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Krazy Koz A rebel with a couple of causes--personal happiness and a gold medal--Kristina Koznick does things her way on and off the slopes

Krazy Koz A rebel with a couple of causes--personal happiness and a gold medal--Kristina Koznick does things her way on and off the slopes

Leave the A12 Autobahn at Kramsach in the Austrian Tirol. Find a
two-lane road that twists and climbs into the mountains through
a succession of villages--Brixlegg, Mehrn, Reith, Naschbg--each
smaller and more quaint than the last. In every town there is a
ski hill, a restaurant, perhaps a hotel and a place to rent
equipment. Keep climbing. Alpbach ... almost there ...
Inneralpbach, at last. There's an inn, the Gondel Alm, on the
left; a snowy hillside on the right, bisected by a single T bar
and dotted with cottages. The pavement stops in the shadow of a
rocky peak and two more small lodges. End of the road.

This is an article from the Feb. 20, 2002 issue

Olympic dreams flourish in faraway, dimly lit places. During the
third week of January, U.S. skier Kristina Koznick (who competes
today in the slalom), 26, lived in the Gondel Alm with her
coach-boyfriend Dan Stripp, physical therapist-assistant coach
Raul Guisado and ski technician John Mulligan, a foursome they
call Team Koznick. Each day in Inneralpbach, Koznick trained with
Stripp on the hillside across the road from their humble digs,
and each night she let Guisado work her muscles and Mulligan
work her skis and then ate dinner at one of the three tables
inside the inn's bar-restaurant. "Isn't it nice here?" said
Koznick one evening that week. "It's quiet, there's good
training."

Two hours west, in the German city of Berchtesgaden, women on
the U.S. ski team, many of whom would soon become Koznick's
Olympic teammates, lived as a group, pushing each other in
training, eating together and fostering a college dorm
atmosphere ruled by such silliness as a three-dollar fine for
taking a phone call during dinner. They sweated, laughed and
suffered together. In almost every sense, they were a team.

Each weekend on the World Cup tour, from November through
February, this scenario would repeat itself: Team Koznick in one
place, Team USA in another. On race day they would meet as
opponents. "I've known [Koznick] for a long time, and we're
friends," says U.S. ski team member Sarah Schleper, like Koznick
a slalom and giant slalom specialist, "but I don't really feel
like she's my teammate. It's a very weird relationship."

Got that right. It all plays out now on the sprawling Olympic
stage, where Koznick is among the favorites to not only win the
slalom gold medal, today at 10 a.m. at Deer Valley, but also to
validate her rare and courageous decision almost two years ago to
leave the financial and emotional cocoon of the U.S. ski team to
train on her own.

Like so many Olympic stories, Koznick's begins with a little kid
and a dream. Like very few such tales, it ends with a grown woman
fighting a bureaucracy, running her career like a small business,
spending $250,000 a year that would otherwise have been comped by
the U.S. ski team, fund-raising, hiring staff, booking travel and
(no small sidebar) rising above the soap opera that developed
after the disclosure of her relationship with Stripp, the
national team coach who became her personal coach. "Win or lose
in Salt Lake City, she's just blossomed as a person through all
of this," says Koznick's father, Jeff. "I look at what she has
gone through to make this happen, and I just go, 'Wow.'"

Start with the little kid. Kristina was two and living near
Minneapolis when her father took her to Buck Hill, a molehill
with only 300 feet of vertical. Jeff had been a ski jumper in his
youth and, later, an avid heli-skier. He wanted his kids
(Kristina and her brother, Charlie, four years younger and now an
aspiring actor-model in Los Angeles) to ski well. "My goal was
for the kids to be able to ski any run in the world without
crying," says Jeff. Kristina was good from the start, but when
she was eight, her father found her playing video games at the
lodge in midafternoon and concluded she needed better and more
intense instruction.

Jeff and Kristina's mother, Mary Jane (they would divorce when
Kristina was 15) took Kristina to Erich Sailer, an Austrian who
came to the U.S. when he was 25 and ran a racing program at Buck
Hill plus summer camps in Oregon and Montana. (Sailer also began
working with Schleper when she was a teenager in Montana, a
gnarly turn of events that will thicken the air in Deer Valley.)
In Koznick, Sailer found a precocious skier who could turn
effortlessly and hold speed. "She was a natural talent, very
sound mechanically from the beginning," says Sailer. "Within one
year she was far better than the others her age."

When Koznick was 15, in 1990, she became the youngest member of
the U.S. ski team. At 18 she finished 10th in a World Cup slalom
in Are, Sweden. After knee and toe injuries slowed her rise from
'94 through '97, Koznick busted out in the '97-98 season with
four World Cup podiums and arrived in Nagano as one of the
Olympic slalom favorites. "I had no idea how I'd gotten to where
I was," Koznick says now. "I was standing in the start house
thinking, What's going on?" She didn't have to think long; she
fell on the first run and was out of the race.

With two World Cup victories during the 1999-2000 season,
Koznick remained among the best slalom skiers in the world. But
because there were no Americans at her level to push her in
practice, she became frustrated, feeling that training sessions
were geared toward bringing younger skiers (such as Schleper) up
to her level rather than helping to make her the best. "I felt
the focus was on them, not on me," says Koznick. One of the
team's coaches was Stripp.

