Terrible conditions but a great day for Kostelic

PARK CITY, Utah -- It was a terrible day in the women's slalom, no doubt about it.

With snow falling and temperatures in the mid-30s, conditions on the choppy course were so bad that of the 68 skiers who began the ace, 30 did not finish the course, including three of the four Americans. Medal favorite Kristina Koznick fell, Tasha Nelson skied off the course and Sarah Schleper lost a ski. And the one American who finished, Lindsey Kildow, almost missed a gate before going back to catch it.

A terrible day. No question about it. Unless, of course, you looked away from the slope and saw more than the United States.

You see, much as we in the American media try to ignore it, the thing about the Olympics is there are actually athletes competing who aren't from the United States. And one of them is the remarkable Janica Kostelic, the 20-year-old Croatian who is on the brink of Olympic history.

Her country had never won a medal at the Winter Olympics before last week and now it has three -- all belonging to Kostelic. She won the gold in the women's combined, the silver in the Super G and then, while so many others fell Wednesday, she won the gold in the slalom. With one more medal -- the giant slalom is her next event -- she would set an Olympic record for alpine medals. And her brother, Ivica, could add yet another Croatian medal -- he's a favorite in the men's slalom.

When Janica finished her second run Wednesday to beat France's Laure Pequegnot by seven-hundredths of a second, her Croatian supporters turned the base of the hill into the world's highest mosh pit. Men and women laughed and cried. They hugged and kissed. They waved Croatian flags and rang sleigh bells. They chanted Janica's name again and again, and raised her mother, Marica, onto their shoulders.

And when Janica took the medal podium, a ski pole in one hand and the Croatian flag in the other, they got excited.

"This is historic," one Croatian said. "This is a miracle!"

"This is a great day for Janica, a great day for our family and a great day for our land," Janica's father and coach, Ante, said.

Janica reached the Olympics at age 16 in Nagano, when she finished as high as eighth, and topped the World Cup standings last year. But she was not expected to ski this well here after undergoing three separate operations on her leg.

"Injuries are part of the payment," Ante said.

Only a part of it, though. The Kostelic family has been through a lot on the journey to edge of history. The war that ravaged Croatia in the early '90s was sometimes only 30 kilometers from their home. "Sometimes we could hear the bombs," Ante said.

Obviously, it was just a struggle for Janica and Ivica to continue their sport. Ante said they would go to junior competitions throughout Europe, but unable to afford proper housing, they lived out of their car, sleeping in tents and eating salami and pickle sandwiches.

"You must understand," Ante said. "We are a normal family. I am a sports professor and when you have a wife and two children, it is not easy to do this. Skiing is a sport for rich families."

"It wasn't so bad," Janica said. "I don't remember it really well because I was a kid. It was like camping. Other families camp."

Janica is bored talking about those days and very matter of fact regarding her current achievements. Asked about the possibility of setting the Olympic alpine record, she replied, "Whatever. If it happens it happens. ... I think I'll have two more Olympics to compete but I may not do as well in those as I have here. But life goes on."

So when her father radioed her just before her second run that Pequegnot had just finished a spectacular run and that it would take a lot to win, Janica simply shrugged and said, "What am I supposed to do about it?"

She did the only thing she could. She skied down the course and added another gold to her country's suddenly rich Olympic tradition. This small country of four million people and a bloody war in its brief 10-year-history has three alpine medals -- the United States has one.

"Now it is much better in Croatia. Everyday gets better and better," Ante said. "We are not rich but we have liberty. And if you have liberty, you can do what you want and the medal is very big."

Awful course conditions, almost half the competitors unable to finish, America's best skier in the event reduced to tears. A terrible day at the slalom? Not at all. It was a wonderful day.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.