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A Race She Couldn't Win but Wouldn't Miss


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February 23, 2006

SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Jim Litke)—A handful of times every day, inside a rink or at the bottom of a hill, somebody wins a medal and says, “This is what the Olympics are all about.

And unless they’ve survived a near-death experience, had kids or won the lottery, it’s almost always the best day of their lives. The athletes make a point of saying that, too.

On Wednesday, Kristina Koznick reminded everybody what the Olympics are really about.

It was one of the hardest days of her life.

The U.S. slalom skiing specialist stood in the starting gate, aching from bone bruises and leaning on a right knee held together by a state-of-the-art brace and a thread of ligament her doctors guessed was not much wider in diameter than a strand of her hair.

In her third and likely final Olympics, Koznick had about as much chance of winning as she did of avoiding yet another operation _ and that surgery is already scheduled for Monday in Vail, Colo. Koznick knew that, too, and pushed off, anyway.

“I wanted the fairy tale, she said. “I stood up there and I wanted to walk away with a medal. I knew I could write a book about it if I did.

Koznick’s Olympic diary won’t be sitting on the shelves at a bookstore near you anytime soon. That snapshot she composed at the top of the hill, with the fog just beginning to roll in, is about as far as she got. The rest of the way, Koznick used every bit of mental energy she could muster to block out the fear of shredding her knee further. Ultimately, none of it worked.

“I tried to put everything on the line, she recalled, “but my subconscious said, ‘Uh, I don’t think so.’

Koznick finished the first run 3.34 seconds behind the leader, Anja Paerson of Sweden, the eventual gold medalist, and suddenly a whole new competition began unfolding in front of her: how to get past her teammates, rivals, family, friends and a gauntlet of reporters without repeatedly breaking into tears.

It only took a moment to figure out she was going to lose this one, too.[pagebreak]Paerson, among the first to reach her, planted a kiss of her cheek and “the first thing that Anja said to me, Koznick recalled, “was ‘I’m so proud about you.’

“Everybody here knows that there aren’t many people who would have gone up there and raced. I guess that says a lot about me as a person.

Several times over the next half-hour, a similar scene played out with the same result _ fresh tears.

Over and over, Koznick had to recite the details about when and how she got hurt _ on Feb. 4, after skiing off an 8-foot ledge warming up before a World Cup giant slalom in Germany _ and how painful the rehabilitation had been.

She was on crutches for most of her stay in the athletes’ village, pulling out of the giant slalom and deciding to compete in the slalom only after a side trip to Switzerland to be custom-fitted for the brace. A few days ago, Koznick resumed training, left the crutches in her room and gingerly began walking back and forth to the dining room and team meetings. She wasn’t ready for the commotion those little jaunts would create.

“I could have flown home and been watching from home in the hospital, but I stayed, Koznick said. “And it wasn’t just the skiers in the village pulling for me, it was everybody.

“And when I got off the crutches, they were cheering, she added, eyes filling up once more at the memory. “They wanted the fairy tale for me, too.

And none more so than her boyfriend and coach, Dan Stripp, taking it all in nearby. The two had traced most of the arc of Koznick’s career together, sharing the highs and lows. Five years ago, Koznick was 25 and Stripp was a coach on the U.S. team, and when federation officials learned about their relationship, the two were told to break it off or leave.[pagebreak]They chose the second option, and despite having to scrounge for the funds to keep Koznick racing on the World Cup circuit _ where she’s won six races and reached the podium 20 tiimes _ they never returned to the fold. If either had regrets about the way things worked out, it wasn’t apparent Wednesday.

The moment Koznick cleared the last knot of reporters, she found Stripp, shared a few words and then buried her tear-stained face in his arms.

“It’s so tough when you’re not all there, Stripp said. “As I watched her ski, I thought, ‘She’s putting 100 percent in.’ We really had no idea whether she’d be fast or slow today. It was a question of how much she’d be willing to push.

Soon afterward, though, Koznick decided she’d reached her limit. After a brief consultation with her doctors, she pulled out of the race. Making up three seconds over a run that the best skiers finish in 46 seconds and change wasn’t just hopeless, but dangerous, given the condition of her knee.

More than 100 years ago, Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the ancient games with this as the guiding principle: “The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

It sounds so outmoded now, so hopelessly naive in an era when the Olympic motto of “Swifter, Higher, Stronger has been replaced by “Where’s mine? But then along comes somebody like Koznick to remind us that sometimes, the journey is reward enough.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press