With a tenacious spirit forged in her war-torn homeland, Janica Kostelic of Croatia became the only Alpine skier ever to win four medals in one Winter Olympics at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, Utah. She also is Croatia's first Winter Olympic medalist since the country declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. Kostelic, a national hero in a land with little skiing tradition, is widely considered the world's best slalom skier. The "Croatian Sensation," as she's called in the media, is the only woman and one of only three Alpine skiers in history to win three gold medals in one Olympiad. The others are Jean-Claude Killy of France and Toni Sailer of Austria. And by all appearances, Kostelic isn't done yet. "History is not something I think about," she told the New York Times during her recordsetting run in Salt Lake City. "Who has time to think of history right now? I'm too busy skiing."
Ante Kostelic, who, with his wife Marica, had been a top national handball player in the former Yugoslavia, established a demanding skiing regimen for his children when they were small. If others trained four hours a day, Janica and brother Ivica worked eight. If a typical practice consisted of skiing through 400 gates, Janica skied through 1,200. When war ripped their country in the early 1990s, the Kostelics fled their home in Zagreb and sought out training sites in Central and Eastern Europe. They had little money. When Janica and Ivica began skiing competitively, the family drove from race to race, camping in tents along the way. When the weather turned cold, they slept in the car. They often ate sandwiches for every meal. Once, they took shelter in a cave for a week because they feared air strikes. "For 10 to 12 years we never stopped," Ante Kostelic told the New York Times. "Maybe we did not know better. We did what we thought was right."
Janica entered twenty-two junior races during the 1996-97 season. She won them all. "Despite that impressive record," Time International reported, "in her first World Cup season, 1998-99, her third place in a slalom event at Park City, Utah, took officials by surprise. They couldn't find a Croatian flag for the award ceremony and Janica had to dig one out of her ski bag."
|1982||Born January 5 in Zagreb, Croatia|
|1985||Begins skiing at age 3|
|1996||Wins all 22 junior races she enters during the 1996-97 season and clinches junior titles in slalom and giant slalom|
|1998||Wins bronze medal in the super-G and silver in the combined event at the World Junior Championship in France|
|1998||Attracts attention with third-place finish in a slalom event at Park City, Utah, during her first World Cup season, 1998-99|
|1998||Finishes eighth in the combined events at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan; also finishes 24th in the giant slalom, 25th in the downhill, 26th in the super-G, and fails to finish the slalom|
|1999||Captures her first World Cup victory, in the combined event, in St. Anton, Austria|
|1999||Turns in disappointing performance at the World Championships in Vail, finishing seventh in the combined, 22nd in the super-G, 23rd in the slalom, 29th in the downhill and failing to finish the giant slalom|
|1999||Tears four ligaments in her right knee during training and misses most of the World Cup season|
|2001||Becomes overall Women's World Cup Alpine Champion on the strength of eight consecutive slalom wins and several giant slalom and super-G victories during 2000-01 season|
|2001||Finishes fifth in the slalom event at the 2001 World Championships|
|2002||Wins gold medals in combined, slalom, and giant slalom and silver medal in super-G at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah|
Ups and downs
At age sixteen, Kostelic competed in five events at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Her eighth-place finish in the combined was the best ever by a Croatian in the Winter Games. The following year, she earned her first World Cup victory—and its $50,000 purse—but then missed most of the season after tearing four ligaments in her right knee while training in St. Moritz. "The extra work required to get fit again, including long-distance running, cycling, gymnastics and even free diving, made her stronger," Kate Noble reported in Sports Illustrated. Kostelic returned for the 2000-01 World Cup season and dominated the field. At one point, she won eight straight slalom races. She finished the season as the overall World Cup champion—the fourthyoungest woman ever to do so.
Kostelic was the overwhelming favorite to win gold at the 2001 World Championships, but a fall cost her the combined event and she finished fifth in the slalom. She was devastated; Ante Kostelic was quoted saying his daughter was quitting the sport. At the same time, Janica was coping with chronic knee problems, which some observers contended were the result of the demanding training she had endured since early childhood. (Ivica has similar knee problems.) Surgeons operated on her left knee twice, in the spring and summer of 2001, but the pain lingered. During a third operation doctors discovered and removed a piece of floating cartilage. Janica was back in training in October and returned to the World Cup circuit in November.
Kostelic arrived in Salt Lake City for the Winter Olympics in February 2002 with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over her. She had undergone three operations in the past year. She was ranked 17th overall. Her World Cup season had been abbreviated and unnoteworthy. She had been avoiding the downhill event and rarely trained at high speed due to concern for her reconstructed knees. She passed up the last pre-Olympic World Cup races to spend time resting and doing dryland training. Could she possibly compete for an Olympic medal? The 20-year-old skier with the solid 5-foot 8-inch, 166-pound frame did not take long to answer that question.
