Former World Cup skier now gets kicks in X Games

ASPEN, Colo. – Casey Puckett stood in the sun beaming, surveying the scene after his practice run at the Winter X Games.

“This,” he said Saturday, looking out over the choked mass of sponsor tents and spectators streaming onto the base of Buttermilk, “is a circus.”

Aspen’s Puckett, 31, is a retired World Cup Alpine ski racer getting his kicks in the Winter X Games. He competes in skier cross, where six skiers race shoulder-to-shoulder down a course with obstacles like tabletops, jumps, banked turns and rollers. Speeds reach 50 miles per hour, somewhere between giant slalom and super-G of the alpine circuit.

“It’s a blast,” he said, just hours before winning his first Winter X Games gold medal in the event.

Of the 250 or so competitors at Buttermilk Mountain on Saturday, an estimated one-third are skiers. Turns out, the hottest new trend in snow sports is an old one – skiing. Gaining in popularity among the under-21 age group is freeskiing, where skiers go where snowboarders do: into halfpipes and terrain parks.

Besides Skier X, they compete in the super-pipe and slopestyle, where skiers show off on the same obstacle-strewn run as snowboarders that includes rails, kickers, jumps and gaps.

Freeskiing, not to be confused with freestyle skiing – the Olympic sport with moguls and aerials events – is still getting its legs. Snowboarding was contested in the 1998 and 2002 Olympics, when it struck gold with three Americans sweeping the medals in the men’s event. Snowboarder cross will be a medal sport in the 2006 Olympics.

But some say snowboarding has gotten so popular it’s no longer cool. After all, how hip can snowboarding be when 40-year-olds do it? Or when corporate America is churning out commercials? Or when it’s an – egad! – Olympic sport?

Like snowboarders, freeskiers have attitude, too.

One of the X Games’ biggest stars is Tanner Hall, a scruffy 20-year-old who cites famed bad-boy snowboarder Danny Kass as a role model. Hall won the Winter X men’s ski slopestyle and was second in the super-pipe last year.

In terrain parks and half-pipes everywhere, skiing’s growing popularity means snowboarders have to share their space.

“As long as they’re not rude to us, we’ll be nice to them as well,” said snowboard star Kelly Clark, who won Olympic gold in 2002. “I have a ton of freeskiing friends. We get along well.”

Freeskiing is “definitely a huge trend right now,” said Ashley Boyden, spokeswoman for industry analyst Colorado Ski Country. “I’ve heard people say skiing is cool again because of freeskiing. That’s definitely a huge draw for youth.”

With their oversized jackets and baggy pants, freeskiers look just like snowboarders. At the core of the trend is the development of skis with tips at both end, to allow skiers to go forward or backward, known as “skiing switch.”

“What freeskiing has done is recreate a youth component to skiing,” said Patrick Crawford, editor of Freeskier Magazine. “It’s giving young people a reason to ski rather than switch to snowboarding.”

That’s welcome news to a ski industry that declined 15 percent from 1995-2002 as snowboarding took off. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, there were 14.2million skiers in 2002, and they spent $283million. That compares to 16.7million in 1995, when they spent $347million.

Enter freeskiing. The number of twintip skis sold increased 65 percent last season to 23,000 over winter 2001, according to the New York Times, citing trade group SnowSports Industries America. The skis usually sell for upward of $500.

The X Games have already identified the newest hot thing, adding the freeskiing half-pipe to its snowboard-intensive menu of events three years ago.

So has the snow sports industry.

“The ski companies have a lot of interest in (their products) winning the race,” Puckett said. “They’re just as serious about it as guys in the World Cup.”