The Lives of Olympic Skiers
by Diane Hartman
Assuming you wanted to raise two of your children to be Olympic skiers, with all the hard work and sacrifice that entails, how would you do it?
First, get a mother who’s a world-class skier, says Denver Assistant City Attorney Paul Puckett, describing his wife Peggy. "The kids imprint," Paul said, "and they ski just like whomever they skied with at first."
Peggy was a former ski racer, a U.S. Team hopeful and she raced with the CU Ski Team in 1966-68.
Paul and Peggy’s two oldest sons, Chris, 32, and Casey, 29, began their Olympic experiences skiing in the 1992 Albertville Olympics. Chris was 21 when he skied as the first American in the Giant Slalom, but he fell. Casey was 19. He finished 25th in the Giant Slalom, but fell also.
In Salt Lake, Casey (who roomed with premier American skier, Bode Miller) finished in the Combined Downhill, although "he went down, popped back up, lost some time, and was 2.5 seconds out going into the Combined Slalom. He disqualified in the first run. That was it," Paul said, "but he had another 10 days to play." Casey was interviewed on television, and "he did a great interview. He’s a real charmer," Paul added. "He’s always had a lot of luck and he is very physically talented. The girls think he’s gorgeous."
He remembers back to when the boys were three and five—"that’s when they started skiing," Paul had taken a job with a firm in Crested Butte. Peggy had been a ski instructor while he was in law school. They started them on lessons, with their mom as coach. "We put the best skiers with the youngest kids. It’s an advantage. A lot of things go into developing talent, and the first coach can be pivotal."
The Crested Butte Ski Club then hired Frank MacConnell from back east to be the head coach. He had raced, was young and very enthusiastic about racing. Paul said, "With their mother and Frank in the lead, the boys became very dedicated . . . obsessed. They loved it. They skied behind Frank like he was the Pied Piper."
Another advantage they had was "there was nothing to do. We had no TV, no organized sports like baseball or track. There was snow on the ground until school was out. During spring, they built a track they could ski on and use well into the summer." When they weren’t skiing, "they would get better just thinking about it over the summer."
As junior racers, Chris, who was ranked the best racer in the world at age 13, Paul said, was noticed by Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. They recruited Chris, "then naturally Casey wanted to go." Burke was the first school of its type. The students skied six days a week and the "entire emphasis was on becoming a world class ski racer and getting a good education at the same time, which both boys did.
"Casey won the World Junior Slalom C championship in 1991. He won dozens of titles. Chris has won the National Downhill title; Casey won the title in Giant Slalom and Super G. For five years, they dominated the ‘overall best racer title’ either one or the other."
For the parents’ part, Paul said, "We just show up at their races, support what they are doing, cheer them on and then tell them there will always be another race."
But will there be?
Paul can tell you about the falls, gashes, sprains, broken parts, trips to the hospital, concussions, surgeries, lengthy rehabs, the victories and defeats. It takes a toll, and "soon they’ll be to the point when there won’t be another race."
Chris, who graduated from Dartmouth, is in Steamboat Springs, married to Wendy and has a toddler named Cole. He is coaching the "ability class," which are 15-19 year old boys and girls. "And he is still racing. He’s coaching older kids and racing against them. He’s still winning. He’s king of the hill in Steamboat." Casey lives outside old Snowmass with his wife, another ski racer, Kate McBride. Paul said Casey is a talented artist and "probably wouldn’t be a bad actor." Casey is now Chris’ coaching counterpart in Aspen. "It’s a great way for them to give back to the sport they have loved doing for so many years."
Peggy and Paul still ski, and they had a wonderful time at the Utah Olympics, in part because Peggy grew up skiing on Snow Basin, where Casey sped down the hill at 80 m.p.h. in the Olympic Combined event. Many locals cheered for Casey and the Puckett family—making this Olympics very memorable.