World-class skiers made Vail world-class, too
Beginning in 1964, when the U.S. stars were Jimmie Heuga and Billy Kidd, we scheduled an event nearly every year. I found many lifelong friends among these great racers.
For example, Karl Schranz, the rugged Austrian, became a respected friend – but not until after the Vail Ski Patrol pulled him off the hill and brought him to my office because he had jumped out of Chairlift 1. The giant slalom course was directly under the lift, and Karl didn’t see any reason why he should have to wait until the chair reached the top to get a closer look. I gave him a short, stern lecture. Karl barked back, and I snarled that I would see that he was disbarred from all races unless he abided by Vail’s safety regulations. Angrily, he agreed. Now, years later, we laugh about that confrontation.
Karl was a magnificent skier with miraculous longevity: He won his first world-class downhill in 1959, when he was 19, and his 19th in 1973, when he was 33. When he began racing, downhill racers wore wooden skis and averaged less than 50 mph. When he finally retired, skis were made of metal or fiberglass and racers hit speeds of more than 80 mph.
Then there was the coach of the French women’s team, Honore Bonnet, a crafty fellow who would do anything to win. Once at Vail he brought his entire giant slalom team to the start gate late, claiming they had overslept – all eight racers and several coaches.
Could that be? No. The weather had changed drastically in the hour before the race, and Bonnet had sent them en masse to the wax room to change wax. The French women scored better than anyone in the race, and when I was handing out the prizes later in the day, I called Bonnet to the platform and gave him a large alarm clock so his team wouldn’t “oversleep” again.
During one of our early races, some members of the French ski team drove to Glenwood Springs, 60 miles west, and bought cowboy hats and a pistol. On the way back, they used the pistol to take pot shots at geese on the Colorado River and got stopped by an irate state patrolman. It took some smooth talking from Vail Associates to straighten out the mess.
Hi jinks aside, the French skiers were the cream of the crop in those years, athletically and socially. No one was better in both areas than Jean-Claude Killy, who went on to win three gold medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics. He was the epitome of Alpine ski racing – the crown prince of his sport – as well as a young man of dignity, grace, and humor -always humor.
I remember skiing the Back Bowls with Killy and his teammate Leo Lacroix. Killy was complaining about the way his left ski felt in the turns. We stopped at the top of Ricky’s Ridge in Sundown Bowl, and Killy asked if anyone had a nickel. I did and gave it to him. He promptly loosened his bindings, slid the nickel under the sole of his left boot, fastened the bindings, and proceeded to do the most magnificent set of powder turns I had ever seen.
“See what a mere 5 cents can do when it’s properly used?” he said.
We oohed and aahed that this tiny adjustment could spell for Killy the difference between mere excellence and perfection. Or did it? A week or so later it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, he had been kidding.
But, in fact, when it came to Killy, nothing was too outrageous to believe when it involved skiing. In his first four years of competition, from 1964 to 1967, he won all the legendary European races: the Arlberg-Kandahar, the Hahnenkamm and the Lauberhorn. Then he won the first World Cup competition in 1967, with a massive 225 points – the maximum possible under the rules that year. The next year he won the World Cup by a staggering 111 points over the runner-up.
Following his Olympic blowout in 1968, Killy retired from ski racing at the age of 24. In 1973 he came out of retirement for a single season of professional racing on Bob Beattie’s pro circuit and won more races than anyone that year. Then having shown the world he was still “King Killy,” he retired again.
I consider Killy the greatest athlete who skied at Vail during the glory years of the 1960s and early 1970s.
The following is the 51st installment of the Vail Daily’s serialization of “Vail: Triumph of a Dream” by Vail Pioneer and Founder Pete Seibert. This excerpt comes from Chapter 10, entitled “The Glory Years: 1963-1976.”The book can be purchased at the Colorado Ski Museum, as well as bookstores and other retailers throughout the Vail Valley.
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Vail’s updated plans regarding the state guidelines and isolation housing requirements is one of several pieces of information guests are waiting on heading into the 2020-21 season.