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But as ski cross homes in on its true identity, it is increasingly taking on the look and feel of elite-level alpine racing. In bringing ski cross into the U.S. Ski Team family last year, the Americans were putting it on more or less equal footing with the national alpine team. But they were actually a little late in doing so, and at times the cross team looks a little like the runt of the litter among national teams. The 2008–2009 team, for example, consisted of three funded athletes (Rahlves, Puckett and another former U.S. Team speed specialist, Jake Fiala) and coach Shepherd, whose role was hardly a grandly magisterial one. As Puckett puts it, Shepherd must be a no-job-too-small multitasker—“manager, coach, physical therapist and van driver.” Organizationally, that puts the Americans a step behind the Canadians, the French and an Austrian team with at least four coaches, who scour the Alps for young skiers with serious cross potential.
At World Cup events, wax technicians can be found working their magic in basements and back rooms. Prepping one’s own skis—a very freestyle concept—just doesn’t cut it anymore. Beating the Americans to an important punch, the Canadians hired a true star of the ski-tech world, the U.S.’s own Willi Wiltz—the guy who greased Tommy Moe’s Dynastars for his 1994 Olympic-gold run in Lillehammer.