Puckett holds off flying Fiala to win skiercross gold medal
summit daily news
ASPEN ” The hype surrounding this year’s talent-stocked men’s skiercross competition focused mainly on the matchup between hometown favorite and veteran Casey Puckett and accomplished World Cup alpine racer Daron Rahlves.
But on the final hit of the final heat, it was Puckett holding off an airborne Jake Fiala of Frisco to take his second Winter X Games gold.
“Jake came up on me like a freight train,” Puckett recalled afterward, “and he was ready to make a pass for the win.”
Fiala, who overcame slow starts to make up ground late in each of his three heats, ran out of room trying to squeeze in left of Puckett before the huge final jump, and spectators in the finish corral were witness to a spectacular crash as Fiala spun out of his landing and tumbled violently into the fencing at the finish line.
Luckily for him, the carnage did not rob him of a silver medal as he slid across the finish line only inches before Enak Gavaggio of France.
Describing his Atomic teammate’s late move near the finish, Puckett said, “I was concerned. I don’t want to put people into the fence, but I’m going to protect my lead.”
For the 31-year-old Fiala, finishing behind Puckett, 34, is familiar territory; he’s never beaten him in a handful of races over the past two years since he began following the skiercross circuit.
After an aggressive move in the “Daytona” turn section before the last flier, Fiala took an unusual low line that helped him quickly pass Gavaggio and Canada’s Stan Hayer. Then he set his sights on Puckett.
“I thought I could catch (Puckett) too. I just went to his left, and he veered me off a little bit,” Fiala said, his nose a still bloodied by his foray into the fencing. “I was just psyched to get second.”
As Puckett skated into the finish corral, he raised his hands in celebration amid dozens of family and friends on hand for the local’s victory, which follows the gold he won in 2004.
Lost in the shuffle of the final heat was Rahlves, who found himself in traffic and in trouble shortly after the start. Crossing tips and tails with other racers, Rahlves spun out losing any momentum that he was beginning to build up.
“I kind of got trapped at the start,” Rahlves, a former world champion in super G and arguably the greatest U.S. speed event racer in history, said of his troubled trip in the final heat.
During qualifying and in the first few heats of the day, Rahlves appeared to be the fastest racer of the lot. He had the quickest qualifying time, won his opening heat handily, and was seemingly set up for a showdown with Puckett in the final.
“I was well aware of how fast Daron had been skiing,” Puckett said later. “I for sure thought that Daron would be my major competition, but it turned out to be my teammate Jake hounding me.”
One of the most exciting events of the X Games because of the all the bumping and grinding mixed with high speeds, skiercross has gained more and more visibility of late, as accomplished racers like Rahlves, and a handful of other notable skiers with U.S. Ski Team experience, dedicate themselves to the sport.
Recently, the International Olympic Committee voted to include skiercross as a medaled event in the Winter Olympics, next held in Vancouver in 2010.
Despite their ages (skiercross racers are some of the oldest athletes at the X Games), both Puckett and Fiala had Vancouver on their mind after the dust settled on this year’s X Games race. Both said they hoped to still be competing in the sport when 2010 comes around.
French celebrate on women’s podium
American girls were few and far between in the women’s skiercross final, as a trio of Frenchwomen stood on the podium after their Sunday showdown.
Ophelie David held off all comers to take the gold medal, improving on her previous best finish ” a bronze medal last year.
Fellow Frenchwomen Valentine Scuotto and Meryll Boulangeat finished second and third, respectively.
Recounting the race, David said, “I had a really nice start … and really, really fast skis.”
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