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Mr. Ski Versatility: Pick a specialty?

Are Puckett's best hopes for medal in the slalom events?

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Casey Puckett faces a big decision in the coming months. Does he continue to race in every skiing discipline or, with the Olympics coming up, should he specialize?

Puckett can handle any race, from slalom to downhill. The U.S. Ski Team media guide even calls him "Mr. Versatility." The problem, though, is that his World Cup results often show him in the middle of the pack.

"I have an incredible amount of respect for guys who can race four events and be successful in each one," said Puckett, a three-time Olympian who placed second in the slalom Wednesday at the U.S. Alpine nationals.

"That's what I want, and it's proving to be very difficult," he said.

Puckett, of Aspen, Colo., had a strong week to win the combined title at nationals. Along with his slalom result, he also shared the super-G championship with Erik Schlopy and took second in the downhill behind Daron Rahlves.

This time, Puckett was in his element.

He usually performs well at national-level events and on the North American circuit, but he hasn't consistently produced strong World Cup results.

And he knows it.

"I've had little spots here and there, but I haven't even come close to meeting my goals," he said. "That's something I'll need to do this spring, just sit down and make a really good plan for myself."

With the 2002 Winter Olympics less than a year away, there's talk on the ski team that Puckett, 28, might have a better chance at a medal by concentrating on only a few events.

"On the World Cup level, Casey has talent in several disciplines," said Jesse Hunt, who coaches the American men in technical events. "It's important for him to focus on one or two disciplines."

The best fit would seem to be the slalom, where Puckett won the 1991 world junior title.

He also assembled a string of four straight Nor-Am slalom victories earlier this month.

"I wouldn't trade it in," Puckett said, describing his slalom success. "The negative part of it is that it makes you a specialist. People only think of you as a slalom skier. I've always liked doing all four events."

To use a baseball analogy, Puckett is like a prospect who does well on the mound and in the batter's box.

But to elevate his game to the majors, he needs to choose one or the other.

Meanwhile, Schlopy made it two-for-two at nationals, winning Wednesday's slalom with a two-run time of 1 minute, 29.46 seconds, well ahead of Marco Sullivan's 1:30.52.

Schlopy, Puckett and some 40 other skiers will be competing Friday and Saturday at Deer Valley Resort in the Chevy Truck Super Series slalom finals.

The event will be on the Olympic slalom run for the 2002 Games.

In the women's slalom, Sarah Schleper of Vail, Colo., rallied from a heart-breaking lost-ski run in Tuesday's giant slalom to win Wednesday's event at 1:27.90, more than 1.5 seconds ahead of silver medalist Tasha Nelson.