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Inside the mayhem of the newest Olympic sport -- ski cross

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."

Biche nodded.

"Are you poling on the downslope?" Rahlves asked.

"Yes."

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.

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."

Rahlves grew up in Northern California, and by age 12 he was spending winters ski racing and summers bombing around on a Jet Ski. In 1993, the year he was named to the U.S. Ski Team, he was also the 440 Super Stock Jet Ski Expert World Champion. He expected success right away in World Cup competition, as he'd come in fourth when he was 21 in a super-G race in Kvitfjell Norway. But five years went by before he finally won, in a downhill on the same mountain.

Ski cross intrigued him because it seemed something he could do without spending too much time in Europe and without having to be fanatical about the shape he was in. "Ski cross doesn't take the commitment level of training, testing and time away from home that Alpine racing does," he said. His first year, however, he got some hard lessons to the contrary, many courtesy of Puckett.

"Casey and I have known each other for a long time," Rahlves said. "I didn't like him so much at first. I was always crashing, and he was winning. At a race in 2007 in Sun Valley, I was making a pass on an outside line and he looked back and cut left and crossed my skis. I crashed into the fence. It was one thing after another that first year. I wanted to go out and beat Puckett, and it seemed like he'd go to every final. Now we're working together more than ever. I'm the kid, trying to learn. I've been asking him about how he moves his feet, whether he shoots his feet forward in the start. I always was keeping my feet back. I said, 'Casey, do you focus on shooting your feet forward during the start?' He said, 'Just do it naturally.'"

After six ski cross races Rahlves finally broke through at the Winter X Games in Aspen in January 2008, beating the master Czech-mater Tomas Kraus and the defending champion, Puckett. Rahlves went to three ski cross World Cup races in North America that year but didn't win, which ski cross team coach Tyler Shepherd sees as a tribute to the undersung merits of the sport. "Daron is one of the fastest skiers in the world," Shepherd said. "The fact that he hasn't won a World Cup ski cross race yet legitimizes our sport."

Four days before Christmas, the first World Cup ski cross race of the 2009-10 season was held at Innichen, in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy. Puckett, 0 for 14 in World Cup ski cross races, skied well in the qualifying run and made it through his heats to the finals. But he drew a poor starting position and couldn't overcome the disadvantage on a course that was shorter than normal because the Italians Alps were pressed for snow. Still, third place, a podium finish, was an auspicious start.

"It's not an easy feat these days to get a podium in ski cross, so I can be very happy with that," Puckett wrote on his blog. "There are some big names behind me ... We have another race tomorrow on the same hill with qualifying happening on the same day. It will be a long day, but I have a good feeling right now and I am very hungry for my first World Cup win! But now it's time for some pasta."

Rahlves came in 13th the first day at Innichen; Biche Rudigoz was 53rd. None of the three fared any better on the same course the next day: Puckett was 18th, Rahlves 21st and Rudigoz, whose Olympics hopes were a longshot to begin with, 56th. Perhaps more ominous for American Olympic medal hopes in ski cross was the success of the Swiss skier Michael Schmid, who won both races.

Rahlves got a measure of revenge the next week at the race in St. Johann in the Austrian Alps. He got through to the finals, but then, as he wrote on his blog, "I got tangled up skating to the first turn and was in fourth. This became the most aggressive run I've had in ski cross with lots of contact and pushing the line to cut off and pass Schmid and then [Canada's David] Duncan. ..." Rahlves sliced across the finish in second behind Germany's Simon Stickl. The result was enough to ensure him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, and he went home to Truckee to hang out with his wife and kids and their Siberian husky, Chevy.

What Puckett got four days later at Les Contamines was a yet another lesson in the fickleness of ski cross fortune. Whom the gods would send to rehab five weeks before the Olympics with a separated left shoulder they first dangle on the brink of a World Cup breakthrough. Since training camp at Telluride, Rahlves and Shepherd and everyone else had been telling Puckett he was due, his World Cup 0-for was bound to end. At Les Contamines he was racing in the finals against the French skier Xavier Kuhn, Canada's StanleyHayer and his old nemesis Tomas Kraus. Puckett described the race and the carnage a few days later in a blog entry from the waiting room of the Steadman Hawkins Clinic at Vail, Colo.:

