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Skicross racers seek redemption at US Grand Prix

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 10:21 a.m. MDT

PARK CITY, Utah — A year ago, Langely McNeal was in the midst of a switch to the corporate world, working 80 hours a week for a Groupon-like startup company in Seattle.

As recently as December, John Teller had traded in the skis for a wrench, working at his uncle's California auto-repair shop, changing oil, fixing transmissions and replacing timing belts.

This week, both Americans are back on the snow and in the spotlight when skicross makes another splash in the U.S.

They'll be competing this weekend in the FIS-sanctioned Grand Prix at Park City's Canyons Resort, with the accompanying snowboardcross event doubling as the U.S. Championship for top competitors such as Nate Holland, Nick Baumgartner and Jonathan Cheever.

For Teller and McNeal, the goal is both redemption and awareness for a sport they are trying to grow in popularity and in funding.

Teller, who in January 2011 became the first American to win a World Cup skicross event, wiped out in his semifinal heat at last month's Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo., and failed in his bid to repeat as champion.

McNeal hit an even bigger dip. After seemingly advancing to the X Games women's skicross finals, she was disqualified because of a clothing violation.

"It was my first X Games finals and I was so excited to cross the finish line ... I was jumping on the back of a snowmobile to go back to the top when I got tapped on the shoulder," she said.

Told that another skier was protesting her outfit, McNeal started laughing.

"I'm like, 'My mom's (bell-bottom) ski pants?' What?"

It wasn't the bell bottoms. Nor was it the band she wore on her thigh as a tribute to freestyle pioneer Sarah Burke, who died Jan. 19 of injuries suffered in a fall in Park City Mountain Resort's superpipe.

Tiny hair bands strapped around each pant cuff were deemed an aerodynamic advantage.

News of McNeal's disqualification lit up the Internet like Shaun White's perfect 100 in the halfpipe.

Now, with Olympians Lindsey Jacobellis and Callan Chythlook-Sifsof both unable to compete in snowboardcross this week because of injury, more attention will be on McNeal and skicross.

"There's also more pressure just because of what happened at the X Games," said McNeal, who is using the disqualification as a lesson. "There are a lot of eyes on you after things like that, and you want to put on a good race for family and friends."

She also has to prove the would-be trip to the finals wasn't a fluke.

"Absolutely, yes," said McNeal, who turned 28 during the X Games but really hasn't celebrated yet. "There's always that."

The one positive she took from the X Games was support offered by the International Snowboard Training Center based at Copper Mountain in Colorado, where the Idaho native will soon move.

Because the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association offers very limited funding for skicross, McNeal has had to work her way out of retirement without much coaching or even a wax technician. She's excited to have support again.

Teller, the 2011 X Games champ, is simply excited to have a major skicross event back in the U.S.

"There isn't anything besides X Games for skicross," he said. "We need interest. It comes from the bottom, from sponsors all the way up to new athletes. So it's very cool having this here. It makes it easy for a lot of local people to come out and enjoy it and get a taste of what we do."

What they do isn't much different from what skiers did on dares as kids — first one down the mountain wins. The difference is they race down naturally occurring terrain and artificial features like jumps, rollers, banks — first in individual time trials then in heats of four side by side.

While the average person might not be able to differentiate how a downhill racer wins by five-thousandths of a second, figuring out what went wrong in skicross is easy.

"With skicross, it's all right there in front of you. Anything that happens, you see it because four guys are going down the course," Teller said. "It's a lot more viewer-friendly and a lot more exciting, too, with crashes jumps, berms and all that stuff we do."

Teller, who failed in his bid to make the 2010 Olympic team, has his eyes set on the 2014 Sochi Games.

That won't stop him from returning to his uncle's garage in the offseason.

"Absolutely, as soon as the World Cup season is over," he said. "I've got to pay the bills. I am a professional skier, but I just got married and we're trying to buy a house and have kids ... and money makes all that stuff happen, unfortunately."

Though he's gunning for gold and the $10,000 winner's check this week, he also pulls for a racer like McNeal.

"It's awesome for Langely because I kind of did the same thing; I quit racing alpine ... for two years because I was burnt out," he said. "Then I fell in love with skicross and it made me fall in love again with skiing in general."

McNeal hasn't yet achieved the same level of success as Teller, but the girl who was riding without training wheels at 2 already has overcome a lot.

She got her ski legs back after un-retiring Aug. 1, then competed strong at the X Games just days after Burke's death.

"Her freak accident rattled me," McNeal acknowledged. "I was super on the fence about it this year. Those jumps are huge at X Games. You're catching 90 feet of air and if your head is not in the game, you can get really hurt."

Since the X Games, McNeal has risen above the fear.

"It hit so close to home. You're just reminded of what you're doing and how risky it is," McNeal said. "But at the same time, I think it's important that everyone keep charging and skiing for Sarah because that's what she would want."

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company