Aspen local Puckett golden in skiercross | AspenTimes.com

Aspen local Puckett golden in skiercross

Nate PetersonAspen, CO Colorado

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN Aspen local Casey Puckett downed a few Advil, then downed fellow former World Cup racers Daron Rahlves and Jake Fiala in skiercross Sunday for his second Winter X Games gold.Rahlves – the top qualifier – crashed near the start of the race, and Puckett, who was nursing a sore right knee, held a comfortable lead before Fiala made a late charge coming into the final jump. Fiala lost his balance upon landing at the finish and crashed into safety nets, but hung on for the silver inches in front of Frenchman Enak Gavaggio.”I was surprised,” Puckett said of Fiala nearly stealing the win. “I thought it was Daron. I mean I don’t want to put people into the fence, but I’m going to protect my lead. He tried to set me up on the outside and I just moved over and it sort of threw him off, and he went straight into the fence. I was concerned. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.” For the 31-year-old Fiala, finishing behind Puckett, 34, is familiar territory; he’s never beaten him in the handful of skiercross races over the past two years.

After an aggressive move in the “Daytona” turn section before the last jump, Fiala took an unusual low line that helped him pass Gavaggio and Canada’s Stan Hayer quickly. Then he set his sights on Puckett.”I thought I could catch [Puckett], too. I just went to his left, and he veered me off a little bit,” Fiala said, his nose still bloody. “I was just psyched to get second.”As Puckett skated into the finish corral, he raised his hands in celebration amid dozens of family and friends.The former World Cup racer and four-time Olympian injured his right knee in the semifinal when he landed awkwardly on the final jump, but he felt it was stable enough to compete in the final. He took some Advil to dull the pain.”Something was definitely wrong in there,” he said. “I hope I didn’t do any permanent damage. Definitely some sharp pain in there in my right knee. In that semi, I knew I had the win and went off that last jump and hadn’t had trouble on that jump all week, but I think the wind caught my ski or something. I got off kilter, landed it, and my knee just sort of got in a weird position and it hurt.”Puckett hasn’t lost a skiercross since he finished sixth at last year’s Winter X Games. That streak includes wins in the Jeep King of the Mountain series – which pits two racers head-to-head – as well as the Honda Ski Tour’s inaugural skiercross two weeks ago at Sun Valley, Idaho. His first Winter X Games gold medal came in 2004.”Confidence is high, but at the same time I know that anything can happen in skiercross, so I’m just as fired up in the quarterfinal as I am for the final,” Puckett said. “As you could see today, with so many crashes and stuff, you’ve got to try and distance yourself from the field so you don’t get caught up and stuff like that. I know that I’m doing well on every facet of the game. My start is good, my gliding is good and I’m just trying to keep confidence in that and win it.”

During qualifying and in the first few heats, Rahlves appeared to be the fastest racer of the lot. He had the quickest qualifying time, won his opening heat handily and was seemingly set for a showdown with Puckett in the final. “I kind of got trapped,” said Rahlves, the most successful World Cup speed skier in U.S. history.Sweden’s Lars Lewen – last year’s gold medalist – failed to make the final and finished third (ninth overall) in the consolation final.”With the addition of Daron Rahlves, and we’ve got Lars Lewen, [the field] is the strongest it’s ever been short of having Reggie Crist in there,” Puckett said. “The course itself is sort of an Autobahn highway. It does not leave any places to make a mistake. You can’t make any mistakes. Any little mistake, if you land a jump too short or to long, you lose your skis.”Rahlves has admitted his starts are his biggest weakness since making the transition to skiercross – which will make its Olympic debut at the Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2010. It caught up to him Sunday.”I was well aware of how fast Daron was going,” Puckett said. “I was watching him in every heat, and he beat me by a fair margin in the qualifier. I know that my start is better than his right now. I’ve got some confidence in that, but also watched him pull away from everyone, so I for sure thought that Daron was going to be my major competition and it turns out that my [Atomic] teammate, Jake was the one hounding me.”Lloyd Tucker of Carbondale, who earned a bib for his Winter X appearance as a last-chance qualifier, finished 18th.

French celebrate on women’s podiumAmerican women were few and far between in the women’s skiercross final, as a trio of Frenchwomen stood on the podium after their Sunday showdown.Ophelie David held off all comers to take the gold medal, improving on her previous best finish – a bronze medal last year.Valentine Scuotto and Meryll Boulangeat finished second and third, respectively.”I had a really nice start … and really, really fast skis,” David said.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com. Summit County correspondent Duffy Hayes contributed to this story. For more coverage of Winter X Games 11, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/x

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