Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Skiercross brings legends to Dollar Mountain

Event offers largest payout in sport?s history

Express Staff Writer

Finalist Daron Rahlves and winner Casey Puckett, right, share a smile in Carol?s Dollar Mountain Lodge following Saturday?s final skiercross race. Photo by Sabina Dana Plasse

The Honda Ski Tour brought legends of the skiing world to Sun Valley Co.'s Dollar Mountain last weekend. Dollar provided a fitting venue for the largest prize in the history of skiercross competition.

"This is the biggest prize money we've seen," said The Ski Tour's skiercross champion, Casey Puckett, of Aspen, Colo., who netted $25,000 on Saturday. "(The money) is taking it to a whole other level."

The International Olympic Committee's recently approved addition of skiercross to the 2010 Winter Olympics added to the already dramatic format. Also, The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, the national governing body for Olympic skiing, officially set the race as a sanctioned USSA skiercross event.

"We are all excited that this event will be part of the 2010 Olympics," USSA Technical Delegate David Pym said. "And just look at the crowd that's here today in Sun Valley—there's got to be five or six thousand people here."

Perfect though frigid ski weather greeted a well-decorated field of contenders. Notables included X Games skiercross champion, former World Cup and U.S. Ski team member and local ski legend Zach Crist. Also gracing Sun Valley's ivory slopes was Daron Rahlves, whose resume is simply too long to list in its entirety, but which includes a World Championship in Super G, and multiple first-place finishes at the World Cup and at the U.S. Nationals. And the winner, Casey Puckett, is one of only two Americans to ever compete in four Winter Olympics.

Thousands of spectators including Sun Valley Co. owners Earl and Carol Holding watched four skiers race head-to-head through a motocross-style course featuring jumps, banked turns, waves and modified terrain on Saturday.

Friday's individual time trials qualified the fastest 14 athletes, who automatically advanced on to the elimination rounds.

The Tour added a new twist to skiercross formatting, the Paul Mitchell Dark Horse qualifier. The qualifier allows eight skiers, who qualify 15 to 22, to race head-to-head in two heats with the winner of each heat advancing to the main event. Extreme sports phenom and San Diego native Shaun Palmer, who also competes professionally in snowboarding and mountain biking, was unfortunately injured during training and had to forfeit his Dark Horse spot.

The finals proved to be battle of epic proportions with several of the sports biggest names squaring-off. Puckett was first out of the gate but was promptly chased down by Rahlves. Rahlves was knocked off his skis when the two collided near the top of the course.

"You really had to scrap and fight," he said.

"If Daron would have made that turn, he was gone," Crist said of Rahlves ambitious attempt to pass.

Meanwhile, Lars Lewen of Sweden and Stanley Hayer of the Czech Republic (and Canada) jostled for positions two and three. Hayer nearly chased down Puckett just feet from the finish line, but in the end it was Puckett who claimed victory and ultimately the largest single payout in the sport's history.

Hayer walked with $15,000 for second, Lewen with $7,500 and Rahlves added $5,000 to his total career winnings.

"This is just unbelievable. That final was so intense," Puckett said in the winner's circle. "I was fighting the first corner with Lars and then I think I had Daron on my back and then Stan was on my tail. It was not easy. Three guys fighting all the way is pretty rare."

Every one of the top eight finishers vow to battle it out at The Honda Ski Tour's next stop in Breckenridge, Colo., Feb. 1 through Feb. 4.

"It's every man for himself. But you really have to respect everyone. Being in the trenches brings camaraderie," Puckett said. "Now its time to celebrate."

Reporter Dana DuGan contributed to this report.

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