Slippery Slopes U.S. skiers crashed and cried at the women's World Cup slalom in Colorado, but one renegade kept her Olympic flame burning

December 03, 2001

It could be argued that six teenage boys from the Manistee Ski
Club of Manistee, Mich., gave the most focused U.S. performance
at the women's World Cup slalom event at Colorado's Copper
Mountain last week. Braving a Thanksgiving snowfall, they stood
at the finish and bared their chests, each of which was painted
with part of the phrase, I [LOVE] USST. "We love you, U.S. Ski
Team!" they screamed through chattering teeth.

The boys cheered even as the U.S. skiers turned in runs that
ranged from disappointing to disastrous. When Caroline Lalive
smacked her nose on a gate on her first run and fell, they
cheered anyway. When Sarah Schleper caught an edge and toppled
on her second run, they cheered anyway. When Kristina Koznick
finished tied for sixth, worse than she had expected but the
best U.S. performance in two days, they roared. Summing up the
day, Joe Torreano, a 16-year-old who had a t painted on his
shivering torso, said, "The U.S. had some trouble here, but
they'll get it together and be ready for the Olympics and we'll
get some medals--hopefully."

You know the World Cup season is off to a shaky start when even
a completely gung-ho, half-naked teenager has to qualify his
confidence in the team's prospects. Though coach Marjan Cernigoj
was pleased with speed specialist Kirsten Clark's surprising
ninth-place finish in the giant slalom on Wednesday, he was
unhappy with Thursday's results. "I'm frustrated," he said.
"Nobody skied to her ability; nobody took advantage of the
opportunity that was there."

Even more frustrated than Cernigoj was Schleper, 22, who began
the season as an Olympic medal hope in both the slalom and the
giant slalom. After disappointing finishes in three races in
late October and early November, the Vail, Colo., resident had
hoped to put on a better show on what is essentially a hometown
hill. On Wednesday, however, she left the mountain in tears
following a 30th-place finish in the giant slalom. After
crashing on Thursday and taking 11th place in the slalom, she
looked stunned. "I feel devastated," she said as she pulled off
her boots, "and I'm really confused. I'm getting so much
technical advice, I don't know how to 'go' anymore. My coaches
blame my family for my struggles, and my family blames my
coaches. I wish they would all just get along."

Among Schleper's concerns is a lack of competition from within
the U.S. squad, which was also one of the main reasons that
Koznick, the country's best female slalom skier, split from the
U.S. Ski Team before last season to train on her own. "I feel as
though I'm pulling up the girls a lot of the time," said
Schleper between races on Thursday. "I need to train so that I'm
constantly being pushed instead of pushing and pulling everyone
else."

Schleper's father, Buzz, agrees that Sarah needs stiffer
competition on a regular basis. "She's in the same boat Koz was
in," Buzz says. "Sometimes I wish that she would go train with
Koz."

It is widely assumed that Koznick chose her maverick path in
response to the U.S. team's firing Dan Stripp--its coach and
Koznick's blossoming romantic interest-- following the 2000
season for having a "negative influence on team dynamics" (i.e.,
a close relationship with her). Koznick says she left because
she wasn't getting the training she needed. "I told my coaches
that I was fifth in the world and I wanted to be first and that
I needed help getting there," she says. "I needed a program that
was set up specifically for me, but they wouldn't change the
program for anyone."

When Koznick struck out on her own, she hired Stripp, by then
her confirmed boyfriend, as her coach. Last year they tackled
the challenges of arranging hill time, lodging and
transportation and raising the $125,000 she needed to compete on
the World Cup circuit. They also faced an icy reception from the
U.S. Ski Team.

"There was tension because the staff took it personally that I
decided to do this," says Koznick. "That was hard, because I'm
the type that wants everyone to like me. It was the first time
that I felt people were rooting against me." This year she has
been relieved to find that much of the tension has dissipated.

Last year Koznick finished 26th in the World Cup standings in
the giant slalom and seventh in the slalom. Now, angling for an
Olympic gold in the slalom, she has added trainer Raul Guisado
and ski service technician John Mulligan (Picabo Street's
fiance) to the Koz cause. Koznick, 26, has also slimmed from 173
to 158 pounds and has been training part time with the Norwegian
squad, which has helped fill the void she felt after leaving her
U.S. teammates. "We've become friends," says Koznick of the
Norwegian skiers. "The other night they invited me for dinner.
That makes me feel good."

Koznick opened her slalom season on Nov. 17 with a third-place
finish in a Gold Cup event at Loveland in Colorado. As the top
American she earned an Olympic berth and $10,000. She had hoped
to make the podium at Copper in the slalom. Instead, she
finished tied for sixth place, 1.46 seconds behind the winner,
Laure Pequegnot of France. "I know it sounds kind of crazy,
given that I didn't have the greatest performance," says
Koznick, "but I've been training really fast, and I'm more on
track than I have ever been. I made a few mistakes here, and
that happens. What do I do now? I smile, brush it off and keep
going."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CARL YARBROUGH Breaking away Koznick, who left the U.S. Ski Team to train on her own, is the nation's best hope for a medal in the slalom at Salt Lake City.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)