In the first women's Alpine event, the combined, Kostelic led the field by more than a full second after the two slalom runs. Her success was not altogether surprising; the slalom was her specialty. She was expected to falter, however, on the demanding downhill leg of the event. "But skiing last among the leaders, Kostelic sped along the downhill course in a low, seamless tuck, her hands and arms rarely rising as she negotiated the turns," Bill Pennington wrote in the New York Times. "If the 70-mile-an-hour speeds bothered her state of mind or her knees, she did not show it." Her combined time of 2 minutes 43.28 seconds was nearly 1.5 seconds faster than the second-place finisher. Kostelic and Croatia had their first gold medal. "This is a family medal," she told Pennington. "Everything was always me, my brother and my father. My mother was always there on the side, too, and she's the boss. This is great, the family's dream come true."
Three to go
Kostelic had to tackle the super-G before moving onto her best events—the slalom and giant slalom. A few weeks earlier, she had finished fourth in the super-G during a World Cup competition in Cortina, Italy. The Olympics brought out the competitive quality, however, last evident in Kostelic's championship 2000-01 season. She missed Olympic gold in the super-G by eight-hundredths of a second, finishing behind Italy's Daniela Ceccarelli. Medal No. 2 was silver.
The women's slalom was run in a steady snowstorm on a treacherous course. Poor visibility obscured holes and ruts. Thirty skiers failed to finish one of their first two runs. Once again, Janica Kostelic overcame the obstacles to win. It was her second gold medal and third medal overall.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1997||Captured junior titles in slalom and giant slalom|
|1998||Won two medals—bronze in the super-G and silver in the combined events—at the World Junior Championship in France|
|1999||Captured her first World Cup victory|
|2001||Became overall Women's World Cup Alpine Champion|
|2001||Featured on first Croatian postage stamp to honor an athlete|
|2002||Became first Alpine skier to win four medals in a single Olympic games and Croatia's first Winter Olympic medalist|
Where Is She Now?
Following her unprecedented Olympic performance, Kostelic returned to the World Cup circuit. And she continued winning. On January 5, 2003, her 21st birthday, Janica and Ivica became the first brother and sister to win World Cup Alpine races on the same day. She won a slalom in Bormio, Italy, and he won a slalom in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia. Like every experienced Alpine skier, however, Janica knows each competition could be her last. "I'm just going to ski until I'm 28," she has said, "if I can make it."
She faced difficult course conditions again as she sought her record-breaking fourth medal in the giant slalom. "Because she is not ranked among the top competitors worldwide in the giant slalom," Pennington explained in the Times, "Janica Kostelic began her pursuit of Olympic history as the 19th skier from the starting gate today. That meant she skied about a half-hour after the first of the favorites, enough time for the snow on the race course to develop ruts like foxholes. But it takes more than ruts to hinder Kostelic." After the first run, Kostelic led the field by nearly a half-second, a sizeable margin. She was the 15th skier—the last of the leaders—to tackle the second run. She beat the field again and captured her fourth medal in nine days. Pennington likened her astonishing achievement to a runner winning both a 400-meter and a one-mile race. "Kostelic, as healthy as she has been in two years, is crossing over from category to category and beating the speed specialists in the speed events, like the super-G, and defeating the technicians in a technical event like the slalom," he wrote. "In these Olympics, there is no other skier—male or female—in Kostelic's class. In any single Olympics, there has been no other skier in Kostelic's category: four-time medal winner."
A hero's welcome
On Feb. 22, 2002, Janica Kostelic became the first Alpine skier ever to win four medals in a single Olympic games and joined Jean-Claude Killy and Toni Sailer as the only skiers to win three gold medals in one Olympics. Even her toughest competitors acknowledged that she was unbeatable. "She's proved that mentally she's the best," said Swedish medalist Anja Paerson. "Right now, she's incredible. After all she's been through, I'm really happy for her." Switzerland's Sonja Nef, another medal winner, agreed: "She is too strong in the head. She was too good in these days." A few days later, thousands of Croats packed Zagreb's main square to give her a hero's welcome. She and her family, after their arduous journey, are icons in their homeland.
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Noble, Kate. "Croatian Contenders: Two for the Snow: For the talented Kostelics, Janica and Ivica, winning races is a family affair." Time International (February 11, 2002).
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Pennington, Bill. "Letting Go, an Italian Stuns the Super-G Final." New York Times (February 18, 2002).
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Sketch by David Wilkins