Published January 31, 2010
ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Daron Rahlves and Casey Puckett are supposed to be a couple of feel-good Olympic stories — two 30-something veterans heading back to the games to give it one more shot in the crazy new freestyle sport of skicross.
After a rough week at the Winter X Games, though, it's no sure thing either man will make it to Vancouver.
Rahlves took a nasty tumble in a quarterfinal race Sunday and had to be transported to the hospital, where his dislocated right hip was popped back into place. That came two days after Puckett, skiing alone in a less-harrowing qualifying run, hit a bump awkwardly and aggravated his already injured shoulder.
Neither has been declared out for the Olympic debut of skicross, set for Feb. 21 at Cypress Mountain. Both, however, leave the Winter X Games in worse shape than they came.
Which brings up a valid question: Should legit medal contenders in the most dangerous sports on the program be competing in an event that has no bearing on their Olympic qualifying this close to the start of the games?
"They've been doing this for a long time. They understand what it takes for them to get ready," said Mike English, the chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "If that was part of what they need to get ready, we say, 'Have your plan and stick to it. Don't deviate.' If the X Games was part of their preparation and warmup for Vancouver, so be it."
Puckett, hoping to compete at his fifth Olympics, said his injury should set back his recovery process at least a few days; he separated his shoulder in a race Jan. 13.
Rahlves, slated for his fourth Olympics, was putting pressure on the hip only hours after the accident. U.S. Ski and Snowboard officials said he was treated for a hip injury at the hospital and released late Sunday afternoon. The doctor who treated him after the wreck said the fact this is Rahlves' fourth dislocation should make the injury more manageable.
With six racers traversing a tight course filled with bumps, rollers and jumps, skicross — or Skier X, as it's called at the X Games — is every bit as dangerous as any sport at the Olympics. This week's injuries also included broken ribs and a mild concussion suffered by Austrian snowboardcross medal favorite Max Schairer.
Rahlves, 36, has had the X Games on his schedule for a long time, using it as his final tune-up before Vancouver.
Puckett, 37, said his plan was only to run through qualifying — he had no plans to race in the main races — so he could start getting some feel for competition after a long, post-injury layoff.
"I kind of got the go-ahead from the doctor to ski, and it made sense just to use this to train," Puckett said. "I wasn't going to jump on the course with five other guys, but wanted to get back up to speed because I didn't want to just show up to Vancouver after doing therapy and jump on the course."
The Winter X Games drew 65 out of 120 athletes who qualified for the Olympics in the so-called "extreme" sports — better-than-expected representation given how close the event is to the Vancouver.
In 2006, a number of athletes, including Gretchen Bleiler, Hannah Teter and Lindsey Jacobellis, elected to skip the X Games and go straight to the Turin Olympics. Jacobellis and Bleiler had injuries. The heavy travel also made the trip more difficult.
All three elected to participate this year.
"I understand it's a risk," said Jacobellis, who won her third straight Snowboarder X title Saturday. "But I've been training for this. This is my job. I work out really hard to protect myself from crashes. You can't keep running away, saying you've got to protect yourself."
The athletes also share a feeling of loyalty for the Winter X Games, which helped put many of them and their sports on the map, and will be here next year, and the year after — long after the Olympic torch in Vancouver has gone out.
"The Olympics aren't necessarily going to define my career if I win, if I get second, if I get 16th," said American Nate Holland, who won his fifth straight Snowboarder X event. "The X Games has definitely helped define my career. I'd like to return the favor by coming here and competing and putting on a show."
Then, of course, there is the money. There's nearly $800,000 up for grabs for skiers and snowboarders at the X Games. ESPN does not break down the prizes for first, second and third place, though it is considerable money for a group of athletes who have only one multimillionaire among them.
That would be Shaun White, who won on the superpipe Friday night, but only after a nasty accident in practice before the finals. He slammed his face on the side of the pipe — a wreck that has been played over and over again during the ESPN coverage.
White's representative said he was doing fine Sunday, two days after the wreck that left him with a big, red scrape across his lower left cheek — and gave everyone else a mighty scare.
It could have cost the U.S. Olympic team one of its gold medal favorites and biggest stars.
"For me, I snowboard," White said the night before the event, when asked why he was here. "It's what I do. I'm here to put down a pretty mean run, see the fans and have some fun. And every single time I can put myself in a pressure situation before the Olympics, it's just that much more practice. So, that's where I'm at."
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed to this story.