Casey Puckett: Fast and Fashionable

Before Casey Puckett traveled to Italy for the first World Cup ski cross races of this Olympic (and Olympic qualifying) season, he basically said he wasn't too worried about the qualifying side of things. Puckett, after all, has been to four Olympics already.

"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," he said.

Then Puckett went to Italy and in the first World Cup pegged a third-place finish on Dec. 21 — a result that registers as qualifying criteria No. 1 in the complex Olympic qualifying matrix. So he's pretty much on track there, though there are five more World Cups/Olympic qualifiers to go, beginning Jan. 5 in Austria.

ESPN Freeskiing caught up with the confident Mr. Puckett, 37, who hails from Aspen, to discuss his prospective fifth Olympics, ski cross fashion controversies, on-course roughhousing and how to win.

ESPN: How do you win this thing?
Casey Puckett: There are two components to ski cross. No. 1 is the start and the other is the skiing. The start is a lot like the start of a 100-meter dash — very important how you get off the blocks. But once you're going, then it's on. And it's the skiing portion — you're in traffic, you've got tactics, you're trying to do this difficult course at high speeds with people around you. Sometimes you have to avoid crashes and make passes; there's a lot going on out there. So have to have the speed, and you have to have the instincts to be able to pass, and you have to have the cool head to race in traffic. That's also what makes it a cool sport, too.

You're 37 now and you were 19 in 1992 at your first Winter Games in Albertville, France. Nostalgic?
Yes, it's pretty cool.

I have a whole quiver that I've been building over the last four years. They're all GS skis, a little bit modified for ski cross, in the range of 190 [cm].

What do you call this event anyway?
I think the official FIS term is "ski cross" and it's always been "skier X" at X Games, but it's "skiercross" to me.

You and D. Rahlves were longtime teammates on the U.S. Ski Team. Are you both still profiting off your alpine experience?
Daron and I have an advantage over most of the guys, because we've been there. We won't be overwhelmed by the spectacle of the Olympics. Having said that, it's just another race and a lot of things can happen in ski cross. So I don't go in thinking I'm going to dominate. I just go in like any other race — with a plan of winning and knowing a lot can happen. The fact that it's the Olympics, for me, won't make a difference. It's all just a race; if executed well, I'll come out on top.

What's your relationship with Daron like?
It's only a team sport up to the point where we discuss strategy, looking at the course, inspecting it, training together. So there's a team aspect to it, but once you're out there in the heats, it's every man for himself. Daron and I have known each other for a long time — we've raced on the same team for close to 20 years — so it's good to have a familiar face next to you, and we're friends.

You and Bode Miller used to room together on the road. Is the band getting back together?
My last few years on the U.S. Ski Team I roomed with Bode pretty regularly. That's the short answer.

Long answer?
Oh, I don't know. [Laughs] We got along well and we were racing the same races.

Thoughts on the ski cross clothing controversy?
The rules they've put forth make it so your clothes have to be 3 millimeters off your skin — loosely pinched — and 4 millimeters off your boot all the way up to your mid thigh. So that makes for somewhat baggy pants.

Have you seen what the kids are wearing these days?
Well, last year the French had suits that looked like race suits, but you were still able to pinch up that material. There was a little controversy around it because one of the very first rules of skiercross is that no suits are allowed.

It used to be made up of a bunch of big-mountain skiers who were very anti-race ... and they've tried to stick to that. But with the French and Austrian teams getting involved seriously, they don't want baggy pants. Because it makes a difference, you know. The more streamlined you can be, the faster you can go. ... I don't want to be in any baggier of a suit than I have to be. But still, you want that part of it — aerodynamics — to be neutral throughout so you win on skill and everything else. I mean, most of the athletes who started doing ski cross years ago liked it because you weren't in a damn downhill suit.

This sounds like a genuine international fashion flap. Call Cosmo or something.
The French and the Austrians were just trying to cut corners. It was annoying. No one really wanted to get to the point where we were all in race suits. We don't want to be in race suits. But if you polled all the athletes, half of 'em might say they'd want race suits — just because that would equalize things.

There's an attitude out there that's against speed suits; it doesn't look cool, race geeks. But personally, speed suits are not that comfortable. So it's nice to be in regular pants and jacket. And I also think it helps to identify us with the average rec skier — the average rec skier isn't going out skiing around the mountain in a speed suit.

Any other lurking controversies?
I think there will probably be some fighting about what's considered interference; or what you can do on the course that's acceptable and what's not. Some of the things that athletes can do [illegally] is knock your feet out from under you — something that's really easy to do and really hard to police. So there's a lot of dirty things that can happen out there that aren't completely buttoned up; things, too, about the start, about how you protest. So yes, it's open to a lot of controversy.

Media loves that; that and carnage.
I hope it's not that way. I hope it's clean and nothing stupid happens. But because it's so new, it's definitely open for some funky stuff: athletes protesting, do the protests work, are the protests legitimate. Everyone just wants a fair race. But I'm sure there will be some controversy at some point. Or maybe not. There's a possibility it all goes smoothly.

Fat chance. So take us through taking someone out?
You can take people out everywhere. But honestly, I don't want to talk about all the things you can do, because I don't want people using it against me. And I don't want that stuff quoted, either.

Is there no honor in ski cross?
You can be as dirty as you want. But a lot of times too you get immediate karmic backfire. And of course, the other perspective is just get out in front and then you don't have to deal with all that stuff.

Skiing in the pack is chaotic in-the-heat-of-the-battle wild. But when you're out front, it's a piece of cake. As Reggie Christ told me before my very first race: I said, "What's your strategy?" And he just laughed at me: "Get out in front, stay out in front." So it's that simple, really.