Casey Puckett competes in a men's ski cross qualification race on at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 21, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada
KILLINGTON, Vt. — On a rainy October day at Killington’s golf course, Joe Swensson hit the longest drive of the day, and Pat Duran shot closest to the pin.
But neither skier was in Vermont to necessarily win any golf trophies. Against a backdrop of vibrant red and orange fall foliage, they teed off with family and college friends in the USA Ski Cross Golf Tournament, a fundraiser for the sport in which they hope to compete at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Joining them was five-time Olympian Casey Puckett, who competed in ski cross’s Olympic debut at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Puckett retired from ski racing after the 2010 Olympics (though he competed at the 2011 and 2012 Winter X Games in his backyard in Aspen) and now runs the non-profit USA Ski Cross, which he started to raise money for America’s top ski cross racers.
Though the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association pulled back on funding ski cross after the 2010 Olympics, where Puckett and former top downhill racer Daron Rahlves competed, the future looks bright for the sport despite the financial hurdles.
Duran, 27, first tried ski cross after Tyler Shepherd, a former University of Colorado alpine skier turned ski cross racer (and eventually ski cross coach), recruited him.
After a ski accident his freshman year at CU, where he broke his femur in nine places, Duran’s ski career wasn’t going as planned. For the rest of his college career, he struggled to regain the form he enjoyed before the accident. Then he watched a ski cross race and “thought it was the coolest event I had ever seen,” he wrote on his USA Ski Cross bio. “It didn’t have the same boring look of alpine racing.”
Duran loved ski cross from the minute he tried it: “It’s like you’re a little kid again, doing jumps, having a lot of fun, skiing with your buddies.”
Plus, the relatively new sport was a way for him to realize his World Cup dreams. He could even dare think about the Olympics.
After graduating from CU with an environmental studies degree, he entered his first World Cup in December 2009. A year later, he worked his way into the top 20.
While traveling between World Cups in Europe, Duran occasionally crossed paths with his high school friend Swensson, 26, who was trying to realize his own World Cup dreams in alpine skiing. A 2008 graduate of Middlebury College, Swensson was in the trenches of the Europa Cup tour, alpine skiing’s minor league, trying to earn enough top results to gain a World Cup start.
“I know that’s such a grind over there,” said Duran of the Europa Cup. So he said to his friend, “You could hop into the ski cross World Cup and have a ton of fun, maybe make it big, maybe not. Hey, I’m going to the X Games this year, what are you going to do?”
Swensson thought about it for a year, then tried his first ski cross in August 2011 in Australia and finished fifth. A big powerful skier who looks like he would be as comfortable on a defensive line as he is racing a steep downhill or super G, Swensson then finished 14th in his ski cross World Cup debut last winter. Less than a month later, he stunned the field when he won qualifying in his third World Cup competition.
“A lot of it is being able to ski speed like downhill,” said Swensson. “Glide and jumps, that’s a huge part of ski cross. Out of college, I spent three years skiing super G and downhill.”
While Duran and Swensson were the only two current ski cross racers at the Killington golf fundraiser, the hottest prospect on the team is John Teller. The 29-year-old auto mechanic from Mammoth, California, was the first American to win a ski cross World Cup in 2011. He followed up that performance with two second-place finishes in 2012.
Olympic qualification begins this winter, and the 2012-2013 World Cup features a record 14 ski cross races at 12 locations — from Telluride, Colorado, in December to a test run in Sochi in February. The U.S. can send a maximum of 26 freestyle skiers to the 2014 Olympics to compete in moguls, aerials, ski cross, halfpipe, and slopestyle.
Asked what it will take for the U.S. ski cross racers to medal at the Olympics, Puckett said, “They have the talent already. They could go out and win right now.”
Ski cross, however, is about more than great ski technique. Like BMX or motocross on snow, where four skiers at a time race down a jump-filled course with banked turns, ski cross demands a mix of aggression, confidence, and skill. The best ski cross racers are comfortable skiing in traffic and know where to pass other skiers without having to think about it.
“It’s a lot of confidence,” said Duran. “[The top guys] like [Christopher] Del Bosco and Michael Schmid, they’re confident, and they see what’s happening before you even know what’s happening.”
Del Bosco, from Canada, is the reigning ski cross world and Winter X Games champion. Schmid, from Switzerland, won the ski cross Olympic gold medal in 2010.
To reach the point where they are consistently challenging guys like Del Bosco and Schmid, the U.S. ski cross racers need more training and more training with other athletes who push them, said Puckett, who serves as coach when he can.
Duran and Swensson both work full time in the summer — Duran in a bar and for a moving company in Colorado, Swensson for a builder and developer in Connecticut.
The team also needs a ski technician. While other teams can rest between training sessions and races, Duran, Swensson, and Teller have to tune their own skis.
“We’re like the cowboys on tour,” said Duran, laughing. “Joey and I are doing our own skis, driving cars everywhere. We’re the Americans, so of course [in Europe] we don’t know where we’re going. The other teams like the Finns and the Swedes, they love us. They help us out because they think we’re hilarious.”
But the lack of support has its benefits.
“Out of any other team there, we’re a real team,” said Swensson. “We don’t have money for a coach to be over there full time, so we coach each other. I couldn’t have my success without Pat and John and the same goes for Pat and John. We really have to let our egos go and work together.”
Despite the challenges, the men are determined to medal in Sochi — as much for themselves as the people who support them, like Puckett, who does not earn a cent for his work with USA Ski Cross, and Duran’s brother, Mike, a lawyer who serves as the team’s legal counsel and helps with the fundraisers.
“If someone medaled in Sochi,” said Duran …
“It would be a game changer,” added Swensson without missing a beat.
For more information, visit USA Ski Cross.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.