“Superman on Skis” Jean-Claude Killy Part 1: It’s All or Nothing

 

Jean Claude Killy slalom
Jean-Claude Killy

 

“100% always, on everything, yes.”

That was the response to a question during an interview with CNN in 2015. The interviewer wondered why one of the world’s most famous skiers had not been on the slopes since 1988, speculating that perhaps Jean-Claude Killy was either going to be great at what he did, or not do it all.

“It’s very difficult for a skier like me to go up and ski, just nicely, and not seeing my skiing what I would want it to be. I’m 100% always, on everything, yes.”

Killy is a one-time Olympian, but at his one appearance at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics, the Frenchman swept the three alpine skiing events – the downhill, the grand slalom and the slalom, the only person other than Austrian great, Toni Sailer, to do so.

To reach such Olympian heights, Killy had to fall, many times. To Killy and his coach, falling meant he was pushing it. The head coach of the French ski team, Honore Bonnet, took in a 17-year-old Killy, a raw talent, but with tremendous potential, as he explained in this 1990 Sports Illustrated profile of Killy:

I took him on the team in 1960-61, and he never finished a race. 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.

A year later, Bonnet saw evidence of this go-for-broke attitude in a race in Cortina, Italy. Even though Killy was only three weeks before his debut at the World Championships in Chamonix, France, he went “hell-bent” down the slopes, crashing in dramatic style about 180 meters from the finish, immediately getting up and crossing the finish line on one ski. He busted his leg, and missed the World Championships.

The 1964 Innsbruck Winter Games were Killy’s Olympic debut, and he was eligible for all three alpine events. He was actually a favorite in the Giant Slalom at the age of 20, but he lost a binding in that race, fell a the beginning of another, and never showed the promise his coach had seen.

But in 1967, it all came together.

Jean-Claude Killy profileOver the course of 1967, the year before the Grenoble Winter Olympics, Killy had become the most dominant downhill skier in the world. Inspired by the points system of Formula 1 motor racing, where drivers are rewarded for success over time, organizers created the World Cup season for skiing in 1967. And Killy took that first season by storm. Of the 17 world cup slalom, giant slalom and downhill races he competed in, Killy won 12. In all 1967 competitions he participated in, he finished as a top three finalist in 25 of 29 races, coming in first in 19 of those.

Said Killy in this SkiingHistory.org interview, “if the World Cup hadn’t been invented, my 1967 season might not have been what it was. It was a greater achievement than my 1968 gold-medal hat trick at the Grenoble Winter Olympics, for which most people remember me.”

And for good reason. He took the risk, to try new things to gain an edge, even if it meant experimenting in the midst of competition. Here’s how he won his first gold medal in Grenoble, as he explains it to Sports Illustrated:

My start was tremendous, and I took every risk I could find on the course. I also had a little secret I knew about the finish line. Early in the practice runs, I had realized that if I cut a sharp line just at the pole on the right, I could actually gain a couple of meters. I had never taken this line during practice, because I didn’t want anyone to know about it.

As they say, fortune favors the bold.