LONDON, 20 October 2004 — Even above her racing weight and out of practice Janica Kostelic will be the woman to watch in the new Alpine ski season.
A fighter through and through, the Croatian former overall World Cup champion has a history of overcoming adversity. She came back from several bouts of knee surgery to win three golds and a silver at the 2002 Winter Olympics, becoming the most successful Alpine skier in history at a single Games.
But after being hit by another knee injury and a serious thyroid problem last season, this latest comeback will be particularly hard for Kostelic.
The 21-year-old skier has been taking daily medication since having her thyroid gland removed in January and needs injections to deal with the pain in her right knee after a string of injuries.
Though she is determined to win again eventually, Kostelic is not expecting much from Saturday’s opening Giant Slalom in Soelden, Austria.
She told Croatian media her sights were set primarily on January and February next year when she will defend her slalom and combined titles at the world championships in Bormio, Italy.
There is also the incentive of skiing in front of home fans for the first time when her native Zagreb stages a slalom on Jan. 20, making Croatia the 21st country to host a World Cup race.
The city has spent 13 million euros to remodel the ski hill and install floodlights down the course for a night slalom.
“I have missed the tour,” said Kostelic, who has not raced competitively since March 2003. “I am just happy to be back.”
Watching Kostelic’s progress with interest will be Anja Paerson and Renate Goetschl, who divided the spoils between them in the Croatian’s absence last season.
Paerson, the overall, slalom and Giant Slalom champion, has shifted her focus away from the technical events and wants to concentrate more on downhill, helped by her father Anders who has moved from his role as the Swedish women’s team head coach to become her personal trainer.
The 23-year-old Paerson wants to be Sweden’s first downhill world champion but will have to be careful not to neglect her trademark technical events if she is to retain the crystal trophy for the season’s best all-rounder.
Goetschl, the downhill and super-G World Cup winner, is delighted to be starting the season in good shape after seriously injuring her knee in a bad crash two years ago.
Among the other women on the strong Austrian team are 2002 overall champion Michaela Dorfmeister, Alexandra Meissnitzer who came back from injury to win the Megeve super-G in January, and 20-year-old Nicole Hosp who was on the podium seven times last season.
The United States have a strong group of young skiers including flamboyant all-rounder Lindsey Kildow. They also welcome back Kirsten Clark, the 2003 super-G world silver medalist, who broke her arm and injured her knee in a race crash in January.
The Italian team, particularly strong in giant slalom, hope to use home advantage to help them in the world championships in Bormio from Jan. 28 to Feb. 13.
Former downhill World Cup champion Isolde Kostner marked her return to form last January with her first victory since a bad training accident in Canada in late 2002 and will want to add to the two world super-G titles she won in 1996 and 1997.
But Denise Karbon, the team’s only medalist at last year’s world championships in St. Moritz where she won giant slalom silver, suffered a knee injury while training in South America during the southern winter and will miss the season.
Canada’s Melanie Turgeon will return after back problems to try to defend the downhill world title she won in St. Moritz.