Wednesday, February 20, 2002
U.S. women in danger of being blanked
PARK CITY, Utah -- Kristina Koznick was so sure she had it together this time, that her nerves would not betray her, that she would come through in the biggest race of her life.
She didn't even make it through the first run. Five gates from the finish in the Olympic slalom Wednesday, Koznick hit a hole on the choppy course, lost her balance and fell. With her went the last realistic hope for the U.S. women to win Alpine skiing medal in the Salt Lake City Games.
"I just couldn't see the bumps that were coming," she said. "I tried to hang on with everything I had, but it didn't work."
Koznick, 26, lay face-down in the snow for a long, long time, then she climbed back on her skis and coasted slowly through the falling snow to the cheers of the crowd.
She has won five World Cup slaloms. This winter, she has one first and three seconds, yet Koznick never has won a medal in a world championships or Olympics. Her eighth-place finish in the 2001 worlds marked the first time she'd even finished one of the major events.
Still, she felt so good Wednesday, and her No. 3 starting position was perfect.
"I thought `Great, I'm skiing the best I've ever skied,"' she said. "I've totally peaked at the right time. I'm in great shape."'
But the course wasn't. Fresh snow warmed the hard surface below, creating ruts mixed with choppy pieces of ice. She was nervous at the start, she said, but no more than usual.
As she bounced down the steep course, though, she simply couldn't stay in control.
"It was like trying to ride a bull," she said.
In the summer of 2000, she had broken away from the U.S. Ski Team to train with her boyfriend and coach, Dan Stripp, who had been fired from the U.S. staff a few months earlier.
Intent on erasing her reputation as a failure in the big races, she aimed confidently at Salt Lake City. She even added the giant slalom to her repertoire to try to ease the pressure she always felt in the slalom.
She saw a chance to be the only U.S. woman to get a medal in Alpine skiing, and she do it without the U.S. Ski Team.
Afterward, Koznick patiently waded through the gauntlet of reporters, and through the first two groups she met she put up a brave front, almost in denial over the crushing disappointment she had just experienced.
"My brain is still going," she said. "I have so much left in my day. It's like `OK, second run and what are you going to do?' This is a day I've gone through in my head so many times. It's almost like I couldn't believe. It just hasn't hit me.
"I promised myself I wouldn't open the door to failure today, and I really haven't because I still haven't realized it hasn't gone my way."
Then, speaking to a third group of questioners, she began to say how proud she was of herself when she suddenly broke down. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
"I think it just hit me," she said.
For a long moment, she tried to regain her composure.
"My coach told me I'd be crying today either way, whether I did good or I did bad," she said. "Unfortunately, these aren't the kind of tears I wanted."
The rest of the U.S. team's luck went from bad to worse. Sarah Schleper lost a ski and failed to finish the first run. Tasha Nelson skied off the course in her first run. Seventeen-year-old Lindsey Kildow made it through the first run, but fell in the second. She climbed back on her skies and finished in 32nd.
The only race remaining for the women is the giant slalom on Friday, and U.S. coach Marjan Cernigoj already has admitted his skiers have little chance in that event.
Koznick will be there.
`My best finish ever in GS is ninth," she said, "but you know what, heck, I've got nothing to lose. It's kind of fun being an underdog."