Inside the mayhem of ski cross (cont.)
Though it now enjoys the imprimatur of Olympic respectability, ski cross has its roots in the raffish ethos of the snowboard culture that emerged in the 1970s and those earlier, mass ski races known in the cheerful racism of the day as "Chinese downhills" -- the most famous being the White Rush race at St. Anton am Alberg, the birthplace of modern skiing. (A parody version was filmed in the 1984 movie Hot Dog.) Ski cross owes much of its recent growth and popularity to the tub-thumping of ESPN's X Games, the so-called "anti-Olympics" which began featuring non-traditional winter sports in 1997, as well as the Lord of the Boards races organized by Chris "Uncle E" Ernst at Lake Tahoe's Homewood Mountain Resort, and a lucrative North American pro tour that had sponsors like Jeep and Honda until the U.S. economy schussed off a cliff. In 2002 the International Ski Federation (FIS) began including ski cross races in sanctioned freestyle World Cup competitions. Its place in the Vancouver games was pretty much assured after the high ratings and enthusiastic crowds that greeted the Olympic debut of snowboard cross in 2006 in Torino, Italy.
The appeal of ski cross hardly needs explaining. While the courses are shorter and the speeds about half of what skiers attain in Alpine downhills, spectators don't need a clock splitting hundredths of a second to know the winner. After preliminary time trials typically winnow the field down to 32, racers run against each other four at a time through a series of knockout heats. At the start they vie for the "hole shot": to be at the front of the pack when the racers are funneled into a line. From there on the contest is as tactical as a chess match. Skiers block, draft and try to pass. Grabbing or deliberately bumping isn't allowed, but contact is inevitable, and it doesn't take much to precipitate mayhem. A tangled pole, a crossed tip, a poorly negotiated jump, any little uh-oh moment can trigger a race-changing wipeout.
With telegenic havoc lurking at every turn, it's the rare humanitarian who doesn't find ski cross irresistibly watchable. YouTube is brimming with crash porn and announcers moaning, "Oh, you can't even look." Of course what they mean is you can't not look; even Albert Schweitzer might find it difficult to avert his eyes. The forbidden pleasure of someone else's suffering is signaled in the breezy, pain-belittling lingo of disaster that has racers biffing and star-fishing and tomahawking and throwing the proverbial yard sale -- i.e., skis, poles, goggles and long johns strewn all over the mountain.
Even the participants become connoisseurs of carnage. On his blog Rahlves recently held a contest for best crash photo, with a helmet for the winner. On his blog Puckett directs readers to the YouTube video of his spectacular yard sale during a ski-cross heat at Grindelwald, Switzerland, in March 2008. He was in the lead, closing in on a victory, when Florian Noyrey, a French skier in third place, sailed off a jump and into the Swedish skier in second, Tommy Eliasson, who then slid and, as Rahlves puts it, T-boned Puckett, sending him rolling over the snow like a runaway log. He came to a halt in a litter of equipment, face down, unconscious, with a separated shoulder and with blood leaking out of his nose. "They thought I was dead," he said. He was helicoptered to a hospital in Interlaken, done only for the season.
In Appointment in Vancouver, Puckett shrugs off the physical toll of his crashes as if they'd happened to somebody else. "Pain," he ventures, "is just weakness leaving the body."
Of all people, it's the guy who cuts Puckett's hair, a popular Aspen salon owner named Jeff Novak, who recoils at the slaughter in the snowy coliseum. "The carnage last year was unbelievable," Novak says.
"Do you like the carnage?" Puckett asks.
"No! I think it's horrible. Those are people's lives, you know? Careers."
"Yeah," Puckett says, "but everyone who gets into it knows the risks involved."
Puckett has been on skis since he was three, following the tracks of his older brother Chris. His mother was the head ski coach at the Crested Butte, Colo., Community School. Casey dominated competition as a junior racer, winning the world junior slalom championship in 1991 when he was 19. In his first Olympic appearance, a year later at Albertville, he finished 25th in men's giant slalom. But his youthful Alpine promise was never fulfilled, and the results he amassed in his twenties left him frustrated and full of doubt.
"I always felt like I was born to ski, that I had an innate ability to be the best in the world," he said one evening, sitting in the lobby of the Peaks Hotel in Telluride's Mountain Village. "But when I was competing in Alpine events deep down in my core I wasn't sure I was good enough. It affected my skiing."
His Olympic pinnacle came at Lillehammer in 1994 when he finished a half second from a bronze medal in the slalom. He retired after a disillusioning performance at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and thought he was done with racing. He was 30 years old. He bought a T-shirt printing business in Aspen and became a father, curiously relieved to discover that his daughters, Riley and Annalisa, obliged him to think about somebody other than himself.
Invited to coach at Aspen Valley Ski Club, Puckett saw the corrosive effects of self-doubt on young racers and began to appreciate the damage it had done to his own career. On a lark, in 2004, he entered a qualifying race for a ski cross event in Taos, N.M. The race was part of the Jeep King of the Mountain tour, an invitation-only pro circuit featuring an international cast of former champions including the U.S. racer Tommy Moe, who'd accomplished what Puckett had dreamed of at Lillehammer, winning Olympic gold in the downhill and silver in the super-G. The tour held a few spots open for local qualifiers. Puckett got in and then aced the finals. Just as thrilling was the check they handed him.
"Ski cross started off for me as a hobby," Puckett recalled. "It was like being on a softball team. I'd go and compete and get a check for $10,000. I never thought it would turn into a chance to go back to the Olympics." He kept winning qualifiers and then stealing the main event. Growing up in Crested Butte he'd loved riding in motocross races, and the head-to-head format of this wintry variant seemed to free some ability that had been fettered most of his Alpine career. Puckett raced well enough against all the "legendary" skiers on the pro tour to win the overall title of the 2004 Jeep King of the Mountain World Professional Championship. The prize was $25,000 and a new set of wheels. "As an Alpine racer you have to be supremely confident that you can beat everyone in the race," Puckett said. "The difference in ski cross is there is somebody next to you. I'm like a race horse. If somebody gets his nose in front of me, I want to get my nose in front of him."
In the early days, racers with Alpine pedigrees who entered ski cross events often looked down their noses at the competition, like Pauillac vintners sniffing at Algerian wines. How hard could it be to outrun a bunch of scuffling free-stylers who'd maybe never worn a racing suit or faced the pressure of a World Cup? "The Alpine racers' outlook on those skiers was that they weren't good enough to race," said Puckett. "I put a lot of pressure on myself to win in the X Games ski cross, because it wouldn't look good if I lost. I probably didn't give the skiers competing there the respect they deserved. But ski cross has evolved now to the point where the fields are fast and talented and deep. And the best evidence of how good the competition is is that Daron Rahlves came straight from the Olympics in Torino and got shellacked in ski cross."
Still one of the fastest Alpine skiers in the world after a phenomenal 13-year career, Rahlves retired at the top of his game in 2006. He'd won no medals in the Olympics, but he finished third in his last Hahnenkamm that January, and in March he won the U.S. National Championship in super-G and finished second in the downhill. His final Alpine season he had one World Cup victory and two podium finishes. But after more than 350 FIS-sanctioned races, he wanted to spend more time at home and start a family with his wife, Michelle. (They now have young twins: a son, Dreyson, and a daughter, Miley.)
"I miss downhill racing," Rahlves said in Telluride. "I know if I had the time to commit and prepare, I could be competitive at the highest levels."