Skiercross is picking up a head of steam
NEWRY, Maine - In high school, Justin Rhuda played football and raced on the ski team.
Now the University of Vermont sophomore from Beverly, Mass., takes his skills to the skiercross course for thrills, chills, and spills.
"Skiercross is a combination of everything," said the 19-year-old former St. John's Prep slalom racer before taking to the course at Sunday River in the Maine Mountain Series. "This throws everything into one competition using skills from all different areas of skiing."
Skiercross is where skiers start side by side, ready to hurl themselves from the starting gate down a course loaded with banked turns, rollers, and jumps.
The sport - also called Skier X and ski cross - made its big-time debut in the 1998 X Games. In 2006, the International Olympic Committee announced it would be in the 2010 Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The US Ski Team gave its blessing in November and named former US Freestyle Ski Team member Tyler Shepherd as the first US Ski Cross coach. The first World Cup ski cross event in North America was held this month at Deer Valley, Utah, and television viewers can watch skiercross during the Jeep King of the Mountain series.
"Using the X Games as an example because that's the one everyone sees, you see the world's best ski cross athletes competing," said Shepherd, 28, by phone from Squaw Valley, Calif.
"In terms of evolving, we see lots of course modifications happening that challenge the skiers in different ways. That way you separate the good skiers from the great skiers and that is what we like to see and where the sport should go."
Though young, skiercross has attracted veterans such as Olympians Daron Rahlves and Casey Puckett, who are looking to continue their competitive careers. Rahlves, one of the country's most celebrated skiers, won the X Games gold medal in January while Puckett is an X Games multi-gold-medalist who placed second in that Deer Valley World Cup race.
"All of my best guys are in their 30s and young guys have to keep that in mind," said Shepherd. "There is a lot of interest from young skiers and if they don't have the fundamentals these guys have, it is hard to make headway."
Youth is found at races like the Maine Mountain Series under the direction of Sean Keough. The Cumberland, Maine, snowboarder has run the United States of America Snowboard Association-sanctioned series for 10 years, an event that attracted snowboarders to compete in slalom, giant slalom, boardercross, slopestyle, and halfpipe.
As boardercross grew in popularity, skiers wanted a piece, so a few years ago Keough added them.
"We exist for snowboarders and freestyle athletes to compete, grow, and challenge themselves," he said. "They can take this to wherever they want to go."
They do. Freeskiing ace Simon Dumont from Bethel, Maine, and current US Snowboard Team riders Scotty Lago (Seabrook, N.H.) and Jonathan Cheever of Saugus, Mass., have competed in the series, according to Keough.
Skiers are in the minority, accounting for perhaps 15 percent of the entrants, says Keough. Last Saturday, competitors ranged in age from 6 to 44, and from kids in weekend Gould Academy and Carrabassett Valley Academy programs to curious adults.
"I aired out on the last gate and it took me a little off guard," said Steve Hassett, 44, of Brunswick, following his practice runs. "I got way more air than I expected."
Skiercross has been linked to motocross and its fast-flying sledding action. One skier who made the crossover is Max Garneau, 24, of Twin Mountain, N.H. A snowmobile mechanic who raced motocross, he now travels the Northeast to compete in skiercross, even garnishing a USASA gold medal last season in his 20-plus open category.
"A lot of the strategy carries over to the skiercross course," he said. "On skis, it's just you. There isn't anything mechanical. You hope your bindings stay on."
Crashes are part of the sport. Even little Cooper Whittier of Cumberland knows that. He's 6, and a first-grader now in his second year of skiercross. His first year he took a jump wrong, did a face plant, and his skis came off. His father ran onto the course to help him put his gear back on.
"One judge asked the other if that was legal," recalled his mother, Jennifer, with a laugh. "He said, 'It is if you're 5.' "
At 13, Blake Rhuda - Justin's brother - knows he is part of a growing sport.
"This is fun for me," he said, a skier since age 2. "I think it will be bigger and bigger and more people will do it."
There are few skiercross/boardercross courses in New England. Upcoming competitions include an event Saturday at Smugglers' Notch in Vermont, Feb. 23 at Sunday River, and a March 1 race at Attitash in Bartlett, N.H.
Shepherd says it all comes to down to strategy. Getting the hole shot - first out of the gate - is important, but so is judging when to pass on the turns or knowing if the guy behind you is good in the jumps.
He also wants to see more female athletes in the sport.
"Women can handle it just like the men," Shepherd said. "We have less women and that doesn't need to be the case."
MiKayla Briere, 16, of Lincoln, N.H., sees skiercross as an opportunity.
Formerly an able-bodied snowboarder who competed for three years in boardercross, she now competes for the New England Disabled Ski Team in skiercross in a sit-ski because of a degenerative hip disease. Mono Skier X is a Winter X Games event.
"There are so few adaptive female skiers and even a smaller number who are willing to huck themselves down a skiercross course," she said. "I like the competition and being aggressive."