The Winter Olympics open Feb. 12 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and this year, ski cross will make its debut.
It's been a favorite at the Winter X Games for extreme action sports — and it's superfast, supercharged and superdangerous. The skiers come out of the gates four at a time, competing for space on the narrow, twisty half-mile course and jockeying for position. They finish in about 50 seconds and get up to speeds of 50 mph, with lots of twists and turns and bumps and jumps along the way.
At the Nature Valley World Cup ski cross final in Lake Placid, N.Y., over the weekend, skier Caitlin Ciccone said it's "like roller derby on skis." Olympian Daron Rahlves, 36, described it as a cross between motocross, NASCAR and bull riding.
"It's exciting; I love it," says Rahlves. "It's one of those new sports that definitely gets the blood boiling."
A Dangerous Sport
But for some professional skiers — like Jonny Moseley, who won Olympic gold in moguls in 1998 — it's too dangerous. He tried ski cross but stopped because he was scared of having a career-ending injury.
"Racing in a crowd is a whole other story. And it's scary. ... The factor that you deal with here that you don't deal with normally when you're competing is that somebody can take you out," he says.
Moseley's fears are warranted — Rahlves says he has seen his share of brutality on the slopes.
"You're getting beat up. There isn't one event that goes by that somebody doesn't get injured pretty bad, cause you're not always in control," says Rahlves. "It's the hardest thing about this sport."
At the ski cross final over the weekend, it didn't take long before a skier was in trouble.
Florent Astier of France was thrown off the course and flew into the netting. He was medevaced out. It turns out he fractured a vertebra in his neck and has a spinal cord injury. Doctors are waiting to see how he responds to surgery he had Sunday to determine if he's paralyzed. Three other skiers were taken down on sleds by medical staff during the finals.
But before details about Astier's injury were known, Dr. William Smith, an orthopedic surgeon and medical director for the World Cup, told NPR that life-threatening injuries are rare.
"We do see people fall and hit their heads, so we worry about concussions," he said. "An unconscious athlete is always of concern for a cervical spine injury, and then it tends to be more isolated extremity trauma."
America's Best Chances
The best chance for a U.S. ski cross medal at the Olympics could rest with Rahlves — who is considered among the best U.S. downhill racers ever. The Vancouver Games will be his fourth Olympics. He has competed in slalom, downhill and Super G, but has never won a medal; he retired from alpine racing. Now the father of young twins, Rahlves has come back in ski cross.
"It's awesome," he says. "People would be lying to you if they said they didn't have fun doing it."
Another top medal contender for the U.S. in ski cross is four-time Olympian Casey Puckett. He's endured a shocking number of spectacular crashes. And just two weeks ago, he separated his shoulder at a World Cup event in France. He had surgery, and he still hopes to compete in Vancouver next month.
"There's a lot on the line this year," says Tyler Shepherd, the ski cross coach for the U.S. team. "And people are certainly gearing up for the big day in February, when we get to debut skier cross to the world."
Shepherd says he doesn't worry that it's too dangerous.
"They do it to themselves — if they don't want to do it, they can give me the bib, and they can go home," says Shepherd. "This is the highest tour you can get to for skier cross. So there's no reason we should be building it down so the slowest skier is safe. Certainly, we want everyone to be safe and not have injuries, but at a certain point, you gotta know what you're doin' out there in order to compete on the World Cup."
Members of the U.S. Olympic ski cross team will be announced Tuesday.