Inside the mayhem of the newest Olympic sport -- ski cross
Ski cross is part X Games, part downhill and part mano v. mano competition
Groups take their runs together and result is wild, crowd-pleasing heats
Former alpine stars Casey Puckett and Daron Rahlves lead U.S in Vancouver
The starts are crucial in the regulated mayhem of ski cross, the newest Olympic sport. Sometimes the whole race is right there at the outset. A few seconds, the top of the world. You can feel the tension even during a practice run like the one early last December when Casey Puckett and Daron Rahlves were settling into the stalls of a steel gate at the top of a training course at the Telluride Ski Resort. The Olympic qualifying races were just three weeks away and the Vancouver games themselves were looming in less than two months. The snow that had been falling over southwest Colorado for most of the day was erasing the blue dye lines meant to help the racers gauge the contours of the course, which featured a tricky array of banked turns, rollers, jumps and the deep U-shaped trenches right below the gate known as wu-tangs.
"Skiers in the gate!" shouted Tyler Shepherd, the 30-year-old head coach of the U.S. Ski Cross team. A former All-America at Colorado, Shepherd had been a professional racer in both Alpine and ski cross competitions. He'd been one of only two Americans to compete in the first ski cross world championships, held in Ruka, Finland in 2005 and won by Tomas Kraus of the Czech Republic, who has been the dominant ski cross racer for much of the past decade.
Puckett and Rahlves, the best U.S. hope for ski cross medals, were both wearing helmets, red wind pants and official U.S. Ski Team parkas garnished with logos for Visa, Audi, Alka Seltzer, Sprint, Charles Schwab and other corporate sponsors. They fussed with their gloves and poles and kneaded the handles on either side of the gates. Puckett, the slightly taller and heavier man, has a more polished starting technique; he composed himself with visualizations adapted from his golf and bowling routines, sports he considered important parts of his ski cross training regimen. Rahlves, whose training regimen includes bouncing on a pogo stick in his driveway, restively flexed his arms and shuffled his skis.
At 37 and 36, respectively, Puckett and Rahlves are both graybeards of ski racing, with wives, children (two each) and the various responsibilities that can cramp a racer's desire or ability to chase podiums on the World Cup circuit far from home. Rahlves is building a spec house in Truckee, Calif., with his father and his sister, and after days of ski cross training at Telluride, he was up late in his hotel room in the Mountain Village paying contractor bills. Both men have survived horrific crashes. Puckett alone has had five surgeries on his right knee and another on his right shoulder.
And it's not like their résumés need padding. Puckett is a four-time U.S. Olympian (his best result: a seventh-place finish in the slalom at the 1994 Lillehammer games). Vancouver would be an unprecedented fifth Winter Olympics for him. Over the past six years Puckett has emerged as the top American ski cross racer and one of the best in the world, winning two gold medals at the Winter X Games and coming in fifth at the 2009 Ski Cross World Championships in Inawashiro, Japan.
Rahlves is a three-time Olympian and among the most decorated Alpine skiers in U.S. history. He has three alpine World Championship medals, 12 World Cup victories and 28 podium finishes. His crowning achievement came in 2003 when he stunned thousands of Austrians by winning the legendary Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbuhel, becoming only the second American ever to take skiing's most coveted title. Today his name is immortalized on Hahnenkamm Bahn gondola car No. 91 -- a Hahnenkamm tradition -- and crowds in European ski towns treat him like a rock star.
Both men retired from traditional Alpine skiing only to take up ski cross in the dotage of their 30s. They reject the view (and why wouldn't they?) that ski cross is a pastime for geriatric has-beens who can't squeeze into a Lycra speed suit or who lack competitive fire. They see it as a discipline with perils of its own and subtleties uniquely suited to experienced racers. It helps, of course, to have an Alpine background and to know how to hold a line, glide with speed, power smoothly through compression turns and maintain balance in the air. But that's not enough. A ski cross racer has to handle a much wider range of terrain, to navigate in traffic, to have a sense of the flow of the race and to anticipate what the other racers might do.
Ski cross brings an elemental simplicity, a head-to-head joy unlike anything else in skiing. "It's a blast," Puckett said one evening after training in Telluride. His quest for a fifth Olympics has been captured in a 33-minute documentary, Appointment in Vancouver: Six Surgeries, Four Olympics and One Dream. "When I was growing up in Alpine racing," he said, "it didn't matter how much fun you were having, it only mattered how hard you worked."
Sliding into a third gate at Telluride was a 28-year-old ski cross racer named Jean Christophe Rudigoz and known as Biche. Biche and a bunch of other younger ski cross racers were part of a U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association development group invited to train with Puckett and Rahlves. However, the younger skier wasn't ceding the geezers anything. He thought he had a chance to make the Olympic ski cross team, which would be formed after the results of upcoming World Cup events were sorted according to criteria that make collateralized debt obligations seem transparent.
"Skiers ready!" Shepherd shouted. "Attention!"
Even the falling snow seemed to pause for a moment.
Shepherd yanked a lever that released the footboards, and the three racers burst out of the gates, pulling themselves off the handles. They plunged into the wu-tang, then up the far side, cresting like three jets of water in a casino fountain. Sailing over the berm, Rudigoz was slightly ahead, Puckett second, Rahlves third. They sank out of sight in the trough of wu-tang two, then bounded up the far side, in the same order. Atop the third wu-tang, in a move liable to put a recreational skier in traction, they bladed to a halt in a spray of snow. Down off the berm, they shouldered their skis and trudged back up the hill to rehearse the start again.
"We spend 80 percent of our time working on the start," Shepherd explained. "If Daron and Casey get out front, no one is catching them."
Relishing his first-place finish, Biche bumped fists with the coach when he got back to the gate. "I don't have all those patches on my jacket to slow me down," he said, laughing.
Rahlves conferred with Shepherd. "I think I'm not getting high enough over the first wu-tang," he said.
"It's a fine line between going over too low or catching too much air and killing the momentum," Shepherd replied.
Rahlves turned to Biche and said, "You and Casey went higher and had all the momentum on the back side."
"Are you poling on the downslope?" Rahlves asked.
Rahlves had won a gold medal in the 2008 Winter X Games ski cross competition and had finished ninth in the 2009 ski cross World Championships in Japan, but he was still relatively new to the sport and felt he had yet to master the technical nuances of the start. To practice in the off-season he'd built a ski cross starting gate with a plastic run-out over the dirt in his backyard in California.
The trio snapped on their boards and went back to work.
"Skiers ready!" said Shepherd, and after the little refrain, they were off again. Rahlves pulled so hard that one of his gloves came off. It clung to the handle of the gate, ski pole looped over the cuff, as the owner-operator went over the wu-tangs without it.