Growing up in Missoula wasn't easy for Annette Lamy Chappuis.
As one of seven children she worked hard for nearly everything she owned. Even at age 14 she spent most her time earning money when she wasn't at school.
The payoff was she made enough to go skiing. She cut her teeth at the old Marshall Mountain site, then later became a "Snowbowl girl."
Little did she realize back then how much her passion for skiing would impact her life. How it would define her and her future family.
After graduating from Missoula Hellgate and attending the University of Montana for two years, Annette made a life-changing decision in 1981. She bolted to Europe to ski the Alps and see the world, and in the process met a Frenchman who became her husband.
Annette and Daniel were back in Missoula in 1986, working temporary jobs and hoping to find better ones, when she gave birth to a son named Jason. That's the same Jason Lamy Chappuis Sports Illustrated pegged to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics on Sunday in Nordic combined, a mixture of cross-country and ski jumping.
Jason will compete for France, but even his own countrymen believe it's his American background - he learned how to ski in the States while mom and dad worked as ski instructors - that makes him such a strong competitor.
Strong enough to lead the overall FIS World Cup standings by a wide margin. Strong enough to mine one or possibly even two golds in Vancouver.
And close enough to western Montana through his familiarity and family that we can call him one of our own.
"He's got a very strong attachment to Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley where my mother lives," Annette said. "Montana is a part of who he is and he has that same need I have to go back every two years and connect. It's kind of a physical need."
Jason loves visiting grandma Dorothy Ashby in Stevensville and aunt Margaret "Mug" Browne in Polson. He enjoys boating at Flathead Lake and riding horses at his uncle's ranch near Alder.
Annette, Margaret and Dorothy will all be in Vancouver pulling for Jason. Dorothy, 74, doesn't get around real well these days. But she'll drag along her oxygen tank because she knows what it means to Jason.
"Even in the (2006 Winter) Olympics in (Turin) Italy I could not believe when Jason jumped a fence just to come over and say hello to us," Margaret said. "He got in trouble by his coach, but he did it anyway because he hadn't seen me or his grandmother in a while."
Jason's best finish in 2006 was fourth, and he blended with the masses as an unknown. He'll have no such luck this year, with a European media buzz following him everywhere and a major Eurosports television channel adopting him as a favorite son at age 23.
"It's almost not always fun with the national and international press," admits Annette, who believes her son's best shot at gold will come on Feb. 25 in the Nordic combined large hill.
Annette is proud Jason has all but locked up a 2010 World Cup title. She's even more pleased he has stayed grounded in the teachings of she and her husband.
"Jason's motto has become - and he told us we're the ones that told him this every single day when he was in school - do the best you can and that's good enough," Annette said.
"He's completely capable of medaling in the events he's in at Vancouver because he's No. 1 in the world. But the Olympics are the event of the day and everything has to come together. Whatever happens, we're really proud."
Likewise, Montanans have reason to be proud of their native son, regardless of the colors he wears on the slopes.
Note: Sunday's Nordic combined competition will be televised on KECI 13 from noon to 5 p.m.
Sports columnist Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or email@example.com.