Aspen’s Puckett too fast for daring skiercross field
COPPER MOUNTAIN – Leave it to a four-time Olympian to tame a skiercross course that some racers said was one of the most dangerous venues they’d ever seen. Aspen’s Casey Puckett, 32, beat a number of his former U.S. Ski Team racing buddies to win the Winter Gravity Games gold medal on Friday, though the field was unexpectedly altered by some morning training-run crashes that knocked three top contenders out of the event and left one, France’s Xavier Kuhn, with a concussion and a swollen-shut eye. Vail’s Eric Archer and Enak Gavaggio also withdrew.Due to the injuries, the remaining racers laid down somewhat of an ultimatum to Gravity officials before the event, collectively saying they might refuse to race if the course wasn’t changed. A 2-hour, 10-minute delay followed, during which time two of the jumps in question were blocked off and the course rerouted. Qualifying heats eventually began, and Puckett later held off silver medalist Zach Crist and Frisco local Jake Fiala to win gold.Puckett took home $10,000 for winning something of a rarity in the gut-checking sport, an all-American final. He took an early lead out of the gate and then held on at the end, relatively unchallenged despite a late-run lapse in focus.
“I started losing concentration toward the bottom, and you don’t want to lose concentration anywhere on this course. But I didn’t hear anyone behind me; I had some breathing room and it helped,” said Puckett, who told the Summit Daily News early in the week that he only entered because of the large prize purse.Puckett, last year’s Winter X Games gold medalist, also won his qualifying and semifinal heats.For Fiala, Friday’s bronze medal (and $2,500) was a nice start to a post-World Cup career that began when he announced his retirement from international alpine racing last week. He was a Colorado Wild Card in Friday’s event, and entered as the No. 15 seed in the 18-racer start list.It didn’t go well early, as he finished fourth in his qualifying heat and had to make the semifinals by way of an aptly titled “last-chance qualifier.” Still, he did what he needed there, then passed Swedish skiercross veteran Eric Andersson – who was racing on borrowed 182-centimeter women’s skis because the airlines lost his 192s – at the last moment to squeak into the six-man final and get in on the money.”That was lucky. My starts were so bad that I was looking for places to pass (Anderson) all run,” said Fiala, who added that he now plans on trying to qualify for the Winter X Games next year.
In the final, the 29-year-old Summit High School graduate started in the worst possible slot but worked his way up from sixth to third, and nearly overtook Crist at the end for silver. Were it not for Crist’s ski pole ending up between Fiala’s legs, Fiala said he would have been able to make the move.Defending X Games gold medalist Reggie Crist, the No. 1 seed, wiped out in the final, as did surprise contender Cody Smith, one of the top skijorers in the world and the only finalist who was not a U.S. Ski Team alum. Winter Park’s Brett Fischer took fourth in the geezer event of the Gravity Games: The average age of Friday’s competitors was 31.According to Zach Crist, despite the talented and accomplished field, the abrupt jumps on the Planet Snow Design-sculpted course had him wondering if competing was a good move.”I looked at the course this morning and was just like, I’m not racing on this,” said Crist, one of three Winter X skiercross gold medalists to race on Friday, along with his brother and Puckett. “If they’d kept those (two) hits I would’ve been standing on the other side of the fence watching people just blow themselves out. I don’t think anybody would’ve raced, to be honest. Everyone was just like, ‘No chance. You fix it or you don’t have a TV show.'”Men’s Skiercross Results
1. Casey Puckett2. Zach Crist 3. Jakub Fiala 4. Brett Fischer 5. Cody Smith
6. Reggie Crist 7. Eric Andersson 8. Christian Questad9. Cliff Bennett Vail, Colorado
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.