Chris Del Bosco rode the chair lift to the starting gate at Cypress Mountain on Sunday, just another unshaven, burly skier who had been out of the sport, out of mind or out of luck in recent years. In fact, the start list for the Olympic debut of skicross read like a casting call for The Full Monty: There was a construction worker from Switzerland (Michael Schmid); a father of twins from the U.S. who retired from skiing in 2006 (Daron Rahlves); and a recovering alcoholic representing Canada (Del Bosco). Skicross is the only new event in the Winter Games, an extreme sport rooted in the wild-child culture of the X Games, the equivalent of a wintry sack race down a Slip 'n Slide. But the competitors in Vancouver were mature adults, not carefree youths. "It's like when we were kids," said Rahlves. "The first one down the mountain got the hot chocolate."
For an Olympic gold medal, four skiers in each of 16 heats plunged side by side down a slushy course that dropped 700 feet over seven tenths of a mile as it snaked through eight turns, over washboard bumps and a half-dozen jumps. The danger thrilled 4,344 fans who spent a day rubbernecking spectacular crashes. Anders Rekdal of Norway was launched over the side of the course when he clipped a competitor on a pass attempt. Rahlves, just a month removed from a dislocated hip, limped away after a midair collision with France's Ted Piccard, but no serious injuries were reported.
This is a sport for the experienced skier with the heart of an adrenaline junkie. "I think it's good to scare yourself," said Rahlves, 36, a three-time Olympic Alpine racer for the U.S. who took up skicross in '07 after a year of retirement. "It makes you feel alive." The decision in 2006 to add skicross to this year's Olympic program made Schmid, 25, a burned-out Alpine skier as a teen, believe there was more to his future than repairing potholes on a road crew. "This is better," he said through an interpreter on Sunday. He was smiling, still holding the flowers and wearing the gold medal he had been given 30 minutes earlier. In a harrowing final heat, Schmid, who is ranked No. 1 in the world, pulled ahead of his three competitors with a powerful start. He never looked back as Matt Andreas of Austria, Audun Groenvold of Norway and Del Bosco fought for silver and bronze.
The 27-year-old Del Bosco was a medal favorite for Canada, although he grew up on the slopes of Vail, Col. He was an Alpine phenom as a teen but prone to self-sabotage. A positive test for marijuana at age 17 got him kicked off the U.S. developmental team. In December 2004 he nearly died when, after a drinking binge, he was found lying on an icy creek bed in Vail with a broken neck. The following year he spent 90 days in a rehab facility but then relapsed; in '06 he was charged with DUI twice in four months. After the second DUI he spent 10 days in jail and 90 days under house arrest. "I went against him [in skicross] six years ago," said American Casey Puckett, 37, who, like Rahlves, failed to advance in his heat. "He was a mess."
Del Bosco has said he hasn't had a drink since the fall of 2006. In '07, Canadian coaches, knowing he had dual citizenship because his father is Canadian, recruited him for Olympic skicross with one catch: a zero-tolerance policy. He craved a medal for the country that gave him a second chance. But on his last jump, after he had moved from fourth place to third, Del Bosco took an aggressive line. He went sideways and fell in a tangle of skis, out of the running, off the podium. "I wasn't content with third," Del Bosco said, his voice shaking. "I wanted a little more for everyone, for my country." A tear rolled past injuries from the crash: a shiner under his eye, a gash on his nose, a scratch on his cheek. This was the face of Olympic skicross.