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Kostelic Wins Slalom, but It's Not What You Think

Skiing: Ivica, the lesser known of the racing siblings, comes from 64th start position to win World Cup event.

November 26, 2001|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ASPEN, Colo. — A Croat named Kostelic made World Cup slalom history Sunday, but it wasn't Janica.

Ivica Kostelic, heretofore the anonymous older brother of Croatian superstar Janica, scored the greatest come-from-behind victory in men's World Cup slalom history when he swooshed from the 64th start position to win the Chevy Truck Aspen Winternational with a two-race time of 1 minute 38.81 seconds.

"I feel like I'm still in a dream, that tomorrow's the race," a shocked Kostelic said. "But it looks like it's real. It looks like I won."

Italy's Giorgio Rocca, starting from the 26th position, finished second at 1:38.93 while Austria's Mario Matt was third with a time of 1:39.00.

On a day when underdogs took the top two spots, the U.S. Ski Team missed a terrific opportunity to make an early-season statement and seize momentum heading into the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games.

The U.S. men advanced three racers to a second World Cup slalom run for the first time in more than a decade, but managed only a career-best 14th-place finish from Casey Puckett.

America's best medal candidates, Erik Schlopy and Bode Miller, finished 25th and 26th, respectively, after both missed gates on their second runs.

Kostelic's stunning win in the season's first World Cup slalom is the equivalent of a sprinter winning a 100-meter dash after spotting his competition a 10-meter lead.

In 1993, Liechtenstein's Markus Foser won a World Cup downhill at Val Gardena, Italy, from the 66th start position, the largest come-from-behind World Cup win for any discipline.

But veteran ski race followers think what Kostelic did Sunday was more impressive because the slalom involves two races.

Before Sunday, Austria's Matt held the record for the largest ground made up in a slalom, winning last year at Kitzbeuhel, Austria, from the 47th start position.

Kostelic was seventh after Sunday's first run and overtook Norway's Lasse Kjus with his second-round time of 49:31. Kostelic then had to wait as six more racers, including first-run leader Matt, took their shots at the leader board.

Kostelic's time held up.

Kostelic, who turned 22 on Friday, has missed most of the last four years because of knee injuries. His sister, Janica, is the reigning women's World Cup overall and slalom champion and a gold-medal favorite at Salt Lake City.

Because he posted no World Cup results last year, Kostelic was relegated to the trash bin of start positions, 64th in a field of 75.

The world's top 15 racers get to start first, based on a pre-race bib draw, and usually leave the course so rutted it makes nearly impossible a charge from the rear.

But Kostelic was in a history-making mood.

His career has been a study in torture. He tore right knee ligaments just five days before the 1998 Nagano Games and blew out his left knee at Beaver Creek in 1999, then his right knee again the following year in Vail. All told, he has endured four major knee surgeries.

"In every life there is a fight, and I've had a lot of them the last four years," he said. "There are a lot of ways to the top of the mountaintop. My way was steep, but I climbed it."

The Americans get another chance in today's second World Cup slalom at Aspen.

The U.S. men's technical team has not scored a World Cup slalom win since the early 1980s and was an all-out bust in Nagano--you might call their drought "The Gates of Wrath."

This year's team is supposed to be stronger, however, which makes Sunday's showing bittersweet.

Miller, from Franconia, N.H., finished fifth in a World Cup giant slalom earlier this year in Soelden, Austria, and had a blistering second run going Sunday before he bombed out less than 10 gates from the finish line.

Miller's second-run intermediate time was faster than the leader Kjus, meaning his gate gaffe probably cost him a top-five finish.

Miller, who started from the 53rd start spot, does not lack for confidence.

"There's no question, if I could put it through the finish line, I'm a faster skier than all these guys in slalom right now," Miller said.

The Austrians might disagree, but Bode gets a chance to back up his boast today.

Schlopy's second run was derailed when he missed a gate at the top, although he retraced his tracks, managed to finish, and even picked up some World Cup points.

"There's no reason why the U.S. Ski Team can't have a better day than we had today," Schlopy said. "Every World Cup that you don't do well in is an opportunity lost. But, then again, the next World Cup is an opportunity."

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