February 22, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Bob Baum)—Anja Paerson peered into the eerie, floodlit fog, her sights never clearer. One more strong run in the slalom and the 24-year-old Swede would have her Olympic gold medal and would vanquish her longtime rival in the process.
This one would not get away.
Paerson raced down the mountain as if all alone, in that zone where victors thrive and Olympic gold medals are the reward.
"I started off this morning in total harmony, Paerson said. "It's the second time I had this feeling.
The first time, she won the slalom at the 2001 world championships, and like then, "I was in total control of my thoughts, Paerson said. "It was just an amazing day.
She had set the pace as the first skier out of the gate on the first run, and she protected that lead with the second-fastest second leg.
"Sometimes she surprises even me, said her father and coach, Anders Paerson. "I saw her eyes when she came down. She was in a tunnel. She didn't hear and see, just the gates. She was so focused. Her eyes were like so open and then I knew she wasn't going to do a mistake.
This victory, he said, meant more to her than all the others, more than the two overall World Cup crowns, more than the four world championships.
"She really wanted this gold, he said. "For us, the Olympic Games are the biggest thing.
And Olympic gold was the one thing that had eluded her.
"She deserves the gold medal, said her biggest nemesis, Croatia's Janica Kostelic, who finished fourth. "She's won everything now.
Paerson came into the slalom with four Olympic medals, two at these games, but only one silver and three bronzes. And she was an awful 12th in her last event, the super-G.
When the slalom _ the cherished gold _ was hers at last, she slowly walked back up toward the finish line for her trademark victory belly-slide.[pagebreak]The snow surely had never felt so good.
"Unbelievable, Paerson said said. "I have waited so long.
Her parents hugged in the stands and the ever-present band of fans cheered wildly, many waving Swedish flags, some with their faces painted in their country's blue and yellow.
The jubilation was in sharp contrast to the scene after the combined event, when Paerson won bronze and stood grim-faced and angry as Kostelic celebrated a historic gold.
Kostelic, whose six medals in two Olympics are the most by any women's Alpine skier, failed in the slalom to win a medal for the first time in her last seven events in the Salt Lake City and Turin games. She was fourth, and said afterward that her Olympics probably are over, that she is "90 percent certain she will not compete in the giant slalom on Friday because of a lingering illness.
"I gave it everything I had, Kostelic said. "I felt really bad. I had problems with my stomach. I was thinking about not doing the second run, but it was one more race and it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
American Lindsey Kildow, who finished 14th, said she, too, might not race Friday because of the sore back that resulted from her nasty spill in a downhill training run last week.
Austrians Nicole Hosp and Marlies Schild were second and third, the country's 10th and 11th Alpine medals in the Turin Games.
Paerson had a combined time for the two runs of 1 minute, 29.04 seconds, 0.29 ahead of the 22-year-old Hosp. Schild was .75 behind for the bronze, her second medal of the games. She won silver in the combined, just ahead of Paerson's bronze.
American Kristina Koznick, who was on crutches just four days ago and was skiing with a torn ACL in her right knee, carefully negotiated the turns and was 3.34 seconds back. Koznick then said she would not race the second leg, which was to be held under lights on the slippery slope at the edge of Sestriere.
Koznick had a pair of fourth-place finishes on this season's World Cup circuit but hurt her knee earlier this month.
It was her third Olympics, and the third to end inn disappointment. She didn't finish the slalom in 1998 and was 17th in the giant slalom in 2002.
"It's hard not to be a little disappointed because I know I'm one of the best in the world, she said.
When Koznick finished, Paerson gave her a big hug.
"The first thing that Anja said to me when I walked out is, 'I'm so proud of you,' Koznick said. "I know what I did is huge and I've never faced anything like this in my career. I could have just gone home and didn't.
Koznick said she will go home Thursday and have surgery Monday in Vail, Colo.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press