WILMINGTON, N.Y. — The old man can still ski.
Coming off a three-week layoff, 36-year-old Daron Rahlves of the United States, on the cusp of his fourth Winter Olympics, won two of three heats on Sunday to make it to the World Cup skicross finals at Whiteface Mountain before faltering to a fourth behind winner Christopher Delbosco of Canada.
“I’ve had some excitement,” Rahlves said. “Making the finals was all right, but being the fourth guy isn’t so cool.”
Canada’s Kelsey Serwa won the women’s race, holding off Fanny Smith of Switzerland and World Cup leader Ophelie David of France in the final, while Ashleigh McIvor of Canada was fourth.
In the men’s final, Delbosco gained the lead at the start and never relinquished it, beating Andreas Matt of Austria and Canadian teammate David Duncan across the line as Rahlves faltered when the gate dropped and couldn’t recover.
“There was so much loose snow out there on the outside line, I got hit by a ton of snow and lost my speed,” said Rahlves, who was the highest-seeded skier in the final group and did not have lane choice. “I lost way too much ground at the top to have a chance to do any moves. It was like somebody threw a rug out.”
That didn’t happen in the semifinals over the undulating course on Whiteface’s Lower Valley section. It is slightly over a half-mile long with a vertical drop of 500 feet and has a series of nine rollers up top and a banked right-left-right turn into another set of rollers, offering plenty of opportunities to pass.
Moments after Smith made an amazing move between David and Karin Huttary of Austria to win her semifinal, Rahlves used his aggressive style to his advantage to go from fourth to the lead, darting between World Cup leader Michael Schmid of Switzerland and Egor Korotkov of Russia, then quickly sailing past Delbosco for the triumph.
“They left the door open, so I took it,” Rahlves said. “You’ve got to improvise really quick.”
Still, it was another banner day for Canada heading into the Winter Games.
“It feels so good,” Serwa said after her first career finals triumph. “Canada is killing it. We’re the best team out there. It’s awesome. I had a rough part at the beginning of the season, so this really gives me confidence going into the Games.”
“It kind of knocks the pressure off,” Delbosco said. “It’s right where it needs to be. I’ve been there all year. I just haven’t had everything come together. I’m finally putting the pieces together heading into Vancouver.”
Duncan struggled to hold in his emotions after securing a berth on the Canadian team.
“Words can’t describe it. This is something I’ve been trying to do since I was a kid,” he said. “I always had dreams of it. Getting out of that semifinal, I was just all smiles. I almost even shed a tear on ride up. It’s awesome, a dream come true.”
French skiers Florent Astier and Robin Lenel were involved in a crash in their first heat and were taken off the hill on stretchers. Astier was evaluated at the venue and then airlifted to a Burlington, Vt. hospital for treatment. His injuries were not immediately available.
Errol Kerr of Jamaica was briefly knocked out when he crashed while leading his first heat and suffered an injured left shoulder. He was shaken but not deterred.
“That was extremely disappointing. I was in the lead,” said Kerr, who qualified fifth. “It was pilot error, something I don’t usually do, but I’ll be back to fight another day.”
The U.S. freestyle team will be announced Tuesday, and Rahlves and Casey Puckett, recovering from a shoulder separation, are expected to be picked in skicross while the women’s team likely will be shut out.
It will mark another milestone for Rahlves, who made three Olympic teams in his Alpine skiing career but never came home with a medal. His best finish was seventh in super-G at Nagano in 1998.
While the other World Cup racers have gone from race to race the past month with the Winter Olympics looming, Rahlves has been training at home in Sugar Valley, Calif., for the upcoming X Games and hanging out with his 2-year-old twins.
Delbosco left Whiteface with his second win in three races and thinking about the Olympics. Rahlves left thinking about next week’s Winter X-Games in Aspen, and he certainly leaves a message in his wake.
“Daron is a legitimate skier. He skied on World Cup way too long and had way too much success to not be a threat out there,” Duncan said. “It’s an advantage to us that he doesn’t compete week in and week out.”