A rebel with a couple of causes -- personal happiness and a gold medal -- Kristina Koznick does things her way on and off the slopes
By Tim Layden
Leave the A12 autobahn at Kramsach in the Austrian Tirol. Find a two-lane road that twists and climbs into the mountains through a succession of villages -- Brixlegg, Mehrn, Reith, Naschbg -- each smaller and more quaint than the last. In every town there is a ski hill, a restaurant, perhaps a hotel and a place to rent equipment. Keep climbing. Alpbach ... almost there ... Inneralpbach, at last. There's an inn, the Gondel Alm, on the left; a snowy hillside on the right, bisected by a single T bar and dotted with cottages. The pavement stops in the shadow of a rocky peak and two more small lodges. End of the road.
Olympic dreams flourish in faraway, dimly lit places. During the third week of January, U.S. skier Kristina Koznick (who competes today in the slalom), 26, lived in the Gondel Alm with her coach-boyfriend Dan Stripp, physical therapist-assistant coach Raul Guisado and ski technician John Mulligan, a foursome they call Team Koznick. Each day in Inneralpbach, Koznick trained with Stripp on the hillside across the road from their humble digs, and each night she let Guisado work her muscles and Mulligan work her skis and then ate dinner at one of the three tables inside the inn's bar-restaurant. "Isn't it nice here?" said Koznick one evening that week. "It's quiet, there's good training."
Two hours west, in the German city of Berchtesgaden, women on the U.S. ski team, many of whom would soon become Koznick's Olympic teammates, lived as a group, pushing each other in training, eating together and fostering a college dorm atmosphere ruled by such silliness as a three-dollar fine for taking a phone call during dinner. They sweated, laughed and suffered together. In almost every sense, they were a team.
Each weekend on the World Cup tour, from November through February, this scenario would repeat itself: Team Koznick in one place, Team USA in another. On race day they would meet as opponents. "I've known [Koznick] for a long time, and we're friends," says U.S. ski team member Sarah Schleper, like Koznick a slalom and giant slalom specialist, "but I don't really feel like she's my teammate. It's a very weird relationship."
Got that right. It all plays out now on the sprawling Olympic stage, where Koznick is among the favorites to not only win the slalom gold medal, today at 10 a.m. at Deer Valley, but also to validate her rare and courageous decision almost two years ago to leave the financial and emotional cocoon of the U.S. ski team to train on her own.
Like so many Olympic stories, Koznick's begins with a little kid and a dream. Like very few such tales, it ends with a grown woman fighting a bureaucracy, running her career like a small business, spending $250,000 a year that would otherwise have been comped by the U.S. ski team, fund-raising, hiring staff, booking travel and (no small sidebar) rising above the soap opera that developed after the disclosure of her relationship with Stripp, the national team coach who became her personal coach. "Win or lose in Salt Lake City, she's just blossomed as a person through all of this," says Koznick's father, Jeff. "I look at what she has gone through to make this happen, and I just go, 'Wow.'"
Start with the little kid. Kristina was two and living near Minneapolis when her father took her to Buck Hill, a molehill with only 300 feet of vertical. Jeff had been a ski jumper in his youth and, later, an avid heli-skier. He wanted his kids (Kristina and her brother, Charlie, four years younger and now an aspiring actor-model in Los Angeles) to ski well. "My goal was for the kids to be able to ski any run in the world without crying," says Jeff. Kristina was good from the start, but when she was eight, her father found her playing video games at the lodge in midafternoon and concluded she needed better and more intense instruction.
Jeff and Kristina's mother, Mary Jane (they would divorce when Kristina was 15) took Kristina to Erich Sailer, an Austrian who came to the U.S. when he was 25 and ran a racing program at Buck Hill plus summer camps in Oregon and Montana. (Sailer also began working with Schleper when she was a teenager in Montana, a gnarly turn of events that will thicken the air in Deer Valley.) In Koznick, Sailer found a precocious skier who could turn effortlessly and hold speed. "She was a natural talent, very sound mechanically from the beginning," says Sailer. "Within one year she was far better than the others her age."
When Koznick was 15, in 1990, she became the youngest member of the U.S. ski team. At 18 she finished 10th in a World Cup slalom in Are, Sweden. After knee and toe injuries slowed her rise from '94 through '97, Koznick busted out in the '97-98 season with four World Cup podiums and arrived in Nagano as one of the Olympic slalom favorites. "I had no idea how I'd gotten to where I was," Koznick says now. "I was standing in the start house thinking, What's going on?" She didn't have to think long; she fell on the first run and was out of the race.
