New Sport Offers a Fresh Start
AVON, Colo. - The start gate in the Del Boscos' backyard - perched atop a wooden platform, pitching onto a short ramp - is unremarkable but for the new beginning it represents.
Chris Del Bosco, 27, is no longer in the grips of alcohol addiction. From his crouched position in that gate, he finally can see beyond a mountainous horizon.
Six years ago, a passerby found Del Bosco in a frozen creek bed with a broken neck, a dangerously low body temperature and no recollection of how he got there. Three years ago, he served jail time for a third DUI.
Next month, he could win a medal for his father's native Canada at the Winter Olympics.
"We'll just be happy, and we'll understand the journey, because it will be the journey that is more important to us," Pam Del Bosco says of possibly seeing her son on an Olympic podium. "We'll say, 'God, we made it.' "
Del Bosco finished second last season in the World Cup rankings for ski cross, a downhill roller derby around hairpin turns and over jumps, making its Olympic debut in Vancouver. Contrary to his sport's freewheeling spirit, Del Bosco has an unassuming and repentant manner but acknowledges "it's pretty sweet to get a second chance.
"I've wanted to be an Olympic champion since I was a little kid," says Del Bosco, who got his first World Cup win of the season Wednesday in Alpe d'Huez, France, after the final was canceled because of heavy snowfall. Del Bosco had the fastest qualifying time, ahead of the Czech Republic's Tomas Kraus, the World Cup overall champion last season, and reigning world champion Andreas Matt of Austria.
Born and raised in Colorado, Del Bosco had all of the physical gifts as a kid, riding a bike without training wheels at 2, gliding easily on ice skates as a toddler, keeping up with sister Heather, six years his elder, as they learned to race with Ski Club Vail.
"We obviously have a huge pool of junior athletes in our program, but he stood out right away," says John Cole, Ski Club Vail's director of performance training. "He knew how to put the ski on edge."
Del Bosco also began living on the edge early, sampling the party life all too available to anyone growing up near a resort town.
"He was 13 or 14 when I started to hear the fear in my parents' voices when I would speak to them about Chris," his sister says.
Says his mom: "We thought, 'This is something we've got to nip in the bud now, but we have to figure out how long this is going to take.' We always thought we could get it done. We felt we had to keep trying."
At 17, a positive test for marijuana derailed Del Bosco's Alpine skiing ambitions. He was stripped of a junior national title and kicked off the U.S. team.
"At that point in my life, I was like, 'Everybody is out to get me. Why me?' " Del Bosco says.
As his alcohol addiction took hold, Del Bosco found an outlet in ski cross, a fringe sport at the time with a handful of U.S.-based competitions.
"It was just fun," he says. "That kind of brought me full circle to when I was a little kid, when you were with your friends and you start at the top of the mountain and first one down wins."
Going downhill fast
In the summers, Del Bosco competed in downhill mountain bike races. He qualified for the world championships at 18.
"That was part of the challenge for him to get help," his sister says. "Because for so many years, he got the straight A's, he got the medals, he won the bike races, he continued to have success. So you just think, 'Oh, I'm invincible. I can continue to do this and have success.' "
In 2005, he was stripped of a national title in mountain bike racing after another positive test for marijuana. Later that year, he visited his sister in Los Angeles. He was out of shape and depressed, she says.
"I was just drinking every day and going downhill pretty fast," says Del Bosco, who was 23 at the time. "I was thinking I was fooling everybody. My sister said, 'You're just fooling yourself.' One day, she was like, 'You need help.' My parents had been trying to get me help since I was 17. I was always like, 'I'll figure it out; I'll take care of it. It's no big deal. Everybody does it.' That was the first time I didn't fight it."
He entered a 90-day residential treatment program in Southern California. He got out on New Year's Eve.
The new year got off to a promising start when, after spending four days back on skis, he entered a last-chance qualifier for the 2006 Winter X Games and won a spot. In the X Games, held in late January, he won bronze.
"I kept it together for a couple more months, then I kind of just slid back in," Del Bosco says.
He was charged with two DUIs in a four-month span, the second Sept. 6, 2006. He hasn't had alcohol since, he says.
"I was looking at a year in jail and some pretty harsh consequences, and I was like, 'Man, I don't need that,' " Del Bosco says.
Letters of support from friends and family helped to persuade the judge to put him under house arrest and sentence him to 10 days of jail and more than 100 hours of community service. He worked with the Salvation Army and tiled church bathrooms.
Competing for Canada
In 2007, a chance encounter set in motion Del Bosco's chance at Olympic redemption. Cam Bailey, the CEO of Canada Ski Cross, and Canadian ski cross athlete Brian Bennett were having dinner in Whistler, discussing how to build a team for the 2010 Games. Their waitress asked Bennett why his arm was in a sling.
When he replied he injured it in ski cross, she told them her husband's cousin competed. Bailey knew of Del Bosco, but that was the first he heard of his Canadian heritage.
"When they approached me, I kind of saw it as a fresh, clean start," says Del Bosco, whose father, a Sudbury, Ontario, native, settled in Colorado after playing hockey at the University of Denver. "I was really up front with what I went through."
Del Bosco never looked into joining the U.S. ski cross team. He has the lyrics to O Canada on his computer and is trying to memorize them.
Since making the Canadian team, he has concentrated most on improving his starts, which he says are the weakest part of his racing. He is lifting weights for the first time, under the direction of Cole, trying to build muscle and gain explosiveness. He practices on the backyard start gate when he is at home.
"He's super-focused and he's turned himself into the complete package, a total elite athlete," Cole says.
Even so, Del Bosco says skiing "isn't the end-all, be-all, which is how it's got to be for me. I still make a huge commitment to it, and it still consumes most of my time, but it's not the main thing. Without that I'd still be all right. "
Eric Archer, head coach of Canada's ski cross team, grew up in Vail and knew Del Bosco's history well. He has Del Bosco under a no-strike rule: If Del Bosco has any problems with drinking, he is off the team. "When you realize if you focused how good you could be at something, it definitely helps you with discipline," Archer says. "I think he just came to that realization."
Del Bosco finished sixth in the World Cup standings in his first season competing for Canada, in 2007-08. Last season, he led a Canadian medals sweep in a World Cup event on the 2010 Olympic course at Cypress Mountain and was fourth at worlds.
He will find out after a World Cup next week in Lake Placid, N.Y., if he will compete in the Vancouver Games.
His story already is becoming known across Canada, where Olympic broadcaster CTV is featuring him in a series of commercials titled Believe.
"I think maybe it would have been easier to not say anything," Del Bosco says. "But then that wouldn't have helped anybody. People were there when I needed help and told their stories. I'm in a place where I can help."
Del Bosco has received hundreds of e-mails through his website, ChrisDelBosco.com. "We get e-mails saying, 'Oh, you helped me in my recovery.' 'We have a son or daughter who has a problem. You're helping us to understand,' " his sister says.
Archer, like Del Bosco's mom and sister, chokes up when asked what it would be like to see Del Bosco on the Olympic podium. "It would mean everything," he says after a long pause.
"Of course, we would be just so proud of him," Del Bosco's sister says. "But we're already so proud of him. I don't even know where on the scale that can go."