crowd of a few hundred people in a chill November twilight at the foot of Aspen Mountain in Colorado. Here he was, waiting until an executive from a U.S. suitcase manufacturer called out his name, then stepping forward to receive a check for $225. Killy said thank you, but his face was impassive. This was his pay for this day's work. Someone said, "Enough for beer money, Jean-Claude?" The celebrated smile flashed briefly. "No, it's really not."

But then, despite the chill of the day and the meagerness of the pay, Killy smiled once more—and this time there was genuine jubilation in his face. "But I am very happy to have it," he said.

Jean-Claude Killy was back racing again. The man many have called the greatest ski racer of the era—even of all time—had stepped out into the cold snows again from his warm, velvet years of retirement. No longer was he competing for gold medals but for cash. He had suddenly appeared in Aspen determined to compete as a member of that widely unheralded bunch of traveling salesmen-skiers known as the International Ski Racers Association (ISRA). He had come to do battle on the North American professional ski-racing tour, which is a blatantly commercial series of 12 competitions officially known as the Benson & Hedges 100's Grand Prix. The field Killy had entered consisted of a tough, rakish crowd of World Cup dropouts and cutups, has-beens and never-weres, a loose, shaggy gang whose members drink hard, often race red-eyed with hangovers and who sell themselves openly—but with infinite honesty compared to the conspiratorial quasi-bribery and sneak theivery that goes on in World Cup amateur ranks.

It is likely that Killy alone has won more World Cup races than the entire membership of ISRA combined. It is a statistical fact that he won three Olympic gold medals, more than any of the 100 or so pro racers competing this season. Killy set unparalleled records in his days as the brightest star of the superb French teams of the mid-60s. In 1965, his first year of stardom, he became European champion. In 1966 Killy swept to the world championship in Portillo. In 1967 he shook the ski world with 23 victories, seizing all World Cup titles: slalom, giant slalom and downhill. And in that most golden year of 1968 he won the World Cup combined crown plus the triple Olympic championship in slalom, giant slalom and downhill, catapulting to unprecedented celebrity and wealth.

But despite the dazzle of reputation and ski records past, Killy did badly in his Aspen baptism as a serious pro racer. He managed to qualify in giant slalom time trials for the final field of 16 racers (and an automatic $225), but he did not survive, losing to a 6'5" Austrian nonentity named Harald (Stork) Stuefer, a fellow who never won a World Cup race in six years of international competition.

In the slalom Killy looked stronger, defeated his first man—but then spilled in the quarterfinals race. He was paid $500 for this day's work, but he still came up notably optimistic. "It was good," he said. "I am surprised it was so good. Even if I did not do well, I felt well."

It was not surprising that Jean-Claude Killy performed without distinction that first weekend, for professional ski racing is a strange and deceptively demanding sport. First, it is based on the dual course concept that pits opponents head to head—first down one course, then switching courses and doing it side by side again. It is a game entirely different from the traditional World Cup runs in which a competitor races alone, flat-out against the clock.

Where a World Cup racer is required to run no more than once a day (in giant slalom or downhill) or at most twice (in the slalom) to win, a Benson & Hedges 100's Grand Prix racer may have to smoke down the course as many as 10 times in a day to win top money. This marathon treadmill includes two time trials in the morning to qualify for the final field of 16, plus two runs in each of the elimination brackets in the afternoon. Because of this killing format, the courses in pro racing are short and relatively simple, mere sprint slaloms with a few artificial jumps and bumps installed to electrify the spectators. In general, these runs do not demand the exquisite hell-bent acrobatic techniques of a Killy to win consistently. A simple burst of brute energy will do at times.

Killy still carried a load of frailties from the softening years of making money. True, he is slim as ever—giving off a sense of coiled explosive power—and in his maturing years he seems handsomer and more graceful than ever before. Yet, he was far from ready to race: "For four years I have not run hard or skied hard or walked hard. I have not tried to stay in condition. To win here as a professional, I must be in better shape than I ever was for the World Cup or the Olympics. I think I have much yet to do."

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