Let the Olympic qualifying begin

Keeping up with the Rahlves's... at the U.S. Ski Cross training camp in Telluride. Ian Fohrman/Red Bull Photofiles

After wrapping up a productive training camp at Telluride on Saturday, most of the U.S. Ski Cross team boarded planes yesterday for Italy and the first World Cup races of the season. The double-header opener — two races apiece for men and women — in Innichen/San Candido, Dec. 21-22, serves up the first meaningful racing of the 2009/10 Olympic qualifying campaign. Five more World Cups, in Austria, France (2), Ontario and, finally, Lake Placid, N.Y., on Jan. 24, also double as Olympic qualfiers. (Full WC SX schedule here.)

Qualifying for the Olympics is never a slouch operation. But it's particularly confusing and complex with respect to ski cross. For one, it is ski cross' Olympic debut, so there is the uncharted waters factor. Then there is a cap. By Olympic designation, ski cross is grouped with moguls and aerials in the "freestyle skiing" category, and nations may only send 18 "freestyle skiing" athletes.

Moguls, aerials and ski cross may qualify up to eight athletes each — four men, four women — but there aren't enough spots for everybody. So not only are freestyle athletes competiting against their fellow U.S. teammates for Olympic spots, they're also competing with moguls, aerials and ski cross skiers too.

"It's not a given. And it is confusing. To a certain degree, I would love to choose the team," says Tyler Shepherd, head coach of the U.S. Ski Cross Team. "But it's not up to me. It's all up to the results from these World Cups."

"What I've been telling the athletes is that they can't concern themselves with all this. They just have to worry about skiing solid and getting solid results. And that's going to, at a minimum, get them in a spot to qualify."

Then there's the quota system — countries must first qualify for "quota" spots, or starting Olympic spots, in order for its athletes to be able to qualify for that slot as an individual. The Olympic Ski Cross field will feature 70 athletes — 35 men, 35 women — and quota slots are based on the Olympic Winter Games World Rank List (men and women). With the coming seven races, the rankings are likely to shuffle, but coach Shepherd says the cut-off for Olympic quota spots will probably be in the 40s — beyond the size of the each men's and women's field because of the cap at four (men and women) for each nation's ski cross athletes.

"I go off the assumption [the U.S.] will earn full quota spots for men and women in moguls and aerials; those are very strong programs. So then there's two spots left. As it stands now, we've earned four quota spots for men and we don't have any quota spots for women," says Shepherd.

"So outside of those two spots that we know we have for sure, we're going to have to beat out, results-wise, moguls or aerials skiers. And that's what the objective criteria will determine. It comes down to, basically, who has the best results in the qualifiers this season?"

Qualifying criteria, in descending order, include: One World Cup podium finish; two top-5 finishes; one top-5 finish; and top 8, 10 or 12 finishes. (See the full 12 page document about qualifying here.)

The U.S. Ski Cross team is made of two funded athletes, Daron Rahlves and Casey Puckett, and other "non team" athletes who are funding themsleves: Jean Cristopher "Biche" Rudigoz, Justin Johnson, Pat Buran, Scott Horn, Caitlin Ciccone, John Teller and Langley McNeal, according to Shepherd.

Puckett, a longtime U.S. Ski Team alpine racer, has already been to four Olympics, dating back to 1992 in Albertville. He is planning on making Vancouver his fifth.

"Not that it's not anyone's game, but I'm ranked fourth in the world right now and Daron's Daron, so in terms of qualifying, to me, that's not necessarily the worry right now. For me, it's whether I win or not; whether I get a medal this time," says Puckett.

Says Shepherd, "That 18 spots cap, that hurts us. Canada is also very strong across the freestyle board, but I think we're the only two countries that are going to be challenged by the team cap. Still, I'd rather be part of a country that's strong across the freestyle board with medal contenders."

"Of course I'd love to have a women competing in skiercross at the Olympics, but they have their backs up against the wall to do so—because we have a very strong moguls and aerials team coming into these Winter Games. I mean the moguls just done with their first World Cup in Finland and I believe they had two people on the podium and several other results that were notable."

Meanwhile, coming off the Telluride camp and quantum physics qualifying science aside, things are looking good from Shepherd's perspective.

"We just had this very successful camp where we were running laps on the course with as many guys on course at the same time as we could. Some race simulations, start simulations, and then every afternoon Daron and Casey were out testing skis. I think everyone's anxious to get underway here, get the season going and get some results and come out strong with some podium finishes."

"It's nice for me to know that all these guys have put the work in, and I have no doubt in my mind that Daron and Casey are capable of going out and winning."