In June 2000 Koznick and her agent, Mark Ervin of IMG, met with
U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) vice president Alan
Ashley and women's coach Marian Cernigoj. Koznick asked for
adjustments to the program, including the opportunity to train
with Europeans on occasion or to bring in a private coach to work
with her. "Basically I asked them if we could create a program to
help me get to Number 1 in the world," Koznick says. The USSA's
response: our way or the highway.

USSA president and CEO Bill Marolt remains dismissive of
Koznick's request, even two years later and with Koznick winning
World Cup races. "Our approach is team and family," says Marolt.
"She made a decision to approach it differently, and it's working
out for her. I think there's great strength in numbers. It has
worked for us, and we'll continue doing things that way."

After the meeting in 2000 Koznick sat in her car with Ervin. She
wept and she ranted, and with little choice, she quit the U.S.
ski team. Using prize and sponsorship earnings she'd saved, she
hired Stripp, then 38, with whom she had begun a relationship
after the end of the previous season, as her personal coach.
Stripp was available because his contract with the USSA had not
been renewed, although USSA officials say the nonrenewal had
nothing to do with his relationship with Koznick. Stripp says he
had written a letter to the USSA during the season expressing
his desire to leave the program. "I was going to go to Lake
Placid and coach," he says. "Then Kristina asked me to work with
her."

In Team Koznick's first year the Koznick-Stripp relationship was
severely tested, both personally and professionally. While U.S.
ski team members do nothing for themselves but train--food,
travel and lodging are arranged and paid for--Stripp and Koznick
had to handle everything, and it wore them out. "It was more
than I realized," says Koznick. She had three podiums but wound
up seventh in the year-end slalom standings. The entire season
was a struggle. This year would be different.

To start, Koznick took herself out of the logistical loop,
letting Stripp take care of the travel arrangements. She hired
Mulligan, a former U.S. ski team technician who is engaged to
Picabo Street, to do her skis and Guisado to train her and help
with coaching. They bonded as a team, complete with nicknames:
Koz, Stripper and Mulli (nothing yet for Guisado).

Koznick pays three salaries from May to March and fronts all
expenses, totaling more than $250,000 a year. To supplement
income from sponsors and races (a win is worth $10,000 to
$25,000), Koznick set up a nonprofit foundation on her website
(www.koznick.com), which had raised $60,000 before the season. A
woman approached Koznick at one race and gave her $100; at
another a group of children handed over their allowances. Team
Koznick cuts costs by staying in remote places like Inneralpbach
and by cooking many meals themselves. (Point of reference: U.S.
skier Daron Rahlves, who won the world Super G title last
season, told SI he earned roughly $320,000; Koznick is on a
short leash financially.)

Relations with the U.S. team remain frosty. In late January,
Team Koznick was told by the USSA that Stripp would be given
Olympic coaching accreditation, which allows him on the slalom
and giant slalom hills, from where he can radio course reports
to Koznick. Guisado, who also works the hill and radios
condition reports to Koznick at the top, was denied a
credential. (A USSA spokesman said physical therapists are not
generally accredited.) Koznick was forced to seek accreditation
help from Volkl, her ski manufacturer. "They keep putting up
hurdles," says Jeff Koznick, "and Kristina keeps jumping over
them."

It helps that she has never skied better. Under Guisado's
direction she dropped her weight from 173 pounds to 157 in the
spring, which added quickness, among other benefits. "I'm a
normal woman. I like to like myself when I look in the mirror,"
says Koznick. Competitors like Sonja Nef of Switzerland, who
also trains solo, have welcomed Koznick to share runs. And
Koznick and Stripp are closer than ever, both personally and
professionally. In the end, age, experience and the heavy load
of managing herself have matured her. "Her success is not
happening by chance," says Sailer, who talks often to Koznick by
phone. "She has a handle on her life and her racing. She is in
control."

In the bar of the Gondel Alm, Koznick sips a glass of water. "In
skiing or business, to be competitive you have to take risks,"
she says. "I tossed and turned and I was scared, but I took that
risk--and here I am." In the diary section of her website she
writes weekly entries to her fans, many under the name of her
Sesame Street stuffed traveling partner, Grover. In January,
Grover wrote this: It has been quite the roller coaster ride the
last week or so! The whole team has seen highs and lows.
Kristina has gone from smiles and laughter to tears and
confusion. I watch her every day, she puts her heart and soul
into everything she does, and when she doesn't come out on top,
she can get so rattled....

So there she is, not yet golden but growing stronger than her
compatriots for the way she has tried. The one who had the guts
to leave the nest.

FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL/VIICOLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN SELKOWITZ/NEWSPORT Koznick has never skied better than she has this season, with one World Cup victory and two second-place finishes.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL/VII After Stripp and Koznick left the U.S. ski team in 2000, the strain of working independently tested their relationship.
"She was a natural talent," says former coach Sailer, "very
sound mechanically from the beginning."
"Win or lose in Salt Lake, she's blossomed as a person through
all of this," says Koznick's dad, Jeff.