Rahlves, Puckett get another shot at Olympic medal
Vail, CO Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado – They prefer to look at it as new business, not unfinished business.
Casey Puckett and Daron Rahlves each have been near the pinnacle of their old sport, Alpine skiing, but never all the way to the peak. They have never stood on an Olympic podium.
This pair of 30-something veterans has one more chance, in the new Olympic discipline of skicross, where the action is rougher but their chances might be better.
“Winning an Olympic medal would be a huge deal for me, to be sure,” Rahlves said. “I sacrificed a lot to be an Olympic downhill champion. That didn’t work out for me. This wouldn’t make up for that loss, but it would feel good to win.
“It always feels good to win.”
To even get to the starting line, though, both must overcome injuries that are inevitable to one of the most dangerous sports on the Olympic program. In the past month, both have been involved in nasty wrecks that are as much a part of skicross as sweeping is to curling.
Puckett dislocated his shoulder Jan. 13 in a collision at a race in France, then reaggravated it during a qualifying run last week at the Winter X Games. Rahlves, meanwhile, lost balance and careened off the course at the X Games, dislocating his right hip.
Bill Marolt, CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, said he is optimistic both will be healthy enough to compete Feb. 21, when skicross makes its Olympic debut.
When the 37-year-old Puckett left skiing in 2002 and when Rahlves left in 2006, both sincerely thought their Olympic careers were over. Together, they are two of the longest-tenured, most successful skiers in U.S. history.
Starting at 19, Puckett became a regular on the U.S. Olympic Alpine team, making it four times – his best finish a seventh-place in slalom in 1994. He retired from downhill after the 2002 Games.
Rahlves won 12 World Cup events, the 2001 super-G world championship and a pair of medals at worlds in 2005 over a 13-year span. He went to three Olympics, and won the prestigious Hahnenkamm downhill. He is, according to the U.S. Ski Team Web site, “known as the most successful male downhiller” ever in the United States.
“I had had enough,” the 36-year-old Rahlves said about his decision to retire.
Both he and Puckett had come to grips with the empty spots in their resumes. But soon after they retired, skicross all but knocked on their back doors.
“I just wanted to explore more of the sport,” said Rahlves, who has 2-year-old twins he wanted to see grow up. “And it was convenient, too. It wasn’t like I had to commit a lot of time to being on the road, training camps, going to Europe and being away from home. When I first got into skicross, it was like racing this pro tour that was in Tahoe anyway. I could sleep in my own bed. Be with my own family.”
Around the time he was easing back into skicross, it was clear the International Olympic Committee was looking to add events to a winter program that was lacking – especially sports that appealed to younger viewers.
Snowboarding was among the IOC’s attempts to push the Olympics ahead. Soon after snowboardcross debuted in 2006 – four people jostling for position as they speed down a 3,500-foot course with potential trainwrecks at nearly every corner – skicross looked like a natural.
It was added for the 2010 Games, and so, the Olympic quest resumes for two of America’s best skiers.
Puckett got into skicross for much the same reason as Rahlves – because it was convenient and he was good – and immediately started dominating. His curiosity piqued when he was coaching a ski team in his hometown of Aspen, Puckett got back into the sport and quickly started winning – gold at the X Games and dominating on the American tours.
“Put yourself in my shoes,” Puckett said. “I’ve been to four Olympics already and come home with no hardware. Now I’m at the top of my sport, and my sport’s going to the Olympics for the first time. I mean, what would you do?”
What Puckett did was suck it up for a couple more years. Now, he has one more chance to win the hardware.
“I like the format, have a lot of fun doing it,” said Puckett, involved in a nasty crash in 2008 in which he appeared lifeless, lying on the ground, after being tripped up at the bottom of the course. “It’s a little dangerous, so I’m starting to have second thoughts about going on much further. But coming back, that was a no-brainer for me.”
He and Puckett are not alone among the older set extending careers at the Olympics. Including the Americans, six of the world’s top 12 ranked men in skicross are former downhill skiers in their 30s.
That has brought a touch of the Alpine sensibility to skicross – not that everyone’s happy about that.
The main debate is over what racers wear. Part of the notion of “freestyle” is the idea of taking it away from the highly technical mode of Alpine, which includes – among other things – tightly fitted racing uniforms. This season, the International Skiing Federation had to strictly enforce rules to make sure skicrossers wore two-piece uniforms that didn’t have any rubber-like materials and have at least an 8-centermeter gap when pinched around the lower leg.
“It used to just be you’d go out there, have a little fun, race to the bottom, throw some elbows, get wild and crazy,” Rahlves said. “Now, there are more rules you have to follow. But whenever there’s a big title on the line, or a medal in the Olympics, everyone’s going to push the envelope, so you have to set rules to make it fair.”
In a fair fight, and if they’re both healthy, either Rahlves or Puckett could win a medal – the medal that has escaped them for all these years.
They say they didn’t get back in it just for that.
“It’s not going to kill me if I don’t win,” Puckett said. “But it’s certainly something I’d love to accomplish.”
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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.