But as ski cross grows in relevance and prestige—Olympic acceptance being a key badge of acknowledgement—it is colored by a singular oddity for a new sport: It is growing in a top-down way.
Relatively few races at the grassroots level give young racers the opportunity to develop their skills and grow up with the sport. As a result, Olympic ski cross races will be populated almost entirely with veteran skiers moving over from the alpine racing ranks—not hot, young up-and-coming crossers. That explains, at least in part, the presence of Rahlves and Puckett. Tomas Kraus, last year’s World Cup overall champion, fits the cross biographical template perfectly: After ho-hum results as an alpine racer, the 35-year-old Czech has found success in a late-career switch to ski cross.
The Olympics may change that pattern. “It’s been a slow process educating resorts and local ski clubs on how to run an event,” Shepherd says. “But maybe they’ll see the Olympics and start building courses.” And maybe in the near future, kids will grow up as cross racers.
But for now, cross is a country for old men. And if it were all about racing credentials, Rahlves, with his intuitive brilliance at finding speed on course, would be a short-odds favorite for the Olympic podium. Qualification rounds, when it’s just one man against the clock, tell the story: In the two World Cup events he entered last year, he registered the third-fastest times in qualifying runs.
But the real crux of cross is the very unalpine first few seconds—the mayhem that ensues when four guys bust out of the gate. The start is cross at its warrior-mentality best: a frantic flurry of poling, flying elbows, the metallic staccato of skis whacking against one another and the occasional full-body smackdown. Too often, Rahlves has found himself sucking the exhaust of bigger guys muscling their way to the front. And trying to play catch-up, heat after heat, is ultimately a losing proposition in cross.
That’s why Rahlves has been working on an upper-body strength—pull-ups with an extra 45 pounds, for example—that might have been excessive for alpine racing but is necessary for powerful poling out of the start. Maybe that strength will steer him through those few seconds of mayhem and onto his first Olympic podium.
He claims the Olympics don’t matter that much. He says he’s doing ski cross just for the fun of it—“rocketing out of the gate and taking those berms, turns and airs in pursuit of fun and a good battle.” Maybe so, but the Olympic downplay doesn’t sound entirely convincing. Who wouldn’t want an Olympic medal, especially a guy still without one but so deserving? It sure would be a nice thing for the old man to show off to those twins back home.