Olympic skicross debut features familiar faces
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia – As a rule, Daron Rahlves likes to scare himself at least once a day.
No problem, dude, skiercross has got your back.
After he spent a decade blistering the slopes at 90 mph in the downhill, you’d think Rahlves wouldn’t be bothered by the relatively pedestrian speeds of skicross, or skiercross, as it’s also known.
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“I get more nervous in the start gate in skicross than Alpine skiing,” the American said.
Maybe it’s because in downhill, it’s just you and the mountain. In skicross it’s you, the mountain, a couple dozen twists and turns and three other racers determined to beat you to the finish line.
“You never know what’s going to happen in front of you, and you need to be prepared for that and to adjust very quickly,” Rahlves said.
The sport was added to the games following the overwhelming popularity of boardercross, which made a splash in Turin four years ago. The men race on Sunday, with the women hitting Cypress Mountain on Tuesday.
Yet there is a decided difference between the two, from the age of the average competitors to the uniform.
Boardercross is populated by mostly 20ish riders who dash down the hill in baggy snowpants and are known to drop in a funky board-grab or two to spice things up.
Not in skicross. Many of the top racers are like the 36-year-old Rahlves, former Alpiners who switched in part because they were on the back end of their Alpine careers or were simply lured by the new opportunity.
Including Rahlves and teammate Casey Puckett of Old Snowmass, six of the world’s top 12 ranked men in skicross are former downhill skiers in their 30s.
The women’s side is a little younger, but not much. Canadian Ashleigh McIvor, 26, teammate Kelsey Serwa, 20, and 33-year-old Ophelie David of France are considered the top contenders.
While Alpine success can certainly help in skicross, it doesn’t guarantee a thing. Sure, skiing off a cliff is difficult, but skicross adds banked turns, blind jumps and racing within inches of a competitor.
“There’s not that many guys that are good at this,” said Canadian Stanley Hayer, who is 36. “It takes a totally different skill set. You can be a great giant slalom skier and totally (stink) at skicross.”
Maybe, but old habits tend to die hard for some racers who have made the transition.
Though the sport is considered a freestyle event, some skicrossers have tried to turn it into Alpine with jumps, ditching the baggy pants that are de rigueur in snowboarding for the sleeker and more aerodynamic outfits preferred in events like downhill.
This season, the International Ski Federation had to strictly enforce rules about the design and makeup of uniforms.
“It’s kind of hard to go bigger or smaller now,” Hayer said. “Nobody really knows what’s the best. It’s not super-tight. None of us want to go to a downhill suit, though it would probably be more fair to the bigger guys in general, but a lot of us don’t want to be stripping down just to go do a race. You want to go down the hill in the stuff you wear during the day.”
The sport is kind of caught in the middle. Americans Rahlves and Puckett will sport outfits similar to those of the moguls team, not the red-hot snow jeans the snowboarders wore.
Whatever the look, Rahlves is hoping to get a chance to rock it on the podium.
He’s the first to admit he’s even lucky to be here.
He dislocated his right hip during a spill at the Winter X Games in Aspen three weeks ago, spent seven days on crutches and didn’t get back on skis until Feb. 14.
Rahlves says he felt a couple of “zings” while making his way over the course on Friday but had little to no pain on Saturday.
“Any doubts have been erased by now,” he said.
Of course, he isn’t the type to let a few bumps and bruises – if a dislocated hip can be considered a “bump” – get in the way. Vancouver offers him one last chance to fill the only major hole on his resume.
Rahlves won 12 World Cup alpine races between 2000 and 2006, but that success has never translated to the Olympics. He went a combined 0-for-7 in Nagano, Salt Lake City and Turin, failing to crack the top five in any event.
He hopes to change that Sunday, and the unpredictable nature of skicross means anyone in the field can walk away with gold if they mix some good fortune with a whole lot of daring.
“I’m a scrapper,” he said. “I like to fight for it. I always like more challenge, when it’s harder and it’s more risky.”
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