Golden Gates Having overcome injury, smiling Janica Kostelic gave Croatia something to grin about with her dominating four-medal skiing performance

March 04, 2002

He saw his child smile, and only then did he know that
everything was right. Ante Kostelic was standing near the base
of a hill at Snowbasin on Feb. 17, watching his daughter,
Janica, ski the women's Olympic Super G. He focused on a giant
television screen that showed the distant upper portions of the
course, and he saw Janica carving beautiful turns through the
icy snow, tucking into the red and blue gates, her skis as
unfluttering as lily pads on pond water at dawn, pulling speed
from the hill. Then Ante saw teeth flashing inside Janica's
orange helmet. "Like this," he said later, pushing up the
corners of his mouth with his gnarled index fingers. "A smile."

Ante, 60, had seen it many times before: when Janica was a small
child in Croatia; when she began to win races on the local junior
circuit; when she won the women's overall World Cup title last
season at age 19. But not so often since then. Janica had surgery
on her left knee three times in 2001, the last in late September,
when an Austrian doctor finally found the floating piece of
cartilage that was causing her such pain that she could neither
ski nor work out. Near the end of October, Ante stood on the face
of a glacier in Soelden, Austria, as Janica trained at full speed
for the first time in seven months. He saw the teeth, telling him
that his daughter's training for the Olympics could begin in
earnest. "When she smiles, she's enjoying the skiing," Ante says.
"It means she's happy and full of the joy. She can win like this,
because the joy is the most important part."

Kostelic won three golds (combined, giant slalom and slalom) and
one silver (Super G), more gold than any other female skier and
more medals than any other skier, male or female, in any one
Olympics--a record she immediately dismissed as soon to be broken
and of greater significance to her country than to her. "I'm not
excited about a lot of medals," she said. "It's good, I guess.
Whatever. It's fun for me to ski."

Anja Paerson of Sweden, who took a silver in the giant slalom
and a bronze in the slalom, said, "I've skied against Kostelic
for so long, and I can tell exactly how she feels. Here, she
skis happy. The skiing is fun for her."

Janica was an Alpine prodigy. Ante and his wife, Marica, both
former elite team handball players, reared Janica and her older
brother, Ivica, in Zagreb and taught them to ski in nearby
Sljeme on a hill that was only 3,400 feet high and had but four
trails. When Ivica, who would become a member of the Croatian
men's team, was 11 and Janica nine, their parents began driving
them across Europe to races, eating sandwiches for every meal
and sleeping in tents. "We were not poor for the normal life--we
were poor for the ski life, which is for a rich man," says Ante.
The spartan travel didn't hinder Janica's natural touch on the
snow. At age 15 she won 22 consecutive local junior races; at 16
she went to the 1998 Nagano Olympics and finished eighth in the
combined. Just past her 17th birthday she won a World Cup race,
a combined in St. Anton, Austria. Last year she won the first
eight slaloms of the World Cup season and took the overall
points title.

Kostelic tore ligaments in her right knee (routine for most
skiers) in 1999, but what appeared to be a minor injury to her
left knee last March proved more stubborn. The surgery in
September made skiing less painful--"It still hurts some, all
the time," Kostelic said in Salt Lake City--but she had lost
valuable training time. She hadn't won any World Cup races this
season. "She looked like an average skier," says U.S. racer
Sarah Schleper. "Just average, nothing more."

Kostelic skipped the final pre-Olympic World Cup races, which
took place in Are, Sweden, from Jan. 31 through Feb. 2, and
spent five days resting and doing dryland training in Selce, a
Croatian resort on the Adriatic Sea. The Kostelics--including
Ivica, who came into the Games as the leader in the World Cup
slalom standings but ended up a disappointing ninth in the giant
slalom and didn't even complete the slalom--arrived in Salt Lake
City on Feb. 5, nine days before Janica's first event, and
stayed in a rented house in Huntsville, a rural community near
Snowbasin.

On Feb. 14 Kostelic won the combined, the one event she thought
she could win and the one she treasured most as a display of
versatility. Its daring downhill portion tested her knee and her
courage. Three days later she was second by a scant five
hundredths of a second to Italy's Daniela Ceccarelli in the
Super G. By the time the ski events shifted to Park City for the
slalom and giant slalom, Kostelic's flying red pigtails were
fixtures in Olympic highlights, and her pitch-perfect stoner
English was a hoot at interviews. Asked if she could win both
the slalom and giant slalom, she said, "No way, man, GS isn't my
thing!"

The slalom was skied at Deer Valley in a blinding snowstorm, but
Kostelic, a sturdy 5'8" and 166 pounds, held her edges and won
gold number 2 by only .07 of a second. Two days later she
dominated the GS--her thing after all--winning by a huge 1.32
seconds. Her opponents spoke as if they had conceded the race.
"She is too strong in the head," said bronze medalist Sonja Nef
of Switzerland. "She was too good in these days."

In the aftermath of her victory Kostelic lay sideways in the
slushy snow while her teammates and dozens of Croatian coaches,
managers and officials danced around her in their matching red
jackets and ski pants. She held her skis to her chest as if she
would never let go. There was no hiding her joy in a helmet.
They could all see her smile now.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY Mountain do After downplaying her chances, Kostelic blew away the field in the giant slalom for her third gold of the Games.

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)