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Teller finds second career in skicross

February 19, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — This isn’t the Olympic dream John Teller originally had in mind.

Like everybody else who grew up on the slopes near Mammoth Lakes, Calif., Teller envisioned donning a ski suit and barreling his way under the rings at speeds that would get you pulled over on most highways.

It didn’t quite work out. His pursuit of making the U.S. national alpine team ended nearly a decade ago.

For two years Teller hung up his skis, burned out.

Revival came at the urging of a friend, who pointed the burly 6-foot-2 Teller to the guys who found a new way to satisfy their inner daredevil by sprinting down the mountain four wide over a series of jumps and banked turns that is equal parts Bode Miller and Evel Knievel.

“It made me get off the couch,” Teller said. “I really like jumping and I’m a big motocross racer in summer.”

The fact it hasn’t quite taken off in the U.S. like snowboardcross helped too. Over the last five years Teller has evolved into one of the top American racers, though the 30-year-old didn’t earn a spot on the Olympic team until winning a World Cup event three weeks before the flame was lit in Sochi.

“I thought it was going to happen but I hadn’t made the criteria until the very last qualifier,” Teller said. “I needed to win that race. It was nerve wracking. I think just a lot of things kind of came together.”

Now the racer who earns a living by working as a mechanic as part of the family business finds himself as the lone U.S. male competitor when the field heads to the starting gate on Thursday. Against a field stacked with World Cup champions and Olympic medalists, Teller is aware that anything goes.

“The human element, it’s where more of the danger comes in,” he said. “The high speeds we’re going at and the jumps that we’re hitting and having three guys competing for that first spot, that’s a lot of the danger right there.”

Not all the danger though. The courses are tricky enough on their own. Russian skicross racer Maria Komissarova severely injured her spine during a training run last weekend. She underwent more than six hours of surgery before being transported to Germany for further treatment.

It makes for a sobering reality. Canadian Nik Zoricic died during a race in Switzerland two years ago after he veered off course and slammed into the safety netting. Teller’s death “crushed” the skicross community, but the racing continued.

“Nik’s death wasn’t anything that happened with contact,” Teller said. “But we all understand how dangerous it is.”

But despite the risks, the close-quarters racing is a key part of the sport’s appeal.

“I’ve been punched in the face with a pole before going off of a jump. There’s all kinds of stuff that goes on,” Teller said. “That’s where the excitement really is.”

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