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Sunday, February 21, 2010
U.S. ski cross comes up empty


VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It's difficult to summon your inner cheerleader when you don't have a horse in the race. So when both U.S. men were knocked out in the round of 32 in the Olympic debut of ski cross, the American cheering section went mute. This was a sport made famous in the Winter X Games. Its sister sport, snowboardcross, has been dominated by American riders Seth Wescott (two-time Olympic gold medalist), Nate Holland (five-time Winter X gold medalist) and Lindsey Jacobellis (winningest SBX athlete of all time). So where were the Americans?

Early in the day, they were hoarding a majority of the prerace chatter. Both Casey Puckett and Daron Rahlves -- heavy medal favorites before Puckett dislocated his shoulder, twice, in January, and Rahlves dislocated his hip 21 days ago -- had made seemingly miraculous recoveries in order to race in the Olympics. After the time-trial qualifiers, Rahlves said his hip felt great. Puckett said he was feeling slow out of the start and still in pain, but that his shoulder was in racing shape. We're here, and we're ready to race, they said. And they were expected to contest for a medal.

"Everyone comes here to win, but there are so many variables that go in to winning a ski cross race," Puckett said after the race. "When people say, 'That's ski cross,' they mean the unpredictability." By the semifinal round, those variables had knocked out Team USA.

Coming around the final banked turn -- dubbed the toilet bowl turn -- Rahlves lost control, flew over the next jump and landed hard on his injured hip. He righted himself and finished the race, but in fourth place. Although his hip appeared to remain intact, Rahlves' day was over. Pucket had a slow start out of the gate and remained in fourth place until he crossed the finish line. "It was a really fun course, but it was hard to pass," Puckett said. "Most of the races seemed to be won by the skier who got the holeshot. And that wasn't me today."

Still, the races did not disappoint. Team Canada sent two skiers to the semifinal and Chris Delbosco, the 2010 Winter X Games champion and the sentimental favorite, raced in the final. After a rough start, Delbosco pulled into third place, but crashed going over the final jump and finished fourth. Michael Schmid of Switzerland won the gold, Andreas Matt of Austria took silver and Audun Groenvold of Norway took bronze. "Delbosco was my pick to win this thing," Puckett said. "He totally went for it and he almost had a medal. It's sad. Chris was a real mess six years ago when I started racing him, but he's really turned the corner. He has been so focused. It's heartbreaking."

But, as they say, that's ski cross.