AVSC coach Casey Puckett returns to U.S. ski team as women’s Europa Cup coach
Alice McKennis gave Casey Puckett the nickname “Five Time” while training at Copper Mountain in early June. This required an explanation for the younger U.S. national team skiers, as they weren’t all too familiar with Puckett’s past, which includes an impressive World Cup career and five Olympic appearances.
But for the 30-year-old McKennis, having Puckett around brought her back to her roots as a young FIS skier with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, when she worked directly with Puckett.
“I just kept having these moments where it was like a flashback to 15 years ago with Casey Puckett training on the same trail. It was really fun to have him there and have all those memories come back,” McKennis said. “He has such a great eye and a great understanding of what it takes to be an elite athlete because he was one.”
Puckett, who has called the Roaring Fork Valley home since 1999 and has spent a collective nine years coaching AVSC athletes, has returned to the U.S. ski team, but this time as a coach. The 47-year-old was recently named the head technical coach for the women’s Europa Cup team, a role that unofficially began with that Copper Mountain training camp last month.
AVSC has certainly had other coaches move on — and often back from — the national team, notably its current alpine director, Johno McBride, who helped lead the Americans through many Olympics, including the most recent Winter Games in 2018. Snowboard coach Nichole Mason left the Aspen club two years ago to take over as the slopestyle rookie team coach for the U.S.
“It says something about AVSC when the U.S. team is actively recruiting coaches from the club. It just shows you the level of coaches we have here,” Puckett said. “We have such a good group of kids here and they are a lot of fun to work with. They work hard and they are fast. It’s going to be hard to leave those guys. I’m going to miss them. But I think it will be good to move to this next level and see what’s out there.”
Puckett’s main job with U.S. Ski and Snowboard this season will be to help develop young skiers such as AJ Hurt, Katie Hensien and Alix Wilkinson. McKennis, a two-time Olympian from New Castle, is primarily a World Cup speed skier and won’t directly work with Puckett.
The Europa Cup team is a newer creation made by U.S. alpine director Jesse Hunt, who took over the role in 2018. Hunt was actually one of Puckett’s coaches back when he was an athlete, and it was Hunt who reached out to Puckett to bring him on as a national team coach. While the Europa Cup and North American Cup are deemed to be the same level on paper, in reality the Europa Cup is a step up from Nor-Ams and success there will make it easier for U.S. athletes to make the jump to the World Cup.
“If you are not going to that series and paying attention to that level, then it’s a little bit more difficult to make the step to the World Cup. His motto is to win at every level, so he hired me to come help do that,” Puckett said of Hunt. “You don’t often get a call from the U.S. team to coach. If I would have passed it by, it may not have been there again, so I went for it.”
Puckett was an alpine skier for the U.S. from 1991 through 2002, competing in the 1992, 1994, 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. Most of his success came as a technical skier in the earlier part of his career — he took seventh in slalom at the ’94 Games in Norway — before he transitioned more into speed racing at the close. He coached for AVSC from 2002 to 2006 before returning to the national team, but this time in skicross, and competed in the 2010 Olympics before ending his career.
“Working with someone who has that understanding is unique and it’s not all that common within the ski racing world,” McKennis said of working with Puckett. “A lot of the younger generation — my teammates — aren’t as familiar with him and his background. So I think they were a little confused at first, like, ‘Why are you calling this guy Five Time?’”
Puckett returned to coach at AVSC in 2015, where he most recently was the club’s head U16 coach. He’s still going to call the Roaring Fork Valley home and believes a return to coaching at AVSC is possible down the road. He has two daughters, both high schoolers at Basalt and Colorado Rocky Mountain School.
Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there are a lot of questions about the coming ski season and if it will happen at all. The U.S. alpine team hopes to continue on-snow training later this month at Mount Hood in Oregon, and will likely look to Europe or South America for fall camps, should borders open up to them again.
The next Winter Olympics is tentatively scheduled for 2022 in China, where COVID-19 is believed to have originated from. The Olympics aren’t necessarily a given for Puckett and his Europa Cup squad, but he believes his athletes have a good chance of getting there. Especially considering the U.S. is currently thin in terms of technical skiers, with only Mikaela Shiffrin, Nina O’Brien and Paula Moltzan having established themselves at that level.
“There aren’t a lot of numbers there right now, so my girls, if they ski well, they’ll have a good shot at making the Olympic team,” Puckett said. “Honestly, it’s not a big jump. They are really not that far behind the girls that are racing on the World Cup.”
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