February 23, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Andrew Dampf)—The pressure is off. Now Anja Paerson can just ski. The Swede finally won her first Olympic gold medal with two perfect slalom runs and is the favorite for another title in Friday's giant slalom.
"I think she's very relaxed now, Sweden ski team coach Christopher Granberg said Thursday. "She has a lot of confidence. She's fully motivated for tomorrow for sure.
Paerson finally knows what winning at the Olympics is like.
She took silver and bronze at Salt Lake City four years ago and added two bronzes at the Turin Games before breaking through in Wednesday's slalom. Paerson didn't celebrate through the night, Granberg said _ she got up early Thursday to train on the giant slalom course.
While slalom traditionally has been her best event, Paerson has recently excelled in the giant slalom.
She leads the World Cup discipline standings and shared victory in the final race before the Olympics with Maria Jose Rienda Contreras of Spain.
Another medal would give Paerson six in her Olympic career, tying her with rival Janica Kostelic of Croatia for the most among women in Alpine skiing history. The big difference: Four of Kostelic's medals are gold, another Olympic skiing record.
Kostelic likely won't race the giant slalom.
After placing an uncharacteristic fourth in the slalom, Kostelic said she was all but sure to skip a race in which she is the defending champion. Kostelic sat out the downhill last week with a high pulse, and she had stomach problems before the slalom.
If Kostelic doesn't race, Paerson's strongest competition could be Rienda Contreras.
The 30-year-old Spaniard has won two World Cup giant slalom races this season and is second in the discipline standings. These are the fourth Olympics for Rienda Contreras, her first as a medal contender.[pagebreak]"The expectations are very high. This time around there's a big difference, Rienda Contreras said. "I have reached peak condition. I cannot be better.
The Austrian team is good all around. In the eight Alpine skiing events held so far, an Austria man or woman has won a medal each time.
Nicole Hosp, the silver medalist in the slalom, will be Austria's biggest hope Friday. Hosp has won one giant slalom this season, finished runner-up in another and posted two fourth-place finishes.
Another Austrian, Kathrin Zettel, has three top-three finishes this season.
"We have a very strong team, Austrian Alpine director Hans Pum said. "Maybe in every discipline we can make a medal. This was our goal, and I hope we can realize it.
Tanja Poutiainen of Finland led the World Cup GS standings last year, but her best result this season was a sixth-place finish.
Still, having won the silver medal behind Paerson at last season's world championships in Bormio, she thinks she has a chance.
"I'm really confident. I have a good feeling, Poutiainen said after a sixth-place finish in the slalom.
The United States women's team is still looking for its first medal at these games, and Julia Mancuso will be the best chance. Mancuso took the bronze medal in giant slalom in Bormio.
"I'm excited to race the GS. GS is more an event where you can tell if you're fast or slow, Mancuso said.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press