Out There: Casey Puckett is the X factor
SNOWMASS Instead of riding his dirt bike and playing golf, local skiercrosser Casey Puckett spent the summer rehabbing his surgically-repaired right knee and hanging out with his two young daughters, Riley and Annalisa.By Puckett’s standards, it was a pretty tame offseason. He made the best of being on crutches for three months after his surgery in April, then once back on two feet, rode his road bike more than he ever has. He said he enjoyed being on the bike so much that he signed up for his first Ride for the Cure in September – something he plans to do again.Don’t be fooled, though. If Puckett didn’t heed his doctor’s orders and had his way, he’d have been taking his dirt bike out of the garage at every possible chance to get his requisite speed fix. Ever since he can remember, he has been living life in fast forward. It’s never easy to hit the pause button, Puckett said. There is, however, a silver lining in it all.”My knees are great now,” said the 35-year-old Old Snowmass resident, who, in his first life as a ski racer, competed in four straight Olympics – one of only two American men to do so – and won five national alpine titles.Puckett said he put off microfracture surgery to repair the torn cartilage in his knee for as long as he could, and for good reason. Last winter, at 34, he owned competitive skiercross, winning five out of the eight races he entered, including the gold at the Winter X Games at Buttermilk and the first two stops on the inaugural Honda Ski Tour. He also won his third overall title in the Jeep King of the Mountain series.
It was his most rewarding professional season – both financially and personally – but also a painful one. He landed awkwardly off a jump during a semifinal heat at the Winter X Games, tearing an even bigger hole in the cartilage connected to his femur bone.He also severely bruised his left knee during a Jeep King of the Mountain head-to-head in late February in Taos, N.M. During the second run of semifinal heat against familiar rival Lars Lewen, Puckett flew off a jump out of control, spun 360 degrees through the air – over a Jeep Wrangler – and then crashed hard into a wall of fencing.For someone who has ski raced competitively as long as he has, Puckett said he’s been relatively lucky when it comes to major injuries.The surgery on his right knee, however, was a reminder of just how dangerous his livelihood is. With microfracture surgery, Puckett said it’s a good six months before things start to feel normal again. Three months on crutches alone threw off his balance, and while doing rehab, he threw his back out – only prolonging his return to full health.Still, the setback hasn’t deterred Puckett from his goal of racing in his fifth Olympics – at age 37 – when skiercross makes its debut at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. “I’ve made that commitment in my head,” said Puckett, who hopes to be back racing when the newest incarnation of the Ski Tour kicks off at Telluride on Dec. 14. “I like to win, so I’m going to continue to try and do that. I know that there are going to be a lot of different skiers, including current skiercross racers and other World Cup racers who will probably join at some point, who are going to want that [Olympic] gold medal. I just have to keep getting better, figuring out ways to get faster so I have a real chance to win.”
The closest Puckett came to an Olympic medal was in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway – his second Olympics – when he finished seventh in the slalom. He finished five tenths of a second from a bronze medal. The margin epitomized Puckett’s 13-year career on the U.S. Ski Team racing on the World Cup. At the highest level of alpine competition, the gap between the best and the rest is razor thin.
“That’s just ski racing,” said Puckett of his close call with Olympic glory.In 2002, when he retired from the U.S. Ski Team, skiercross was a sport in its nascent stages. In the years since, the high-speed contests, which pair between four or six racers on courses full of jumps and bermed turns, have attracted a host of former World Cup racers – and with them, credibility and attention.
The appeal of the sport for spectators is simple: the first racer down wins, and the possibility of fantastic crashes loom around every turn.It’s the reason why skiercross will follow in the tracks of boardercross to the Olympics, and why last year’s Ski Tour races were sanctioned by the International Ski Federation (FIS) – the same governing body that sanctions all World Cup competition. Puckett said he never envisioned going back to race in the Olympics after retiring from World Cup competition. He’s the first to point out, however, that his rebirth as a master skiercrosser is the best thing that’s ever happened to him.”This sport is so new that there’s a ton of excitement in it,” he said. “Whether you’re competing or not, just going down a skiercross course is a hoot. I’m just really enjoying myself out there. There are always new things to learn, just when it comes to tactics and strategy.”He also said, unlike his days racing on the World Cup, he’s enjoying being at the front of the pack, not in the middle.
“It’s been fun, learning to deal with being the guy everyone wants to beat,” he said. “It’s something that never gets old.” Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Prior to starting his trek across U.S., Larkins had never run more than a marathon and had never been to Colorado