Alpine Skiing: Nef and Kostelic Win World Cups
By Julia Ferguson
FLACHAU, Austria (Reuters) - Croat Ivica Kostelic kept it in the family on Saturday by donning the men's World Cup slalom crown a year after his younger sister, triple Olympic champion Janica, won the women's title.
Egged on by thousands of raucous Croatian fans, the 22-year-old Ivica held his nerve to beat rival Bode Miller in the final slalom of the 2002 Alpine ski World Cup season and so deny the American the cup.
In the women's final giant slalom, Swiss Sonja Nef plowed through the slushy snow on the sun-drenched Griessenkar course to capture the title in the technical discipline for the second year in a row.
The men's race was a nail-bitingly close spectacle and a fitting end to an exciting season where Kostelic and Miller have battled each other to the very end.
Miller summed it up best.
"It was one of the best seasons I've ever seen and I just wish I could have watched some of the races rather than compete in them," the American said.
"We work well together, we push each other," he said of Kostelic. "He's the perfect rival...and one of the toughest competitors I've ever seen."
Miller, lying eighth after a mistake in the first leg, produced a storming second run to put the pressure on Kostelic.
The Croat, skiing last after setting the fastest time in the opening leg, left the starting hut knowing he had to finish first or second to beat Miller to the cup.
His two-leg time of one minute 37.92 seconds put him 0.23 seconds ahead of the American. Olympic champion Jean-Pierre Vidal of France was third in 1:39.00.
Kostelic, who became Croatia's first men's champion in the World Cup, said the atmosphere before his last run into the finish area of this Salzburg resort was electrifying.
"Standing at the start hut and knowing Bode's leading by almost a second, a huge audience cheering for me -- and I felt that this is the peak of every sport.
"I knew Bode would risk much more in the second run so I also risked a lot," added Kostelic after dropping to his knees, crossing himself and kissing the snow in the finish area.
His sister Janica cried tears of joy.
It was a fitting end to Ivica's season after disappointment at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics (news - web sites) last month. For the first time since 1997, he got through the winter without injury.
Organizers said there were some 15,000 spectators in Flachau and, judging by the sea of red-and-white checked Croatian flags, a third appeared to be Kostelic fans.
SWISS WINS BATTLE
Nef's victory under cloudless skies and unusually warm temperatures of 15 degrees Celsius held off the challenge of Austrian Michaela Dorfmeister for the giant slalom cup.
The Swiss, who is also reigning world champion in giant slalom and won a bronze medal at the Winter Olympics, admitted she was so determined to win the title that she woke up with a stomach ache from nervous tension.
Dorfmeister, already overall World Cup champion, was only 20 points behind Nef at the start of the day but could do no better than sixth in the race. She finished with 494 giant slalom points to Nef's 574.
"Dorfmeister has had such a great end to the season so I knew she'd risk everything," the Swiss added in reference to the Austrian's back-to-back wins in the downhill and super-G earlier this week.
Swede Anna Ottosson had her best result of the season with second place, 0.84 seconds behind Nef's two-leg time of two minutes 42.96 seconds. Finn Tanja Poutiainen was third in 2:44.49.
Olympic champion Janica Kostelic, skiing despite injuring her thumb in a fall during Thursday's super-G, failed to make it double billing for the Croatian siblings atop the podium.
She finished joint eighth, just behind Sweden's Anja Paerson, the silver medallist from Salt Lake City.
Nef said she was disappointed with her performance at the Winter Games, which she left with only one bronze medal.
"And I had actually thought that more World Cup wins would come out of this season than the three," the winner of seven races last winter said.
"I'm so happy to be holding this cup in my hands -- I haven't had as good a season this year as last so this title means even more to me," Nef added.
The last two titles of 2002 will be decided on Sunday. Frenchwoman Laure Pequegnot and American Kristina Koznick will duel for the women's slalom crown while the men's giant slalom will be a battle between five men, including Austrian Stephan Eberharter who has already secured the overall, downhill and super-G cups.
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