Steamboat Springs Cole Puckett's formula for success in Alpine ski racing is to simply forget what's happening around him, regardless of what may be at stake.
A little forgetfulness is his strategy, but it also left him with some tattered and sore legs by the end of Saturday's U16 Rocky Mountain/Central Division Alpine Championships slalom, the championships' final event.
It took just one gate for Puckett — a Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Alpiner — to realize in his opening slalom run that he was missing his shin guards.
Painful? Yes. Lesson learned? Of course, but it also helped fuel him to reach the awards stage when the race wrapped up around 2 p.m.
“That was pretty painful,” the soft-spoken Puckett said. “I realized that right on the first gate. It kind of set the tone, though, because you have to be really tough.”
He sat in 12th place after the run but used another strategy to help propel him up six spots to sixth overall on the boys side, his best finish of U16 championships. As the front runners raged out of the gate and down Howelsen's face, their all-out style backfired a bit and a few recorded DNFs.
“The second run I really wanted to be consistent,” Puckett said. “I wasn't going to go pedal to the metal, but I did want to have a good, solid run.”
He finished with a combined two-run time of 1:30.03.
Ski Club Vail swept the podium spots, led by Colby Lange, who had a stellar U16 championships run. Next up was Bridger Gile and Jacob Dilling.
Puckett got progressively better between Tuesday's downhill and Saturday's slalom. He finished outside the top 30 on Tuesday, jumped up to 16th in Wednesday's super-G and finally got on the stage in Thursday's giant slalom with an eighth-place time.
A strong season landed Puckett atop the U16 nationals list for year-2000-born Rocky Mountain/Central division skiers. He'll compete at nationals in two weeks in Sugarloaf, Maine.
“My dad and my uncle have raced there a lot,” Puckett said about Sugarloaf. “It's one of their favorite hills. I've never been there, but I'm really excited to race against the best in the nation.”
To no one's surprise, Colby Lange took the top spot in the 1999-born skiers' list for the U16 nationals roster. Lange dominated this week in all four races, grabbing gold in the super-G, the GS and the slalom, as well as fourth in the downhill.
“Nationals will be fun,” Lange said after Saturday's slalom victory. “I didn't kill it there last year, so hopefully, it turns around a bit.”
In other slalom action, Steamboat's Sam Frackowiak took 23rd overall and Chase and Trey Seymour crossed in 36th and 38th place, respectively.
Like Puckett, Winter Sports Club U16 girls racer Amber Elliott made huge strides in her performance, culminating in a top-10 finish in the slalom. Elliott's previous best finish in the championships came in the opening downhill competition, where she placed 32nd. She used a two-run time of 1:32.67 to take ninth overall.
Winter Sports Club's Mary Kate Hackworthy followed up Friday's top-10 race with a 14th-place finish in the slalom. Hackworthy will be competing at the CanAm U16 championships in Apex, British Columbia.
Steamboat's Margaret Dickson was 29th on Saturday, Mackenzie Ward was 36th, Taylor Olson was 44th, Madeline Boucher was 56th, Olivia Flake was 59th and Kristina Steinberg was 65th.
The National Training Group's Jennie Symons and Buck Hill's Nellie Ide pulled the rare first-place tie in the girls slalom, each recording a combined time of 1:26.72. Symons' teammate Kaitlyn Vesterstein, the championships' overall girls title winner, was third.
To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll