Olympic ski racer Chris Puckett is standing at the side of a Super G race course in Crested Butte, walkie talkie in hand. He’s wearing one of his half-dozen U.S. Ski Team jackets, a knit hat with pom-pom, glacier glasses, and a psychedelic multi-tonal pair of ski pants that almost no other 215-pound skier this side of the pond could pull off with such panache.
“There’s a rough patch just over the knoll that’s throwing kids around,” Puckett says into the radio.
The report is transferred to coaches at the top of the course, where Puckett’s 13-year-old son, Cole, is waiting to start. At the finish, Chris’ wife Wendy is standing by, along with their younger son, Cooper, 10, and Chris’s parents, Peggy and Paul Puckett. It’s a rare scene: few grandparents brave the elements to stand along an icy racecourse all day.
But this is no ordinary family. Peggy, matriarch of the Puckett dynasty, grew up skiing at Snowbasin in Utah and was an Olympic hopeful for the 1968 Games. She went on to raise two Olympians of her own. Chris, her oldest, raced giant slalom in Albertville in the 1992 Games and graduated from Dartmouth in 1998. Younger brother, Casey, raced in four Winter Games, before switching to skiercross. He took gold in the 2007 X-Games skiercross and competed in the event at the 2010 Games.
Peggy, who’s known to her grandkids as Pia, is here with her husband, Paul Puckett, cheering on the next generation. “We’re on the grandparent tour,” says Paul. “It’s great, we just watch the races.” Even better, he says, they no longer need to tune skis at midnight.
Plenty of families were up late doing exactly that. The Puckett family and kids from around the state have gathered here for the annual Dan Prater Memorial Cup, one of the biggest ski races of the year for 12- and 13-year-old junior racers. It’s also a race with a history that is close to the Puckett family—and it just may change your perceptions about ski racing.
Peggy grew up with two older brothers in Ogden, Utah. Her dad, Paul Goddard, was a sprinkler and farm-equipment salesman. Paul Goddard built the seats for Snowbasin’s first chairlift in the family’s basement. He soon became enthusiastic about the sport of ski racing, bringing the first NCAA championships to Snowbasin in 1958, though he was not a ski racer. “You had to hike to the start and boot-pack the course,” remembers Peggy. “There wasn’t even a tow rope.”
Peggy started ski racing at age 7 in 1954. “My first race took around seven minutes. Every gate was by the seat of my pants,” she says. In 1963, the Deseret News reported that a young 15-year-old Peggy Goddard had won the Solitude Cup on new-fangled metal-edged skis. “Metals” she called them. Peggy went to CU in 1966, where Bob Beattie was coaching the likes of Billy Kidd, Jimmie Heuga, Moose Barrows and Kiki Cutter. As a freshman, Peggy tried out for the 1968 Olympic team.
Though she never made it to Grenoble for the Games, she did, however, meet her future husband at CU in 1967. “I skied, but not very well,” says Paul Puckett. “We went on a ski date, and Peggy humiliated me so badly I wouldn’t let her ski behind me for five years.” Peggy and Paul married, had kids, and moved to Gunnison in 1976 when Chris was six and Casey was four. “We never intended to raise ski racers,” says Peggy. “But when we got to Crested Butte, Paul said, ‘Hey, they have a ski team, you might want to volunteer.’”
During that period, Paul became fast friends with Dan Prater, who owned a lumberyard in town. Dan had moved his family from Wichita, Kansas after a Colorado ski trip in 1970. “He fell in love with the place immediately,” says daughter Stephanie Prater, who now organizes the considerable spectacle that is the modern day Prater Cup.
The Praters bought a house off Elk Avenue for $30,000, and before long, Dan was an institution in the community. “He made his mark from the minute he got here,” says Stephanie, who flips burgers at the barbecue she and her sister, Criss, host every year at Prater. Her father was known to wear a full-length horse hair coat and jam with local bands at the bars in town. He played the bumbass, a folk instrument that combines a tambourine, a big stick, and a string. When thrust on the ground, the device makes a bass drum sound.
Dan’s own daughters weren’t much into racing, but his friendship with the Pucketts connected him to the race scene. He parked his Winnebago at the base to warm up cold racers with hot cocoa, and he helped Paul to build the finish shack at the base of the training hill.
On October 6, 1979, Dan Prater died at 42, choking on a hunk of steak over dinner at Slogars.
“I remember he’d recently gotten a perm, and just nights before, people were partying on top of the cabin cruiser parked in his driveway,” says Paul, gazing up at racers arcing through the course.
“He lived every day like it was his last,” says Stephanie over a glass of wine at Prater’s parent mixer. “He would always say, ’Don’t sweat the small stuff.’ It’s almost as if he knew he wouldn’t be on the planet for very long.”
Not a Normal Race
Six months after his death, the Dan Prater Memorial Cup ski race was established. Back then it was a consolation race for kids who hadn’t made it to the Junior Olympics. The Cup has changed over the last 34 years—it’s now the qualifier for the Junior Championships. But it remains arguably the most fun race of the season.
“It’s not like a normal ski race,” explains Stephanie, as she slices up hunks of elk that she shot herself. “It’s like a festival.” Kids are randomly assigned to a country with racers from other ski clubs. At the opening ceremonies, they munch on cookies with milk while a parade of skiers descends to the base with nation flags rippling in the air.
Each competitor is then issued a passport and the chance to earn Prater Points for their country by demonstrating good sportsmanship, by showing off their country’s colors (maybe a duct-taped Canadian flag on the back of a jacket), and by getting signatures at checkpoints around the mountain. The kids play miniature golf as teams and jump off a tower of scaffolding onto a giant airbag.
Cole Puckett is assigned to Poland, and he has the nation’s flag duct-taped to the front of his helmet. You might suspect, given his pedigree, that there’s pressure on Cole to get on the podium. But if there’s pressure on the kids, it’s not coming from Mom and Dad. Chris exhibits a zen on the side of the course that is nonexistent among other, high-strung ski-racing parents. “I don’t get nervous. This is their time,” he says.
Echoing Peggy’s three-decade-old sentiment, Wendy and Chris insist they aren’t breeding Olympians. “We wanted to give the kids the opportunity to be racers,” says Chris, “but they’re welcome to stop anytime.”
Both boys are often at the top of the leaderboard. “They’re learning from one of the best,” says Wendy. “They follow Chris down the hill and you feel there’s something oozing into them. It’s like osmosis.” Though she also admits it hasn’t always come easily. “Last year at Prater, Cole got his teeth kicked in.” But this year, he fought back, finishing first in the giant slalom.
The scenario reminds Wendy of her husband’s experience. From 1987 to 2001, Chris was on and off the U.S. Ski Team. When he slipped off the roster, he’d have to fight his way back on. His sons, her boys are learning more than just how to generate power through the arc of a slalom turn.
Although it’s not a goal anyone wants to admit to at this point, Wendy says that the idea of an Olympic Games is not so far-fetched for the boys. “They figure, ‘If my dad can do it, I can do it.’ They feel a connection to that legacy,” she says. Either way, the Pucketts don’t let the possibilities of the kids’ future define them. “It’s their journey, not ours,” says Wendy.
Somewhere Dan Prater is smiling.
—Helen Olsson is the author of The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids. maddogmom.com