But as ski cross grows in relevance and prestige—Olympic acceptance being a key badge of acknowledgement—it is colored by a singular oddity for a new sport: It is growing in a top-down way.
Relatively few races at the grassroots level give young racers the opportunity to develop their skills and grow up with the sport. As a result, Olympic ski cross races will be populated almost entirely with veteran skiers moving over from the alpine racing ranks—not hot, young up-and-coming crossers. That explains, at least in part, the presence of Rahlves and Puckett. Tomas Kraus, last year’s World Cup overall champion, fits the cross biographical template perfectly: After ho-hum results as an alpine racer, the 35-year-old Czech has found success in a late-career switch to ski cross.
The Olympics may change that pattern. “It’s been a slow process educating resorts and local ski clubs on how to run an event,” Shepherd says. “But maybe they’ll see the Olympics and start building courses.” And maybe in the near future, kids will grow up as cross racers.
But for now, cross is a country for old men. And if it were all about racing credentials, Rahlves, with his intuitive brilliance at finding speed on course, would be a short-odds favorite for the Olympic podium. Qualification rounds, when it’s just one man against the clock, tell the story: