Saturday, August 8, 2020

Home-grown in Crested Butte: The Puckett brothers and world of skiing

CB museum exhibit features local Olympic ski racers

by Peggy Puckett

Home-grown:Native to, characteristic of, developed in a particular region.” How does one’s environment inspire dreams, goals or greatness?

For Chris and Casey Puckett, Crested Butte became home from 1976 to 1984. The only native was younger brother, Jim, who was born in Gunnison in 1978. Chris and Casey, born in Boulder, made the trek at the ages of 6 and 4 with their parents. The log house at 212 Sopris, “the Puckett house,” sheltered and protected the young lads as their dreams developed. What defined those dreams? First, learning to ski with the other elementary school kids—friendships began to bud on the very first day. Crested Butte holds learning, sport, exercise, friendship and community close to the heart. Skiing, ski racing and playing in the snow helped make the cold winter months rather bearable.

Chris joined the Cyclones in 1977; Casey followed in 1978. The name depicted a group of boys and girls learning to push their limits: crash, get up, laugh and try again with rosy cheeks, broad smiles (some tears on occasion) and many miles of skiing in all conditions. They followed their coaches through powder, learned to run gates and jumped over everything. Crested Butte Mountain Resort applauded the efforts of these enthusiastic kids.

Second, age class racing provided the opportunity for setting goals and working to reach those goals. The comment most often heard about the Crested Butte Racing Club was: “Pound for pound, they were the best junior racers in the Rocky Mountain Division.” Other comments said “scrappy” and “fearless.”

In this environment, Chris and Casey excelled, pushed by each other and their peers. The coaches encouraged and prodded each racer to do better. As a part of the Crested Butte Racing Club, they both ended their junior racing at the top of their age groups.

In 1984 Chris left to attend high school at Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vermont. Crested Butte Academy had not yet been born—nothing to provide the next step in Colorado. Casey followed his brother to Burke in 1986. In this new environment, emphasis grew simultaneously toward education and ski racing. Chris and Casey knew continuing hard work and learning to ski different conditions would prepare them for the next goal—making the U.S. Ski Team.

Their rise in racing success and world rankings all came together when they both made the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France. Chris was 21 and Casey was 19. They hoped but dared not expect such an honor. Chris would race the Giant Slalom (GS) as the team’s number one GS skier. He was ready to make a showing for the United States when he made a mistake that ended in a DNF. Casey raced to 25th in GS. They were young—they would be back.

Both Chris and Casey dedicated their races to Jean Paul Simille, a dear family friend who was fighting cancer but made the trip to France to watch the boys. Simille, a man of many talents, loved to ski with Chris and Casey in Crested Butte. He operated a successful hair salon. He also co-owned Le Bosquet restaurant. He invited the Puckett family to stay in a family condominium in Val Morel for the Olympic Games. He passed away a few months after the Games. He has been greatly missed.

In the entire history of the Winter Olympic Games, which started alpine events in 1936, only two sets of American brothers attended the same Olympic Games and raced in the same event before 1992. Twenty years previously, Terry and Tyler Palmer made the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. Four years later in 1976, the Mahre brothers, Phil and Steve, made their debut at Innsbruck, Austria; competed again in 1980 in Lake Placid, New York; and again in 1984 in Sarajevo, Bosnia—after which they retired.

Chris was named to three World Junior Championship Teams and completed all 12 races (best result: fourth in Combined, 1988). He won on the North American Trophy Series (NorAm) circuit taking the Overall and GS titles in 1996, Super Giant Slalom (SG) titles in 1997 and 1998. He scored on the World Cup and raced in all the classic World Cup venues in Europe. In 1993 he made the World Cup finals in Åre, Sweden.

In 1991, a popular U.S. Ski Team coach, Dan Bean, was killed in a van accident while traveling to the U.S. Nationals in Crested Butte. In his honor, each year the winners in the men’s and women’s Combined/Overall titles at the U.S. Nationals are awarded the Dan Bean Award. In the years 1993 through 2001, Chris and Casey won this award six out of eight years: Chris in 1993, 1996 and 1997; Casey in 1995, 2000 and 2001.

Chris took national titles in Chile and Canada. A most rewarding title came in winning the Downhill (DH) at the 2000 U.S. Nationals in Jackson Hole, Wyo., denying a Canadian win. He was also named to two Federation International de Ski (FIS) World Championship teams in Japan and Spain. He represented the U.S. Ski Team for 13 years. While racing he matriculated at Dartmouth College in 1989 and graduated in 1997, studying in spring and summer. Chris retired before the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

Chris married Wendy and they have two ski racing sons, Cole and Cooper. They live in Steamboat Springs.

Casey won the World Junior Slalom (SL) title in 1991. He successfully raced on the NorAm circuit where he was Overall champ in 1992 and Overall and GS champ in 1998. He raced World Cup with his best finish in SG, a 12th at Aspen in 1998. Casey dedicated this race to Chris, who had fallen in training the day before and ended up in the hospital with season-ending injuries. Casey also had a 16th in SL at Chamonix, France and a 17th in SL at Vail in 1994. Casey matched his brother to win the GS title at the 2000 U.S. Nationals in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Casey was named to four FIS World Championship Teams—Japan, Spain, Vail and Austria. To finish out his alpine career, he was named to three more Winter Olympics: Lillehammer, Norway in 1994, where he placed seventh in the SL; Nagano, Japan in 1998; and Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002. During his 13 years with the U.S. Ski Team, Casey attended the University of Colorado when time allowed. He retired after Salt Lake.

However, he found a new way to activate his competitive juices and started with the Aspen XGames in SkiCross, winning two golds; then the Jeep King of the Mountain pro tour; followed by SkiCross World Cups; and finally a Fifth Winter Olympics on the Freestyle Team in SkiCross at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games, after which he retired a second time.

Casey has two daughters, Riley and Annalisa. Riley ski races. They live in Aspen.

Lessons learned at a young age can open doors to a future about which kids dream. Crested Butte provided the right time, the right place and the right people to influence two boys to achieve their dreams of skiing in the Olympics.

Chris and Casey will be featured at the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum during February. It is hoped that participants and families coming to Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte for the 40th Prater Cup (February 21-23) will be inspired by the exhibit. As each racer steps into the starting gate to begin competition, dream big. Enjoy the beauty and hospitality of this beautiful area. and good luck.

Finally, we thank Nel Burkett and the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum for putting together this exhibit. Your ideas, knowledge and patience have been very much appreciated.

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