Kostelic returns home to huge party in Croatia
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) -- Drums, screams and applause erupted on the main square of Croatia's capital Monday as Janica Kostelic, who captured four medals -- including three golds -- at the Salt Lake City Olympics, arrived for a hero's welcome.
People stayed away from their jobs and schools canceled classes as Croats rushed to embrace their 20-year-old ski sensation, now dubbed the "Snow Queen."
Wrapped up in the Croatian flag, Kostelic screamed from the stage to the ecstatic crowd of about 100,000 at the Ban Jelacic square: "I will never see something so great again! Thank you!"
Asked whether the Olympic days were the best of her life, she said: "Certainly, but this is even better!"
Kostelic's older brother Ivica, who failed to win a medal, took a guitar and played and sang Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" with a rock band, changing its refrain to "Go, Janica, go!"
"Not even Mick Jagger plays before such a big crowd!" Ivica shouted.
Kostelic, her father and coach Ante were seen dancing on and off the stage.
The turnout resembled the crowd gathering in 1991 when Croats celebrated their country's independence from the former Yugoslavia.
After touchdown at Zagreb's airport, Kostelic was greeted by thousands. She smiled and waved -- from the cockpit -- and then came out laughing to the screams of joy of those gathered near the runaway.
Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan and U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Lawrence Rossin, were on hand to greet her.
Kostelic was Croatia's favorite medal contender at the Games, but few expected her to make such an impact. She became the first Alpine skier to win four medals at a single Winter Olympics.
Croatia had never won a medal in the Winter Games before, and Kostelic's medals were all the country of 4.5 million managed to win.
She won gold in the slalom, the combined and even giant slalom -- a discipline that has never been her specialty. She also took silver in the Super-G.
Immediately, she became the admired national star, even by those who never watched skiing before. Croatia -- with only two small ski resorts -- has had no notable skiing history.
She was driven in an open convertible to Zagreb's downtown square for a big celebration.
On the square, an 18-story building was adorned with a giant poster of Kostelic and her brother Ivica.
Zvonimir Boban, a Croatian international soccer star who played with AC Milan, was also on hand. He called Kostelic "a queen, our pride and joy."
Kostelic won international attention after she scored her first victory in the World Cup as a 17-year-old. But she captured the hearts of many Croats after they learned of the huge sacrifices her family made to reach the top, largely ignored by potential sponsors, including the state bodies.
The cash-strapped Kostelics had to travel around Europe to compete in junior races -- often sleeping in tents or in the car, living on salami-and-pickle sandwiches to save money for chair lifts.
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