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Golden Gates
Tim Layden
March 04, 2002
Having overcome injury, smiling Janica Kostelic gave Croatia something to grin about with her dominating four-medal skiing performance
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March 04, 2002

Golden Gates

Having overcome injury, smiling Janica Kostelic gave Croatia something to grin about with her dominating four-medal skiing performance

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He saw his child smile, and only then did he know that everything was right. Ante Kostelic was standing near the base of a hill at Snowbasin on Feb. 17, watching his daughter, Janica, ski the women's Olympic Super G. He focused on a giant television screen that showed the distant upper portions of the course, and he saw Janica carving beautiful turns through the icy snow, tucking into the red and blue gates, her skis as unfluttering as lily pads on pond water at dawn, pulling speed from the hill. Then Ante saw teeth flashing inside Janica's orange helmet. "Like this," he said later, pushing up the corners of his mouth with his gnarled index fingers. "A smile."

Ante, 60, had seen it many times before: when Janica was a small child in Croatia; when she began to win races on the local junior circuit; when she won the women's overall World Cup title last season at age 19. But not so often since then. Janica had surgery on her left knee three times in 2001, the last in late September, when an Austrian doctor finally found the floating piece of cartilage that was causing her such pain that she could neither ski nor work out. Near the end of October, Ante stood on the face of a glacier in Soelden, Austria, as Janica trained at full speed for the first time in seven months. He saw the teeth, telling him that his daughter's training for the Olympics could begin in earnest. "When she smiles, she's enjoying the skiing," Ante says. "It means she's happy and full of the joy. She can win like this, because the joy is the most important part."

Kostelic won three golds (combined, giant slalom and slalom) and one silver (Super G), more gold than any other female skier and more medals than any other skier, male or female, in any one Olympics—a record she immediately dismissed as soon to be broken and of greater significance to her country than to her. "I'm not excited about a lot of medals," she said. "It's good, I guess. Whatever. It's fun for me to ski."

Anja Paerson of Sweden, who took a silver in the giant slalom and a bronze in the slalom, said, "I've skied against Kostelic for so long, and I can tell exactly how she feels. Here, she skis happy. The skiing is fun for her."

Janica was an Alpine prodigy. Ante and his wife, Marica, both former elite team handball players, reared Janica and her older brother, Ivica, in Zagreb and taught them to ski in nearby Sljeme on a hill that was only 3,400 feet high and had but four trails. When Ivica, who would become a member of the Croatian men's team, was 11 and Janica nine, their parents began driving them across Europe to races, eating sandwiches for every meal and sleeping in tents. "We were not poor for the normal life—we were poor for the ski life, which is for a rich man," says Ante. The spartan travel didn't hinder Janica's natural touch on the snow. At age 15 she won 22 consecutive local junior races; at 16 she went to the 1998 Nagano Olympics and finished eighth in the combined. Just past her 17th birthday she won a World Cup race, a combined in St. Anton, Austria. Last year she won the first eight slaloms of the World Cup season and took the overall points title.

Kostelic tore ligaments in her right knee (routine for most skiers) in 1999, but what appeared to be a minor injury to her left knee last March proved more stubborn. The surgery in September made skiing less painful—"It still hurts some, all the time," Kostelic said in Salt Lake City—but she had lost valuable training time. She hadn't won any World Cup races this season. "She looked like an average skier," says U.S. racer Sarah Schleper. "Just average, nothing more."

Kostelic skipped the final pre-Olympic World Cup races, which took place in Are, Sweden, from Jan. 31 through Feb. 2, and spent five days resting and doing dryland training in Selce, a Croatian resort on the Adriatic Sea. The Kostelics—including Ivica, who came into the Games as the leader in the World Cup slalom standings but ended up a disappointing ninth in the giant slalom and didn't even complete the slalom—arrived in Salt Lake City on Feb. 5, nine days before Janica's first event, and stayed in a rented house in Huntsville, a rural community near Snowbasin.

On Feb. 14 Kostelic won the combined, the one event she thought she could win and the one she treasured most as a display of versatility. Its daring downhill portion tested her knee and her courage. Three days later she was second by a scant five hundredths of a second to Italy's Daniela Ceccarelli in the Super G. By the time the ski events shifted to Park City for the slalom and giant slalom, Kostelic's flying red pigtails were fixtures in Olympic highlights, and her pitch-perfect stoner English was a hoot at interviews. Asked if she could win both the slalom and giant slalom, she said, "No way, man, GS isn't my thing!"

The slalom was skied at Deer Valley in a blinding snowstorm, but Kostelic, a sturdy 5'8" and 166 pounds, held her edges and won gold number 2 by only .07 of a second. Two days later she dominated the GS—her thing after all—winning by a huge 1.32 seconds. Her opponents spoke as if they had conceded the race. "She is too strong in the head," said bronze medalist Sonja Nef of Switzerland. "She was too good in these days."

In the aftermath of her victory Kostelic lay sideways in the slushy snow while her teammates and dozens of Croatian coaches, managers and officials danced around her in their matching red jackets and ski pants. She held her skis to her chest as if she would never let go. There was no hiding her joy in a helmet. They could all see her smile now.

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Ante Kostelic 1 0 0
Kostelics-including Ivica 0 0 0
Croatia 34 0 0
Salt Lake City 153 0 3
Sweden 207 0 1