Crossing into the future
Vail, CO Colorado
From the stands and on TV, this year’s X Games skicross looked just like the ones in years past.
The bright-colored bibs were just as bright, and the crashes were just as big.
But a few hours before the competition unfolded, the practice session brought a different picture to the finish area.
Racers came down in flocks, and when they exited the race corral with their country’s flag pasted on clothing and gear, they talked about the run.
There were, believe it or not, teammates. A largely individual sport, skicross has taken a turn in the team direction. In November 2006, the International Olympic Committee announced that skicross would be included in the 2010 Vancouver Games. At the 2007 X Games and through the other skicross events last season, competitors were mostly on their own, but at the end of last season, the Canadians jumped into the fold and formed a squad.
“We’re coming together nice,” said Canadian Stan Hayer, who took second at this year’s X Games. “We can run together down the course, which is a huge advantage. We can see the passing zones better than the people who run by themselves. There are a few other teams out there, and once they piece everything together, man, the Olympics is going to be nuts. It’s going to be so strong.”
While the Canadians named a team last spring, held camps in the summer and traveled as a full squad to competitions, most other countries are getting things rolling. This fall, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association named Tyler Shepherd, a former skicross athlete, to be the first U.S. Skicross team coach.
“I was hired in November, which is kind of an unusual time to create a position like this that late in the season,” Shepherd said. “It’s one of those scary things for any organization. It’s a new thing. ‘How do we get involved? Who do we hire for our experts, and how much support do we give it?’ We’re seeing that a lot from other countries who have jumped on board.”
Countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Russia and Norway are just getting their teams together, but even the Canadians, who got into the game first, are still working through some kinks.
“I’m glad it happened now. We’ve had four guys who have done it all the time, we have coaches who have done it, and it’s still been a huge headache putting it together,” Hayer said. “There are growing pains with any team, and we’re glad we did it now instead of the year before the Olympics.”
Although it has a coach, the U.S. skicross team, which is part of the Freestyle side of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, isn’t really a team yet.
“We got a call in November, and they say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a coach now, and this is a program,'” said Friso’s Jake Fiala, one of the top American skicross competitors.
With very little time on his hands, Shepherd had to make some decisions.
“I chose not to go right out of the gate and name a team,” he said. “I set a criteria that I thought would be fair to the athletes.”
And there were other issues, too.
“I have a small budget,” Shepherd said. “I can go to key events throughout the world with top athletes and try to get them there and score World Cup points and show a presence on the tour.”
Before the X Games, Shepherd brought several athletes, including Fiala and Aspen’s Casey Puckett, to several World Cup races in Europe.
“The Canadians definitely got a jump on the rest of the world as far as pulling an Olympic team together and getting the funding,” said Casey Puckett, one of the top American skicross athletes. “I think it definitely helps to have a good team environment and good guys to work with. Hopefully the U.S. will be able to step it up and get some more funding and pull together a good team.”
So what’s at the top of Shepherd’s wish list?
“That’s kind of a no-brainer ” staff,” Shepherd said. “I’m going to lean toward a technician. It’s such an important element.”
Additionally, Shepherd hopes to find consistent training for the team other than the training day and qualifying runs at contests.
“I’m trying to figure out who is building the Olympic start gate. I’d love to have that. It’s a huge advantage to keep training in the start gate,” he said.
The talent base is certainly deep for the Americans, and they have the results to prove it.
“If the Olympics were tomorrow, we would have a shot at a sweep and a good shot at two of the top three medals,” Puckett said.
At the X Games, Daron Rahlves won, while Puckett was third.
One of the issues, however, is getting to the Olympics. With this weekend’s World Cup race in Deer Valley, Utah, marking the first International Ski Federation event on North American soil and the next one coming in 2009 in Canada, athletes likely will need to hit the European circuit to qualify for the 2010 games.
“We’ll continue to have to go over there,” Fiala said. “It’s a nice dream to have that we can just stay here and qualify for the Olympics, but I just don’t see it happening.”
The Jeep King of the Mountain Tour is trying to get its races sanctioned as FIS events, which would be ideal for Rahlves.
“Right now, it’s kind of a convenience tour for me,” said Rahlves, the former U.S. alpine skier who retired two years ago. “I like doing all the ones in the U.S. I’m not going to go to Europe or anywhere and trying to qualify for our team. … I’ve been traveling a long time; that’s why I decided to stop ski racing.”
After this weekend’s race, there are two more King of the Mountain races and a slew of World Cups. Fiala and Puckett will be heading back to Europe in March.
For the remaining domestic events, Shepherd will be scouting for talent, and
he plans on naming a team in the spring. The team will be mostly men, as the women’s side doesn’t have a large athlete pool from which to draw. Most skicross athletes have a strong alpine background in speed disciplines.
“I’d like to see more women get involved,” Shepherd said. “People perceive it as being more dangerous than it is. They just see the X Games.”
Shepherd also would like to see some lower-level races for skicross, as there aren’t many aside from the Jeep Tour and the X Games domestically.
“I’m starting to lay groundwork, to lay out a feeder program like the (North American Cup races),” Shepherd said. “Now that we’re so close to 2010, that’s a huge priority ” how can I field a medal-contending team? How can I do that from now until then?”
Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.