Published February 21, 2010
WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — The men who finished second through 32nd did all the crashing, flipping and jostling — turning the skicross course into their own, snow-packed demolition derby.
The man who finished first? Not nearly as entertaining.
Hard, though, to criticize Michael Schmid of Switzerland, who left the drama for the others and kept the gold medal for himself Sunday, finding the easy way through the trouble-filled terrain to win the title in the Olympic debut of skicross.
"Once you're ahead, you can race your own race," Schmid said. "Once you're in front, it's easy. A lot easier than being behind somebody."
Pulling ahead early in each of his four heats, Schmid easily outpaced Austria's Andreas Matt and Norway's Audun Groenvold in the final. The fourth skier, Chris Del Bosco — a Colorado resident who competes for Canada — let third place slip when he got too aggressive on the next-to-last jump and went flailing, then falling out of contention.
Del Bosco wasn't the only one who lost control on the biggest day yet for a sport that entertains its fans almost as much as it hurts the skiers.
No more than 30 seconds into the first race, American Daron Rahlves lost any chance for the medal that has eluded him in three previous Olympics in Alpine.
One of the United States' most decorated downhillers, the 36-year-old Rahlves collided with France's Ted Piccard and landed hard on his back. He got up, skied to the finish, then writhed in agony at the bottom — a painful end to both his day, and his career.
"That's it for me," he said.
Hard to imagine too many of the 32 skiers who started the day would be eager to rush right back out there.
This is a brutal, free-for-all of an event, with four men and their eight skis and eight poles screaming down the mountain for each race, all of them seeking the perfect lines and taking not-so-perfect chances when desperation sets in.
Skicross is the cousin of snowboardcross, which made its Olympic debut to rave reviews in 2006. Wanting more of the same, the International Olympic Committee figured 'Why not?' and brought skicross in for this year.
The first two races of the day showed why.
Rahlves' wreck opened the proceedings and was followed shortly by a dustup between Anders Rekdal, who fell in the path of Simon Stickl, sending him pirouetting. That allowed Canadian Davey Barr and Errol Kerr, a New Yorker who trains in California and competes for Jamaica, to advance.
Later, Richard Spalinger of Switzerland got wiped out and hit the snow. The end of the replay from his helmet-cam showed nothing but sky — and his ski pole over his face, obscuring the view.
It's a made-for-TV sport, though the winners in skicross are, quite often, the ones who take all the fun out of it.
Schmid finished with the fastest time in qualifying, then won all four of his races without much of a fight. He won the first two World Cup events of the season, came into the Olympics ranked No. 1 in the world and couldn't find much of a challenge on a sunny, springlike day at Cypress Mountain.
"He's a damn good skier," Groenvold said. "He had good equipment, and he's a good skier. There was a lot of things going on."
Schmid's victory put a damper on the next chapter of Del Bosco's remarkable comeback story.
Addicted to drugs and alcohol four years ago, his sister intervened and got him into rehab, telling him he was running out of chances to turn his life around.
A man who was once lying in a ditch with a broken neck, almost sure to die had a passer-by not rescued him, found himself two good jumps away from an Olympic bronze medal. Or maybe silver. Del Bosco was trying to get ahead of Groenvold and Matt down the stretch, but got out of whack and took a gruesome tumble down the second-to-last big hill.
"You can ease up and settle in for a medal or try and prove how good you are," said Dave Ellis, high performance director for Canadian skicross. "I think, yeah, he made a risk and it's another fourth-place story for Canada, but for us I'm happy to see that he has clearly proven his talent out there."
American Casey Puckett is another skier who has plenty of talent, but no Olympic medal to show for it.
At his fifth Olympics, Puckett, like Rahlves, was trying to put an exclamation point on an Alpine career that has moved over to skicross for one last chance at Olympic glory.
Like Rahlves, who dislocated his hip three weeks ago, Puckett came to Vancouver dinged up — recovering from a badly separated shoulder.
And like Rahlves, Puckett finished last in his opening race.
"It easily could have gone the other way," Puckett said. "I just didn't have enough strength out of the start."
Still, he didn't have to endure any physical punishment on his trip down the mountain. Some days, in the wild sport of skicross, that can feel like a victory, even if it's not accompanied by a gold medal.
"I hope people were" entertained, Schmid said. "The skicross was good for the people. There were a lot of fights."