Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club ski cross team member Chris Barounos practices his start Wednesday at Howelsen Hill. This is the first year of the ski cross team at the Winter Sports Club.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club ski cross team member Chris Barounos practices his start Wednesday at Howelsen Hill. This is the first year of the ski cross team at the Winter Sports Club.

Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club starts ski cross program

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Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club ski cross coach Brett Buckles, left, along with athletes, from right, Charlie Fisher, Stefan Kowynia, Lesley Wilson, Maggie McElhiney, Chris Barounos and Penn Lukens.

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Chris Barounos, left, and Stefan Kowynia train Wednesday at Howelsen Hill.

— At age 10, Charlie Fisher is still a year out from being able to participate in ski cross competitions.

But the fifth-grader is doing everything he can to make sure that when he does finally get to compete, he’ll be on top. On Wednesday at Howelsen Hill, Charlie joined five other ski cross racers and coach Brett Buckles for training.

It’s the first official year of an organized ski cross team with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

The team has eight to 10 members and already has competed in a few events. It’s the first junior team of its kind in the country. The team practices Wednesday evenings at Howelsen and Saturdays at Steamboat Ski Area and is classified under the snowboarding team.

“The reason I joined is because it’s the perfect combination of speed, jumps, and you’re racing head to head,” Charlie said. “I hope this is my sport. I’m not really good against the clock.”

Ski cross, compared with other Olympic sports, is still in its infancy. The sport debuted at the 2010 Olympics, and there really is no pipeline from youth or developmental programs to the higher end.

But the newest Winter Sports Club coach is out to change that.

Buckles, who was on the U.S. Alpine Ski Team for several years before injuries derailed her career, was at one time the United States’ lone female ski cross competitor. She did the sport for four years and was considered the country’s best hope for an Olympic medal in the sport. She was training for a World Cup in France during the 2008 season when she caught an edge before a jump and flew 50 to 60 feet. The crash caused a compression fracture to her pelvis.

After a long and successful recovery, Buckles knew she would get into coaching, she just wasn’t sure when.

But with interest piquing in the fall, Winter Sports Club Snowboard Director Jon Casson couldn’t coach all the ski cross athletes. He asked Buckles if she’d be interested in coaching.

“I chose ski cross because that’s where I left my heart in skiing,” she said. “I’ve been through too much, and my body has been through too much. It’s to the point where I can’t do it anymore because of my health. But I want to be able to give back that experience and knowledge I’ve built that I feel like not a lot of people in this country have right now.”

For Buckles, the opportunity to coach and get back into skiing, and especially ski cross, presents a unique challenge.

Because there are no organized junior programs, Buckles thinks Steamboat has a legitimate chance of becoming a breeding ground for future Olympians in the sport.

The logistics also speak to that. At the 2010 games, the United States had no female ski cross competitors and the two men — Casey Puckett and Daron Rahlves — are on the tail ends of their careers.

“Not a lot of people do it,” said 13-year-old Lesley Wilson, who along with fellow eighth-grader Maggie McElhiney has finished in the top three of every event this season. “It’ll be easier to make the Olympics.”

The Steamboat team has been to five competitions and produced top results at each. The team is prepping for the National Championships in early April at Copper Moun­tain.

“It’s more fun than going by yourself against the clock,” said 17-year-old Chris Barounos, who in his first year finished fifth at Nationals last season. “It’s more of an adrenaline rush. You can see who is winning. It’s more exciting as a spectator and as a competitor.”

And it’s the fun part that sets ski cross apart. Barounos was an Alpine skier until eighth grade but got burnt out on it. He was off race skis until last season, when he found ski cross.

“It’s like Chinese downhill,” he said with a smile.

The program will more than likely move to two training nights and a day at the ski area next year.

Buckles also plans to go to the U.S. Ski Team meetings in the spring and hopes to meet with U.S. ski cross coach Tyler Shepherd.

“We’re really trying to create a pipeline with my program and a junior program,” Buckles said. “But we’re already ahead of the game against anybody in the country.”

With Buckles’ knowledge of the sport, it’s hard to not expect to see results. The skiers work on starts Wednesdays at Howelsen — probably the biggest factor in ski cross.

They also work on giant slalom turns, being comfortable in the air and being aggressive. And although Buckles’ competitive career is over, she said she thinks she has a lot to give back to the sport.

“We have a whole new program in Steamboat that has the opportunity to produce a bunch more Olympians,” she said. “Realistically, these kids are the ones that could be in the 2014 Olympics in Russia.”

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