Ski Cross Brings Excitement, Danger To Olympics The sport makes its Olympic debut at the Vancouver Games, opening Feb. 12. In ski cross, the skiers come out of the gates four at a time, compete for space on a narrow, twisty half-mile course and finish in about 50 seconds. Daron Rahlves, who may be the best hope for a U.S. medal, says the danger "gets the blood boiling."
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Ski Cross Brings Excitement, Danger To Olympics

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Ski Cross Brings Excitement, Danger To Olympics

Ski Cross Brings Excitement, Danger To Olympics

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Madeline Brand. It's just two and a half weeks until the 2010 Winter Olympic Games open in Vancouver, and this year, there's one thrilling sport making its Olympic debut: ski cross. Our co-host Melissa Block went up to Lake Placid, New York, to check it out.


Ski cross is super fast, supercharged skiing. It's also really dangerous and really, really fun to watch.

Unidentified Man #1: Attention.

(Soundbite of starting gun)

BLOCK: The skiers come out of the gates four at a time, so four skiers competing for space on this narrow, twisty course. They're jockeying for position. Course is about half a mile long, and they will finish it in 50 seconds or so, getting up to speeds of 50 miles an hour. Lots of twists and turns and lots of bumps and jumps along the way.

Listen to how U.S. skiers Caitlin Ciccone and Daron Rahlves describe the sport.

Ms. CAITLIN CICCONE (Skier): It's just four people going out of the gate. It's like a roller derby on skis.

Mr. DARON RAHLVES (Skier): Three - I want to say motocross, NASCAR and bull riding.

BLOCK: First one to the bottom wins.

Mr. RAHLVES: It's exciting. I love it. It's just one of those, like, new sports that definitely gets the blood boiling.

BLOCK: And at 50 miles an hour, that means lots of collisions along the sharp turns and jumps. As one observer tells me, it's a carnage fest. Skier Jonny Moseley won Olympic gold in moguls in 1998. He tells me he tried ski cross but stopped.

Mr. JONNY MOSELEY (Skier): Yeah. Racing in a crowd is a whole another story. And it's scary, and that's, you know, one of the reasons I didn't continue doing it because it was scary, because the factor here that you don't deal with normally when you're competing is that somebody can take you out.

You know, you could have a season-ending injury, a career-ending injury, and it wasn't your fault.

BLOCK: And Olympian Daron Rahlves has seen his share of brutality on the slopes.

Mr. RAHLVES: You're getting beat up. There isn't one event that goes by that somebody hasn't really got, you know, injured pretty bad. I mean, because it's you're not always in control. It's the hardest thing about the sport.

BLOCK: Here in Lake Placid at this weekend's Nature Valley World Cup Ski Cross Final, it doesn't take long before a skier is in trouble.

Unidentified People: Whoa.

Unidentified Woman: (BEEP) What happened? (BEEP). What happened?

Unidentified Man #2: What happened?

Unidentified Man #3: Oh, man.

BLOCK: Okay, we've just seen an example of how dangerous and unpredictable ski cross can be. One of the men coming down in a heat of four just went over the jumps, went completely off the course, flying through the air off the course. We're seeing members of his team skiing down. And just now, one of the medical staff with a sled heading down to take him away.

Dr. WILLIAM SMITH (Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Director, Nature Valley World Cup Ski): Well, it's all very Newtonian, of course. A moving object stays at motion, that is, unless acted upon by some external force, of course.

BLOCK: Like another ski cross...

Dr. SMITH: Yes, like another skier cross or a berm or a fence.

BLOCK: I met Dr. William Smith halfway along the course during the qualifications on Saturday. He's an orthopedic surgeon and medical director for this world cup.

Dr. SMITH: We worry, of course, about life-threatening and potentially catastrophic injuries most. Fortunately, those are very rare, but we do see people fall and hit their heads so we worry about concussion. An unconscious athlete's always a concern for a cervical spine injury. And then it tends to be more isolated extremity trauma.

Unidentified Man #1: Attention.

