What do alpine ski racers do after they’ve been to the Olympics, won World Cup races and National Championships, had a couple of kids and reached their late 30s with knees that still work? Retire? Not exactly.
Skiing celebs Daron Rahlves and Casey Puckett did retire. From racing. But then a new kind of race started to gain momentum: ski cross. Sort of like a Chinese downhill, or roller derby on the snow, ski cross lured both men back into the starting gate to compete at the X Games and the Jeep King of the Mountain tour. And now that ski cross is debuting at the Winter Olympics this February in Vancouver, Puckett and Rahlves have found themselves back on the U.S. Ski Team, this time as the team’s oldest members. “I’m actually older than my coach,” laughs Puckett. “And I’m older than my ski technicians.”
It’s not just age, but experience that put Rahlves and Puckett at the front of the pack. Both athletes say that their race experience and knowing how to handle speed helps with ski cross. Rahlves says, “The first objective is to try and get out of the start as fast as you can, so you have the lead and you can run the line that’s the fastest, the optimal line.”
Looking at the course they are training on in Telluride right now, it’s hard to see any similarity between ski cross and its more genteel predecessor, alpine racing. It looks almost like an obstacle course, with impossibly-tight banked turns and menacing jumps. Four skiers race at a time, elbow to elbow, at an average speed of 65 mph and it seems inevitable that someone will crash. Sixty-five miles per hour. You’d want more than just a helmet and a bib—you’d want an airbag.
There is one thing that ski cross and alpine racing have in common: the rush. Ski cross gives Puckett and Rahlves that same feeling that alpine racing did, the headiness of going so fast that you weave in and out of control, at the absolute threshold of your ability and just outside of your safe zone. Puckett’s infamous crash last year at Grindelwald (check out the You Tube clip of that crush) is a reminder of just how steep the consequences can be, but as seasoned racers, they try to use the adrenaline buzz to their advantage. “Am I still nervous in the starting gate? Sure,” says Puckett. “You don’t want to step in the gate and not be nervous. You want to have some butterflies, but you just want to make sure they’re flying in formation.”
You can follow Rahlves and Puckett’s Olympic bid at http://www.fis-ski.com.