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A turn for the better

2/19/2010
Josh Duplechian/ESPN Action Sports

On the night it finally ended -- September 6, 2006 -- Chris Del Bosco's parents let him borrow their car. He was taking an EMT course a few miles from their home in Vail, Colo., and he had class that night.

When his older sister, Heather Centurioni, found out that Del Bosco was on the road, she nearly screamed into the phone at her parents. "Why did you do that? You have to call him right now! Tell him you'll pick him up!"

It was too late. On his way to class, Del Bosco had stopped at a liquor store for a bottle of vodka. He drank some before class, then left at intermission to drink some more. The cops pulled him over two hours later.

It was Del Bosco's third DUI in three years, and he was now looking at up to a year behind bars. "I knew there weren't any more chances after that," he says.

Except one.

Del Bosco, 27, is a heavy favorite going into the Olympic debut of Ski Cross, a hairball freestyle discipline that pits gladiator-like skiers against one another down a steep, icy course. (The final is on February 21 at Cypress Mountain, just outside Vancouver.) In the past month, the gifted racer won the Winter X Games as well as two World Cup races.

And there is no question that his final DUI helped him get here, for it did what nobody -- not his parents, not his sister, not his best friends, not his ski coaches -- had been able to do for more than a decade:

It convinced him to sober up.

Chris Del Bosco has been addicted to alcohol for half of his life. He first picked the lock to his father's liquor cabinet when he was 14. At 17, he pissed away a promising alpine racing career -- literally -- when he tested positive for marijuana at the National Championships. The International Ski Federation (FIS) slammed him with a two-year ban.

But Del Bosco had a gift, and former coaches talk about the kid like he was Paul Bunyan on skis. "He could go straighter and arc a tighter turn than anybody," says Craig Daniels, one of Del Bosco's junior coaches, who went on to coach Bode Miller on the World Cup.

"He was as good as any I've worked with," explains former U.S. team coach Crawford Pierce, "and I've worked with Casey Puckett, Daron Rahlves, Tommy Moe, you name it."

The problem was that Del Bosco never put his talent to use -- he just relied on it. And off the hill, he often relied on something else.

On December 18, 2004, Del Bosco went out drinking in his hometown of Vail. Around midnight, a stranger spotted a figure squirming in the frigid creek that runs through town. It was Del Bosco, blacked out in a T-shirt. When rescuers pulled him out, his body temperature was 83 degrees and his neck was broken.

But Del Bosco couldn't stop. He went to stay with his sister in Los Angeles, puffed up like a marshmallow from the alcohol, unable to function without it. Her phone would ring at odd hours and she'd have to collect herself before answering. "I'd take a deep breath and wonder: Are they calling to tell me he's gone?" she remembers.

Del Bosco finally gave in to his family's pleas and entered rehab. He was released on New Year's Eve, 2005. Four days later he drove to a last-chance Winter X Games qualifier in California. He took second, squeaking into the Ski Cross (then "Skier X") race at Winter X Games 9.

Then came a stunning bronze medal -- and a very visible reminder of his talent. His family was overjoyed. Del Bosco hadn't had a drop of alcohol in four months.

That March, Del Bosco, still sober, returned to California for the U.S. Skiercross series finale, needing only a respectable result to win the overall title. Instead, he relapsed. He blacked out on vodka the night before the race and tanked the next day, snuffing out yet another chance at greatness.

Sometimes, Del Bosco wonders how he never killed anyone while driving drunk.

"I don't know why I was so lucky," he admits. "Maybe there's a bigger plan."

It certainly seems that way. In February 2007, shortly after Del Bosco -- who at that time was still facing a year in jail -- crashed out of the X Games, one of his friends, Canadian ski racer Brian Bennett, sat down for dinner with Cam Bailey, the CEO of the Canadian Ski Cross Team, to discuss Olympic prospects.

Their waitress noticed that Bennett's arm was in a sling. He told her he had wiped out in the X Games Ski Cross race.

"Oh -- my husband's cousin does that," she said.

Who's he? the men asked.

"Chris Del Bosco."

As it turned out, Chris' father, Del, is a native Canadian who moved to Colorado in the '50s to play hockey for the University of Denver. This, of course, makes Chris a dual citizen, and since there was no U.S. Ski Cross Team at the time, it seemed a door had been opened.

Two weeks later, Del Bosco met with Canada's head coach, Eric Archer, to discuss a spot on the team. Archer, one of Del Bosco's former rivals on the Ski Cross circuit and a longtime Vail resident, knew exactly who he was dealing with.

"We just said, 'You have one shot here. If you screw it up, you're done,'" recalls Archer.

Archer accompanied Del Bosco to his DUI court hearings, and he was there when the judge sentenced Del Bosco to 10 days in jail and 90 days of house arrest, which he served in the summer of 2007.

"He's a man now," Archer says. "He used to be a punk."

Even before he flashed across the finish line in Aspen, earning his first Winter X Games gold medal, it was clear that Del Bosco was a changed man.

At the first Canadian training camp, Del Bosco weighed 178 pounds and could barely do a pull-up. In Aspen, he weighed 218 pounds. Going into the Olympics, he is considered one of the fittest men in the sport.

Known for his drafting and uncanny touch on the violent courses, Del Bosco worked all summer on improving his starts. It paid off, as he led two of the last three pre-Olympic races from start to finish.

He is the quiet example on the best-in-the-world Canadian team, the one they call "The Enforcer." His teammates, including his girlfriend, reigning world champion Ashleigh McIvor, are emulating his style on the hill. Del Bosco, meanwhile, has started talking like a Canuck, calling hats "toques" and using the word "keen."

And then there is his family. His father Del, a fiery 74, lost his wife when their three children were young; he later remarried and had Chris and Heather. One of Del's daughters died of cancer at 44, his oldest son and Chris have battled alcoholism for years, and Heather lost her leg to a gruesome ski-racing accident when she was a teenager.

Chris' Olympic odyssey has lifted his family like nothing else could. When he won his first World Cup race last season at Cypress Mountain -- the same hill that will host this year's Olympic final -- they couldn't help but envision a repeat on February 21.

"A lot can happen, and I think there's a lot out of your control," Chris Del Bosco says of that prospect, "but I've done everything I can to put myself in a position to win."