With two World Cup victories during the 1999-2000 season, Koznick remained among the best slalom skiers in the world. But because there were no Americans at her level to push her in practice, she became frustrated, feeling that training sessions were geared toward bringing younger skiers (such as Schleper) up to her level rather than helping to make her the best. "I felt the focus was on them, not on me," says Koznick. One of the team's coaches was Stripp.
USSA president and CEO Bill Marolt remains dismissive of Koznick's request, even two years later and with Koznick winning World Cup races. "Our approach is team and family," says Marolt. "She made a decision to approach it differently, and it's working out for her. I think there's great strength in numbers. It has worked for us, and we'll continue doing things that way."
After the meeting in 2000 Koznick sat in her car with Ervin. She wept and she ranted, and with little choice, she quit the U.S. ski team. Using prize and sponsorship earnings she'd saved, she hired Stripp, then 38, with whom she had begun a relationship after the end of the previous season, as her personal coach. Stripp was available because his contract with the USSA had not been renewed, although USSA officials say the nonrenewal had nothing to do with his relationship with Koznick. Stripp says he had written a letter to the USSA during the season expressing his desire to leave the program. "I was going to go to Lake Placid and coach," he says. "Then Kristina asked me to work with her."
In Team Koznick's first year the Koznick-Stripp relationship was severely tested, both personally and professionally. While U.S. ski team members do nothing for themselves but train -- food, travel and lodging are arranged and paid for -- Stripp and Koznick had to handle everything, and it wore them out. "It was more than I realized," says Koznick. She had three podiums but wound up seventh in the year-end slalom standings. The entire season was a struggle. This year would be different.
To start, Koznick took herself out of the logistical loop, letting Stripp take care of the travel arrangements. She hired Mulligan, a former U.S. ski team technician who is engaged to Picabo Street, to do her skis and Guisado to train her and help with coaching. They bonded as a team, complete with nicknames: Koz, Stripper and Mulli (nothing yet for Guisado).
Koznick pays three salaries from May to March and fronts all expenses, totaling more than $250,000 a year. To supplement income from sponsors and races (a win is worth $10,000 to $25,000), Koznick set up a nonprofit foundation on her website (www.koznick.com), which had raised $60,000 before the season. A woman approached Koznick at one race and gave her $100; at another a group of children handed over their allowances. Team Koznick cuts costs by staying in remote places like Inneralpbach and by cooking many meals themselves. (Point of reference: U.S. skier Daron Rahlves, who won the world Super G title last season, told SI he earned roughly $320,000; Koznick is on a short leash financially.)
Relations with the U.S. team remain frosty. In late January, Team Koznick was told by the USSA that Stripp would be given Olympic coaching accreditation, which allows him on the slalom and giant slalom hills, from where he can radio course reports to Koznick. Guisado, who also works the hill and radios condition reports to Koznick at the top, was denied a credential. (A USSA spokesman said physical therapists are not generally accredited.) Koznick was forced to seek accreditation help from Volkl, her ski manufacturer. "They keep putting up hurdles," says Jeff Koznick, "and Kristina keeps jumping over them."
It helps that she has never skied better. Under Guisado's direction she dropped her weight from 173 pounds to 157 in the spring, which added quickness, among other benefits. "I'm a normal woman. I like to like myself when I look in the mirror," says Koznick. Competitors like Sonja Nef of Switzerland, who also trains solo, have welcomed Koznick to share runs. And Koznick and Stripp are closer than ever, both personally and professionally. In the end, age, experience and the heavy load of managing herself have matured her. "Her success is not happening by chance," says Sailer, who talks often to Koznick by phone. "She has a handle on her life and her racing. She is in control."
In the bar of the Gondel Alm, Koznick sips a glass of water. "In skiing or business, to be competitive you have to take risks," she says. "I tossed and turned and I was scared, but I took that risk -- and here I am." In the diary section of her website she writes weekly entries to her fans, many under the name of her Sesame Street stuffed traveling partner, Grover. In January, Grover wrote this: It has been quite the roller coaster ride the last week or so! The whole team has seen highs and lows. Kristina has gone from smiles and laughter to tears and confusion. I watch her every day, she puts her heart and soul into everything she does, and when she doesn't come out on top, she can get so rattled....
So there she is, not yet golden but growing stronger than her compatriots for the way she has tried. The one who had the guts to leave the nest.