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Cross Communication: U.S. ski cross racers talk crashing, rubbing and recognition

On Jan. 12, in a break between World Cup ski cross events, Jake Fiala, Daron Rahlves, Casey Puckett and coach Tyler Shepherd paused to catch up with each other, joke around and answer questions.
On Jan. 12, in a break between World Cup ski cross events, Jake Fiala, Daron Rahlves, Casey Puckett and coach Tyler Shepherd paused to catch up with each other, joke around and answer questions.

The ski cross (or, as many American racers call it, skiercross) teleconference took places as all but Rahlves were in Europe after participating in World Cup events in Austria and France. The sport that has been a mainstay at the Winter X Games will now make its Olympic debut in Vancouver next year.

“Americans like seeing people crash, they like seeing big jumps and have that racing mentality, that the first car that goes through the finish line is the winner,” Fiala said of the growing interest in the sport in the U.S. “The two guys that come through the finish move to the next round; it’s simple to keep up with.”

While determining the winner of the four-skier scrambles (six in X Games) is easy for spectators, navigating the madness as they try to stay vertical takes racers a lot of practice. “We’re skiing at high seeds with eight poles, eight arms and eight legs and you might have a guy to your right and a guy to your left and you’re just trying to keep your balance, or subconsciously, trying to pull on him a bit,” Fiala said.

Fiala has crashed in all three of his X Games appearances, including the race that won him a silver medal. “Guys do whatever they need to get past people,” he said. “There is an understanding among the athletes, you would hope, that we don’t want to kill each other but you can get away with some ‘things’ out there.” 

Taking a line from the 80s classic NASCAR film Days of Thunder staring Tom Cruise, Puckett told reporters, “The unwritten rule is that rubbing is racing in skiercross.”

And it turns out that Europeans cab run with the best of them. The Americans have seen their European counterparts increase the level of competition as Olympic gold is now on the line at the Vancouver Games.

“This year it seems the competition has jumped a great deal,” Puckett said. “The guys that have been on the podium and winning World Cups and X Games for the last six years are still there, but as far as the depth, we are seeing a lot more. Each country is coming to the table with a lot more faster athletes.”

Puckett, who finds himself explaining what the sport is, even at ski events, expects the questions to diminish after the Olympics. “I think there is a possibility of us getting some podiums in Vancouver, and if we do well, that will bring the spotlight to the event and people will know a lot more about it,” he said.

Much of the chat was centered on what it takes to compete in the sport that, to date, has been dominated by former alpine racers. “The other guys on the course give you a gauge on how you are doing, guys that may not have been as good on a course by themselves have a real competitive side to them that maybe just comes out when there are other horses on the track,” said Puckett.

When Rahlves joined the call, the teammates talked about the level of competition, course conditions and the upcoming X Games.

The X Games courses have set the standard for both terrain and run time, a standard the courses of the World Cup have failed to meet so far this season. Shepherd and Puckett had complained about the World Cup races thus far being to short (around 40 seconds); they prefer about a minute-long course. “You want to have length for the fun factor for us as athletes but also for spectators to have a longer battle to watch,” he said.

Rahlves agreed: “I want to get down to the bottom of the course and feel worked; I want to feel really tired and out of gas.”

The X Games champ, who sat out the early competitions in Europe, joined the team in Lake Placid at the Nature Valley Freestyle Cup. “We need to help each other out and elevate our level and presence there to compete with all the other nations,” Rahlves said. “It’s not just a renegade sport anymore, it’s an Olympic sport now, so everybody is coming to the table ready to go and fielding great athletes.”

Though all the racers agreed that ski cross will never overtake alpine skiing in international popularity, they have seen the sport take off amongst Americanos. “I got more recognition last year winning skiercross then I ever have in World Cup in my own hometown,” Rahlves said.

Shepherd said the U.S. racers are working as a team on the course. “Guys like Daron, Casey and Jake like running together because they like seeing the lines and be mixing it up with each other because that’s what it’s going to be like in the race,” he said. “When we get into the race day on finals and we have more than one guy in the event they are training together and working together to see where the passing lane opportunities truly are that we’ve discussed through the training days.”  

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