(Soundbite of screaming)

BLOCK: The best chance for a U.S. ski cross medal at the Olympics could rest with 36-year-old Daron Rahlves, considered among the best U.S. downhill racers ever. The Vancouver games will be his fourth Olympics. He competed before in slalom, downhill and super G but never medaled. And he retired from Alpine racing.

But now at age 36, the father of young twins, Daron Rahlves is coming back in ski cross.

Mr. RAHLVES: Racing gates is fun, but this is like, when you're with other guys, like there's so much happening, and a good course, it's awesome. And it's - people would be lying to you if, you know, they said they didn't have fun doing it. I haven't heard of anybody that doesn't have fun doing it.

BLOCK: Another top potential medal contender for the U.S. in ski cross is four-time Olympian Casey Puckett. He's endured a shocking number of spectacular crashes. And just two weeks ago, he separated his shoulder at a world cup event in France. He had surgery and still hopes to be competing in Vancouver next month.

Tyler Shepherd is the coach of the U.S. ski cross team, looking ahead to the Olympics.

Mr. TYLER SHEPHERD (Coach, United States Olympic Ski Cross Team): There's a lot on the line this year, and people are certainly gearing up for the big day in February when we get to debut skier cross to the world.

BLOCK: You know, as the coach, and looking at what's happened to Casey Puckett, who's had so many accidents and is just recovering from surgery again, do you ever worry that this is just too dangerous, that the courses are just too tough?



(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEPHERD: They do it to themselves. I mean, if they don't want to do it, they can give me the bib and they can go home. Certainly, we want everyone to be safe and not have injuries, but, you know, at a certain point you've got to know what you're doing out there in order to compete on the world cup.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: At the finish line, big excitement as the racers fly through the final jumps. In the semi-finals, Daron Rahlves is behind in the final stretch, but then...

Unidentified Man #1: And there he is right there trying to make his move. Is he going to do it? He's trying to do the same thing that we saw the last race, and it looks as though he has taken over. What a move, Daron Rahlves. I mean, that was the gnarliest path of the game right there. Daron Rahlves.

BLOCK: Daron Rahlves finished first in that heat, ended up fourth in the finals. His spot is guaranteed for Vancouver.

Unidentified Man #1: What a move by Daron Rahlves.

BLOCK: I find nine-year-old Madison Crochina(ph) of Stillwater, New York, watching the finals in a ski suit with a fuzzy cow covering helmet. Her pronouncement on ski cross:

Ms. MADISON CROCHINA: It was really cool.

BLOCK: Her father, Chris(ph), tells me Madison is ranked number one in the Adirondacks in ski cross for girls nine and under.

Mr. CHRIS CROCHINA: Well, I asked her, watching a couple of guys coming down in the sled today, if she still wanted to do it, and she says yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CROCHINA: So it's a little different. It's more humbling watching your kid doing it than doing it yourself, I think.

Unidentified Man #1: Let's hear it one more time for our athletes that made this weekend so special. Make sure to look for them in less than a month at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.


And the U.S. Olympic Ski Cross Team will be officially announced tomorrow. But Madeleine, there's another story coming out of this world cup here in Lake Placid this weekend, and that's the number of injuries during these ski cross races.

Yesterday, there were four skiers taken off the mountain on sleds, and that crash that I described in my story, we later found out it was a French skier. He was medivacced out. He fractured a vertebra in his neck, and he does have a spinal cord injury. He could be paralyzed.


And Melissa, what does this mean, then, for this event at the Olympics?

BLOCK: Well, this world cup was the last qualifying event before the Olympics. There was a lot of pressure, as you can imagine, on these athletes to do well enough to get a spot on their country's team. Organizers told me this was a challenging course. They knew that. They did hear concerns from coaches, and they made changes to the course to try to make it more safe.

And remember, Madeleine, they added ski cross, this daredevil sport, to the Olympics to attract a younger audience, and that's a constant balancing act. How do you design a ski cross course that's going to be challenging enough for the best athletes and where part of the thrill of watching it is knowing that anything can happen and at the same time keep the athletes safe?

BRAND: All right. Our own Melissa Block in Lake Placid.

And Melissa, we'll hear more from you tomorrow.

BLOCK: That's right.

BRAND: Melissa Block in Lake Placid, thank you.

BLOCK: You bet.

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