I have never in my life experienced such a dramatic change of fortunes in such a short amount of time. ... I'm skiing great, if I can just get one good start today I think I can win. Starter says, "Racers ready ... Attention ... GO!" I think, "Good start ...Yes! I'm in the lead ...I won the start ...yes, yes, yes ... now just ski well and you got it ...(no thoughts, just automatic skiing until the bottom of the course) ... there's no one behind you, you've got it ... get over this double and you're there ... uh-oh ... you're back and rotated ... just get to the gate ... c'mon legs ... you can make it ... (as my tips hit the gate panel) no, you can't ...(as my face hits the ground) damn! You're not gonna win the race ... (as I'm flying upside down and backwards through the air) oh, this isn't good ... this is gonna hurt ... (wham, boom, bang)." Race Commentator yells, "Kuhn gagne! Kuhn gagne!" "Kuhn wins! Kuhn wins!" I groan. I try to move and feel a sharp pain in my shoulder ... "Oh my god, I think I just broke my clavicle ... I'm done for the year ... my run at the Olympics is over." I sit up and look at my ski, which is almost broken in two ... I let out three primeval screams ... I just went from the top of the world to nothing, in a tenth of a second. I'm now waiting for the results of the MRI. I'm actually optimistic after talking to [the doctor]. He thinks I may still have a shot. I know I'm in for some intense therapy and rehab. I will be missing some races. But my dreams of a fifth Olympic appearance are still alive.

The day after the big storm cleared at the Telluride training camp, Dec. 9, Rahlves and Puckett took a run with about 20 kids from the Telluride Ski and Snowboard Club. When they'd all disembarked at the top of Lift 4, Puckett shouted, "OK, kids, let's lay some rails!" and took off on the cat track leading a pack of fearless adolescents down to a roped-off section of the upper Misty Maiden trail.

High up on Misty Maiden, at the top of what would be a World Cup parallel giant slalom course, Rahlves had a gleam in his eye like the one he would have later when he signed posters at the Hop Garden restaurant in the Mountain Village, drawing Sharpie lines down a photo of some lethal local couloir and scribbling, "Ski it if you dare!" He got the club kids all lined up for what looked like a mass ski cross start.

"Five, four, three, two, one!" The line went off like bombs, kids ripping with jubilant expertise through the fresh snow. The unpredictability of a trail swarming with young maniacs seemed the perfect sort of training exercise for a ski cross racer. Rahlves waited a few seconds and then sliced through the pack like a machete, masterfully swerving, blindingly fast. The kids tried to follow.

Everyone reconvened at the ski-cross practice gate on the lower section of the trail. The club kids were quivering happily as Puckett and Rahlves guided them into the starting gates and showed them how to launch.

"Skiers ready!"

"Attention!"

The kids went off flawlessly in threes and fours except for one young girl who lost speed halfway up the first wu-tang and slid back into the trough. A bold 14-year-old named Alex Dwight bet Rahlves that he could beat him over the wu-tangs. An arrangement was made. If Alex could knock off one of America's most decorated alpine skiers, Rahlves would pay him $10. And if Alex lost he would have to carry the old guy's skis from the bottom of the lift back to the tech room, where the ski-cross team had been spending afternoons experimenting with waxes and evaluating various models of the long and heavy boards to which ski-cross racers are partial.

"Skiers ready!"

Alex craned forward, ready to go.

"Attention!"

He got a good jump out of the gate, unaware that Rahlves was spotting him a one wu-tang head start -- a third of the race. Alex flashed over the first wu-tang. He flashed over the second. He had the lead, he was halfway up the third and final wu-tang, he was a 10th of a second from the top of the world, a win he'd be talking about maybe forever ...

When everybody had run the course, all the Telluride club kids piled together on the slope of the last banked turn for a group picture with Daron and Casey. Then they skied the last hundred yards to the bottom of Lift 4, unsnapped their bindings and headed off in various directions. Alex Dwight had to meet his father, Jon, a broker at the Telluride Real Estate Corporation. But first he had to lug a pair of Atomic GS skis under the gondola and across the plaza to the tech room with an unencumbered Olympian beside him. Alex told his little brother later that the skis weighed like 80 pounds, and dang it could have turned out differently. He was so close to winning.

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