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From Afton Alps to the Olympics

For Cottage Grove native Tyler Shepherd, what began on the hills of Afton Alps led to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Shepherd, a 1997 graduate of Park High School and an All-State alpine skier for the Wolfpack, was the head coach of the U.S. ski cross team at this year's Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada.

This year marked the first time ski cross was part of the Olympics -- making Shepherd a sort of pioneer, something he said he is proud of.

"It was a really cool experience for us as a team to be able to represent the U.S. in ski cross, but for those of us that have been a part of ski cross for so many years, there will never be another debut of ski cross at the Olympics," Shepherd said. "It was a lot of fun to be a part of that with my friends from around the world."

Ski cross, which gained momentum as a sport through the Winter X Games, was the only skiing event at the Olympics that featured head-to-head competition. In ski cross, a group of four skiers start simultaneously in an attempt to reach the end of the curving downhill course, which is full of jumps, ditches and sharp turns. Finding the winner of the race is simple -- it's the one who crossed the finish line first. There isn't supposed to be physical contact between skiers -- but there is. And races are tense and full of extraordinary spills.

Its danger and originality made ski cross one of the most buzzed about sports at this year's Winter Games.

"It's an inherently dangerous sport, but it's also extremely fun," Shepherd said. "You throw three individuals next to you and you're at the mercy of what they're doing sometimes. It's a little more of an uncontrolled chaos, but that's what makes the sport even more exciting."

Shepherd, 31, believes the sport of ski cross, which is already fairly popular in Europe, will only gain more momentum in North America in the coming years.

"It's a sport we enjoy watching," Shepherd said. "It's head-to-head, there's that chance of carnage -- it's very much like NASCAR that way -- and you don't have to be an expert to understand what's happening."

Shepherd said his coach at Afton Alps, Shawn Holes, used to pair skiers up in races as part of training, which added another level of competition -- along with giving him a glimpse of the future.

"I used to always seem to raise my game in those races and either hang with, or beat, better skiers," Shepherd said. "I think it's because you can see the person in front of you, you have to execute on the fly and you can immediately see if you're gaining on that person or losing more time, rather than having to go through the finish line and wait to see your time. There's more of an immediate gratification when you're going head-to-head.

"I hope everyone goes to Afton Alps and starts racing their buddies down the hill."

Coaching brought Shepherd back to beloved sport

Shepherd began downhill skiing when he was 2 years-old and was racing by the time he was 7. He became an elite skier before his high school career even began and earned All-State honors as a freshman. After his lone prep skiing season, Shepherd journeyed to Vail, Colo. where, over the ensuing three winters, he trained for the U.S. ski team. After graduating Park, Shepherd was a member of the U.S. ski team for three years, but ultimately left the team to go to the University of Colorado -- where he was an All-American skier for the Buffaloes.

When his skiing eligibility at Colorado expired, Shepherd decided to try out for the Winter X Games in ski cross, because he wanted to continue skiing competitively, but didn't want to do it in the traditional sense.

"I was looking at another way to stay in the industry and, at the same time, fuel my competitive spirit," Shepherd said. "Ski cross was a way to do that and it looked like a lot of fun. I just got hooked once I started doing it."

Shepherd spent five years competing in ski cross while earning his degree at Colorado, but hung up his skis (though temporarily) in order to join the "real world." Shepherd began working at an advertising agency in Denver as an account executive for three years as he phased out of skiing.

However, three years ago, he received a phone call asking if he'd be interested in coaching the U.S. ski cross team. His answer brought him to the Olympics.

"My job at the advertising agency was a great experience in its own right," he said, "but it's been nice to be back in skiing, certainly in a different light as a coach, and being able to challenge myself in a different way."

Shepherd said he always believed the Olympics to be a tremendous honor and the pinnacle of racing.

"To go to the Olympics and to represent our country was a tremendous honor," Shepherd said. "I put as much weight on that as I do on trying to put together a top-level team for the World Cup. The Olympics is an event that comes around every four years, so we certainly gear our cycles around that.

"I'm continuing to coach and we're looking down the road now to how we're going to build the program more and more."

The goal at the Olympics was to bring home a medal, but partially due to injuries, the U.S. team's top men -- Casey Puckett and Daron Rahlves, weren't able to do so.

Switzerland's Michael Schmid, the top-ranked ski cross racer in the world, won gold in Vancouver, which Shepherd thought was a good enough consolation.

"Priority No. 1 was to put together a medal-contending team in 2010," Shepherd said. "I felt comfortable in doing that. Daron Rahlves and Casey Puckett are two of the best in the world. But, I don't look at it as a big disappointment, because our sport debuted really, really well. The guy who won has been a dominant force on the World Cup this year. It's only fitting that he came out with Olympic gold. But, at the Olympics you got to see everything. There was a lot of passing and certainly some big crashes that made headlines."

Shepherd, who has coached the U.S. ski cross team for the past three years, is currently back in Denver, training his team for both the World Cup, which begins in December and the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Sochi, Krasnodar Krai, Russia.

"We're already thinking about what we need to do to put together a medal-contending team for Sochi in 2014," Shepherd said. "We're going to go back to the drawing board in order to do that. I'm going to be just as honored to represent our country in 2014 as I was in 2010."

Patrick Johnson
Patrick Johnson has been the South Washington County Bulletin’s sports editor since 2008. He reports on and oversees coverage of high school and amateur sports in south Washington County and Woodbury. Prior to joining the Bulletin, Johnson worked for other Twin Cities suburban newspapers. He is a University of Minnesota graduate.
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