VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - As the Olympics’ newest and hippest event, ski-cross promises to deliver some bone-jarring excitement when the sport makes its debut at next year’s Winter Games.
Ski-cross, where four skiers race down a mountain shoulder-to-shoulder, carries the kind of street credibility capable of attracting the younger audience that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) covets.
The X-Games generation, however, might cringe at the idea that some of the first Olympic medals handed out could go to skiers in their 30s.
Certainly experience ruled on foggy Cypress Mountain at the weekend as Aleisha Cline, a 38-year-old mother-of-two, put down her marker as an Olympic medal contender with victory in a World Cup event.
Chris Del Bosco, a reformed alcoholic and comparatively young at 26, elbowed his way across the finish line first in the men’s event to give Canada a sweep of World Cup races that also served as Winter Games test events.
Familiar faces abound in the sport. American Daron Rahlves, the 2001 super-G world champion, now 35 and a father of twins, is back racing, as is his former Alpine ski team mate Casey Puckett, 36, whose two children are cheering him on as he bids for a spot on his fifth U.S. Olympic team.
Reigning ski-cross World Cup champion Ophelie David of France is the mother of an eight-year-old, while Magdalena Iljans of Sweden had her two children with her in Vancouver.
”Magda, Ophelie and myself, we’ve been doing it (ski-cross) since almost the very beginning,“ said Cline, a ski-cross pioneer and four-times X-Games champion, who ended a five-year retirement to pursue her Olympic dream. ”I could be their mother and I give them lots of advice but I love it.
”If you love it and it’s something you’re good at and you’re smart and lucky, you can have a lengthy career.
”I just had a baby and to leave my family is one of the biggest, hardest, most challenging things I’ve ever done my whole life.
”I‘m not a real technical skier. I speed skied 215 kph, I‘m a rider and I‘m good in the air.
“I don’t have an Alpine national team background; I have a ski bum background.”
Ski-cross’s Olympic arrival caps a spectacular rise for a sport that only a few years ago did not exist.
Following the success of boarder-cross, the X Games developed ski-cross as a made-for-television freestyle event, sending four competitors at a time hurtling down the slopes over man-made jumps and through sharp turns on skis instead of snowboards.
With the IOC desperate to keep the Games relevant, snowboard was added to the Olympic line-up at the 1998 Nagano Games followed by boarder-cross in Turin in 2006.
Described as roller derby on skis, ski-cross is expected to bring the same energy to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, with athletes and officials predicting a spectacular Olympic debut for the sport.
”Ski-cross is going to come out being the belle of the ball after 2010,“ Peter Judge, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association told Reuters. ”There are such different elements to the sport it opens up a new avenue of athletes who see ski racing differently.
”It is a great new addition. It’s going to be phenomenal.
“It has all the elements, raw excitement and action, athletic prowess.”
Like freestyle and snowboard, ski-cross races play out to a thumping backdrop of hip-hop music and bellowing course announcers who refer to skiers by nicknames such as The Dominator, The Dark Lord, Big Dog and Bonsai Warrior.
At its core, however, the sport has more in common with the ultra-competitiveness of Alpine skiing -- from which most ski-cross racers come -- than the laid-back camaraderie of snowboarding.
Ski-cross has provided a destination for skiing cast-offs and free spirits, who possess razor-sharp competitive instincts but failed to flourish in Alpine racing’s regimented structure.
One example is Del Bosco, an immensely talented skier with dual Canadian-American citizenship, who was booted off the U.S. development ski team at 17 for smoking cannabis and slipped into a life of drugs and alcohol.
The downward spiral continued until one night he was found unconscious in a Colorado creek bed with a broken neck following another drunken binge.
”Everybody had sort of given up on me,“ said Del Bosco, who recovered from the injury and also spent time in jail for drunk driving. ”Reflect on all that, it’s an amazing journey that I’ve had.
”This stuff is just icing on the cake. I‘m just trying to have fun, working hard and hopefully good things will come.
”“For me this sport came pretty quick...this is just the start.”
Editing by Clare Fallon