Kostelic Captivates Croatia With a Slalom Run for the Ages
By NATHANIEL VINTON
Published: January 6, 2006
ZAGREB, Croatia, Jan. 5 - Janica Kostelic lost a ski pole while pushing out of the starting gate but still managed to finish third in a World Cup slalom race in her homeland on Thursday.
Kostelic was the main draw for the 25,000 fans who braved the cold at Sljeme, a small ski area just north of Zagreb, the capital. Thousands more watched on a wall of televisions in the city's main square.
"Janica Kostelic is very important to us here," said Milan Bandic, the mayor of Zagreb, a city of about 800,000. "We are a small people, but we have a winner's mentality."
Marlies Schild of Austria won the two-run race in 1 minute 53.63 seconds, with her countrywoman Kathrin Zettel 0.44 seconds behind. Kostelic finished 1.45 seconds off the pace and clutched her hand in pain after losing her pole at the top of the second run.
"I wanted to quit because it was hurting so much," said Kostelic, who dragged her bare right hand in the snow on half the turns, and knocked the gates out of the way with it on the others. "But at the end of the flat part I realized I only had 20 more gates, and I thought it would be best to finish for my fans."
Ski poles are essential to skiers for balance, but racers often ski without them as a training drill.
The race was held on Kostelic's 24th birthday, at the slope where she learned to ski. The second run was held at night, under floodlights, to maximize the ratings of the live television broadcast.
Kostelic became a national hero by winning four medals at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City: gold in combined, downhill and slalom, and silver in super-G. Croatia has passionately embraced the sport of Alpine ski racing ever since.
Growing up, Kostelic and her brother, Ivica, were the ultimate outsiders, sleeping in their car at races to save money and being coached by their father, Ante. In Croatia, which has a population of 4.5 million, the Kostelic family story is sometimes called the miracle.
On Thursday, athletes, coaches, journalists and ski technicians were transported to the mountain in a lengthy police convoy, which left a downtown hotel at 12:15 p.m. and arrived at the top of the mountain 40 minutes later. The athletes found thousands of fans lining the length of the race hill, clutching road flares that they did not light until Kostelic came down. With a budget of $3.59 million and the biggest purse of the season, the Zagreb race may be the most enthusiastically organized event of the women's World Cup.
Last year the same mountain was the site of Croatia's first World Cup race. Kostelic's fans were disappointed when she failed to finish that event, but they showed more patience than they had in 2003, when they threw snowballs at Anja Paerson of Sweden while she descended the course.
On Thursday, Kostelic lost her right pole at the starting gate, and the pole's retention strap pulled her mitten off with it. Fans groaned, then went wild when Kostelic registered faster times at each of the timing splits.
"She is No. 1 in our eyes because of her will," said Goran Kratofil, who for 20 years has been the proprietor of the Golden Bear restaurant at the top of the Sljeme slope. "When she gets hurt, she wants to recover so badly, and she always does."
The top Americans in the race were Kristina Koznick in seventh place and Resi Stiegler in 10th. They have probably clinched positions in the slalom for the Olympics in February in Turin, Italy, although the United States team will not be named until Jan. 25.