It was a cold day in November when Jean-Claude Killy, creaky and unsure of himself after almost five years of retirement, poised at the top of a snowy slope in Aspen, Colo. and thought, "Well, here we go again." Since then, ski racing's pro tour has bounced along through a season of relative excitement and perpetual suspense and last week came home to Aspen to wind up its fourth and most significant year of dual course, head-to-head competition. And if Killy finally did, indeed, get going again, it wasn't the exuberant runaway everybody had predicted for the old Olympic champ.
Weary and hinting at a second retirement at 29, Killy arrived in Aspen last week ahead on points in his quest for the Benson & Hedges Grand Prix individual championship and the $40,000 bonus that goes with it. It should have been easy. Really nothing more to it than going through the motions. Then Thriller Theater of the Rockies began. In Scene One on Friday, Killy crashed into a gate during his very first heat of the giant slalom and was out of the race. In Scene Two, archrival Spider Sabich, with a chance to gain, fell victim to a 50-mph crash instead. He was not only out of the giant slalom but the subsequent Saturday slalom and possibly a lot of this summer as well. Scene Three was the inspired effort by a lanky Austrian, 25-year-old Harald Stuefer, to overtake Killy for the individual trophy—and then a sudden blizzard swamped the area, postponing the whole show.
Meanwhile, lurking in the wings was the handsomely dour figure of Austrian Skimeister Karl Schranz, who was trying to decide whether at 34 he is ready to join all this mad action.
The drama finally ended on Sunday when Killy, assembling one last burst of energy, won the slalom and with it the season.
If his triumph seemed certain, one other thing also is certain: Killy's presence this winter had brought glamour and competitive spice—even a hopeful future—to a circuit that for two years had been dominated entirely by California's Sabich and populated by a bunch of unknown retreads. The reckless and ebullient Sabich, a bachelor of 27 who flies his own plane and drives souped-up sports cars, who dances on tabletops and attracts beautiful women, has become an exciting ski personality himself. But on the slopes Sabich had left in his frosty wake a pro pack consisting mainly of nameless and forgotten (if talented) Europeans and just plain nameless Americans. It was great for Spider, who earned $70,000 in prize money, but was it good for the Grand Prix?
This was the setting when Killy—catching everybody but his business agent by surprise—showed up for the start of the 1972-73 season. Burning desire for competition may have been one reason he was there, but a more important one was probably economic. Not the pro prize pot, which totals a mere $22,500 a week, but a return to the kind of visibility that had attracted so many profitable sponsor tie-ins and business contracts following his sweep of three gold medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble.
In his first four races Killy showed occasional flashes of the old strength and style but won nothing. Then the tour took a five-week break, and when it reconvened in January it quickly became apparent that tabbycat Jean-Claude had turned into a tiger. He had returned to Geneva and skied himself back into physical trim and competitive sharpness. At Mt. Snow in Vermont, Killy won the first day's giant slalom, beating Sabich en route and thrashing Australian Malcolm Milne in the final—and has been winning regularly ever since. Until last Sunday's windup, Killy had not reached any finals of the slalom but he won six of the 12 giant-slalom events.
"The real story is Killy's total commitment to this gamble," says Ian Todd, a dark-haired young Englishman who has been handling skiing affairs for agent Mark McCormack. "He has worked at it unbelievably hard. Instead of resting somewhere pleasant, he goes early in the week to even the dreariest spots on the tour to practice on the course."
"It has not been much fun," agrees Killy, who also has remained somewhat aloof from the rest of the tour group of over 70 skiers. "I've stayed here in the U.S. the whole time, moving from hotel to hotel."
The season has not been much fun for Spider Sabich either, though he blames himself rather than Killy. "Heck, I've been happy to have him on the tour because his presence helps us all," says Spider, who is not shy about admitting he has beaten Killy in three of their five meetings. "As amateurs we all used to look upon him as something in another world we could never reach. But no longer. He's five years older now. Maybe he's lost a little quickness. What I've lost this year is consistency. I started slowly, finally got myself together and went ahead in the point totals. Then I got bored, and since then it's been a real struggle to get back."