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Team Kostelic: One for Each Medal, Plus One


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February 22, 2006

SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Andrew Dampf)—Jurij Hafner will never stand on a medals podium, never be in the Olympic record book. Still, he’s an unknown star of the Turin Games, the guy who prepares the skis for Janica Kostelic.

Kostelic, already a gold and silver medalist here, has a small army of coaches and support staffers who tend to her every need.

There are seven in all _ one for each of the record six medals she’s won over two Olympics, and one left over for the next one, which could come as soon as Wednesday in the slalom.

Their job is to take care of all the details so that Kostelic can focus all her incredible talent on the skiing.

“She’s so good, she has to have us, Croatia ski team director Vedran Pavlek said.

Besides Pavlek, the entourage includes the Croatian Sensation’s father, Ante Kostelic, the head coach; a general assistant coach, an assistant coach for the speed disciplines, a physiotherapist and two people to take care of the skis and other equipment.

While Kostelic was receiving her silver medal after Monday’s super-G race, Pavlek gathered the full staff around him and barked orders into his radio _ even though most of the team was standing within arm’s length.

He was arranging a giant slalom training session for Kostelic as soon as she got down off the medal stand and finished the last round of media interviews and doping exams.

“That’s what she likes, Pavlek said. “Keeping busy.

And winning. Four of her six Olympic medals have been gold, including Saturday’s combined race. Her brother, Ivica, also won his first Olympic medal by taking silver in the men’s combined last week.

The Croatian Alpine skiing team has an annual budget of $3.57 million and 12 skiers at the Olympics. Host Italy’s team is nearly twice as large and its budget is the same.

“We invest a lot in our racers, especially Janica and Ivica, but also in the future, Pavlek said.

U.S. Ski Team spokesman Tom Kelly said the American Alpine team has a bigger budget.

“But I think you would find that in terms of dollar spent per athlete, they’re going to be way ahead, he said of the Croatians. “They’re very fortunate to have two athletes of a very high level.[pagebreak]The budgets may be a factor in the medal count: Croatia has three Alpine medals, the United States one and Italy none.

Croatian fans have rivaled local Italian supporters at women’s races here. It seems like half the fans in the stands wear the Croatian team’s official red and white uniforms.

“It’s like in football where fans wear Real Madrid shirts, team spokesman Ozren Mueller said. “We support each other. The cross country guys come and support Janica and we try to go and support them.

U.S. women’s coach Patrick Riml said one of the reasons Kostelic’s staff looks so large is that “they have all their technicians wearing Croatian team uniforms. Other technicians wear their sponsor’s suits.

Even when Kostelic isn’t skiing, her entourage is at work.

When she sat out sick during last week’s downhill, “we followed the race up on the hill, we saw the course, what is necessary for the combined downhill, Pavlek said.

Janica and Ivica don’t forget that. For example, they are always heaping praise on Hafner, who is said to be a night owl, checking up on changing snow conditions several times during the early morning hours before races, then working until sunrise to adjust the skis accordingly.

Of course, none of the staff members has had the impact of Ante Kostelic. Before his kids made the World Cup circuit, he was the one who drove Janica and Ivica from one ski race to another in the family car, staying in tents to save money.

“Physical condition is not the only quality that is important, Ante Kostelic said. “Also mental training. Mental training doesn’t happen over one day or 10 days. It’s over 10 years.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press