Local Puckett falters in combined | AspenTimes.com

Local Puckett falters in combined

Tim Mutrie
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Aspen's Casey Puckett bows his head in frustration after hooking a tip and skiing off course during the first slalom run of the men's Olympic combined event Wednesday, Feb. 13, at Snowbasin, near Ogden, Utah. Jacob N. Ware photo.

SNOWBASIN, Utah – After Casey Puckett of Old Snowmass straddled a gate during the first run in the men’s Olympic combined Wednesday, he predicted big things from teammate Bode Miller of New Hampshire.

“We’re hungry for some medals,” said Puckett, 29, before the second and final slalom run yesterday. “We’ve been skunked so far, but I’m thinking Bode will pull something out big in the second run.”

Puckett, who didn’t place because of the fall, was right.

Miller, a 24-year-old technical specialist who has four World Cup victories this season, laid down a blistering second run to capture the silver medal. After the downhill leg in the morning, Miller entered the afternoon slalom portion in 15th place, 2.44 seconds behind leader Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway.

Miller failed to reel in Aamodt, who protected his lead to claim the gold. But his gate-running prowess – an unorthodox, all-over-the-place style that Austrian star Hermann Maier once likened to rodeo – enabled him to win the first American medal in alpine skiing at the games. Miller also became the first American to medal in the Olympic combined. Defending World Cup slalom champion Benjamin Raich of Austria took the bronze.

Puckett, only the second American male skier, behind A.J. Kitt, to compete in four Olympics, was frustrated with his performance.

“I’m very disappointed with what happened today because I put a lot of effort into making the Olympics, and not just making it, I wanted to medal here,” he said. “First of all, that I took myself out a little bit of the downhill when I was skiing really well, and second of all, that I didn’t give myself a chance in the slalom.

“It’s unfortunate and I’m disappointed, but it’s gone now,” he continued. “It’s in the past. There’s always that risk that you’re not going to finish, and that’s racing.”

More than 20,000 fans packed the grandstands at the finish area for both the downhill and slalom. Meanwhile, spectators higher on the mountain knew when Americans were on course judging from the roar of applause emanating from the base.

“It’s pretty special to come down in the U.S. and have the whole crowd behind you,” Puckett said. “Obviously, I wish I could’ve done a little more because I would’ve worked the crowd big time. If I was in a position to win or medal, I would have been fired up.”

On Snowbasin’s Grizzly downhill course Wednesday morning, Puckett had a clean, solid run going until the last technical section near the base, where he lost his feet for a moment.

“I was psyched about how I skied on top. I had fast skis,” he said. “But I got to the bottom, and there’s a big right-hand corridor. I was close to making it through all the tough stuff, and that was the last difficult turn to make. It was really bumpy, and I couldn’t see much. My skis started bouncing, and I got on my inside ski, but the bumps didn’t stop and I went down on my hip, just briefly. Then I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to fall,’ and I popped back up and kept going.

“I lost easily a second-and-a-half to two seconds there,” he continued. “I probably would’ve been within a second-and-a-half of the leaders from the downhill, instead of three seconds back.”

Puckett, whose best Olympic result, a 7th, came in slalom in 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway, knew he need to piece together two clean slalom runs in order to move up from 20th position after the downhill.

In the combined, the racer with the lowest cumulative time from all three runs – one downhill, two slalom – wins.

In Puckett’s first (and only, as it turned out) slalom run, he charged out of the start hut, but got ahead of himself early on, hooking a tip on the third or fourth gate.

“I had some time to make up, so I went out of the start fired up to let it roll across the top flat,” he said. “My skis jetted out in front of me real quick – I wasn’t expecting the snow to be so aggressive – and I got back [on my skis] and then I pinched the next two turns off. It all happened really fast, but since my line was off and I was sitting back going straight into the next gate, I hooked a tip.”

After skiing out of the course, Puckett hunched over, apparently in pain. Later, however, he said he tweaked his left knee when he straddled the gate. “The knee’s been giving me trouble all year, so it was just another tweak. Nothing major, but it hurt like hell.”

Puckett, who was only slotted to race the combined at the Olympics, said he plans to enjoy the rest of the games with his wife, former 24 Hours of Aspen champion Katie McBride-Puckett, and family.

“We’ll go to the other venues and check out some hockey, figure skating, who knows, and cheer on the other U.S. athletes,” he said.

As for his future as a U.S. Ski Team racer, Puckett, a 10-year team veteran, wasn’t making any decisions yesterday.

“That’s a lot to think about right now,” he said. “I’m going to have to give it a lot of thought; there’s a lot of variables that go into it. I’m not announcing any retirement just yet, but it’s certainly a possibility.

“But I love ski racing.”

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