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Originally published December 21, 2009 at 3:19 PM | Page modified December 21, 2009 at 3:19 PM

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Legends of the Sport | Alpine Skiing

An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Guide to the Winter Olympics

Prepare for the 2010 Games with excerpts and spectator's guides from "The Winter Olympics," by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.

Excerpt chapters

Olympics Spectator's Guide

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Janica Kostelic, Croatia

Born: 5 January 1982, Zagreb, Croatia

Olympics: Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin

Medals: 4 gold, 2 silver

She looked for all the world like Pippi Longstocking in a race suit. That’s the first impression, seared onto my brain, of the Croatian Sensation, Janica (pronounced “Yah-NEET-sa”) Kostelić.

It came during an America’s Opening World Cup race at Park City in 1998. Kostelić, an unknown 16-year-old at the time, started in 53rd position in her first World Cup slalom and proceeded to carve up the Park City course, finishing third and landing her first trip to the podium of her young career. Race officials were caught so off guard that they didn’t even have a Croatian flag to raise in honor of Janica’s war-ravaged nation. She pulled one from her own ski bag for the medal ceremony.

After the race, Kostelić, red-headed and pig-tailed, was bubbling over with glee. You could see the sparks fly in her eyes when she talked about ski racing, her greatest passion. She had that magical aura of a star on the rise, a young athlete who had all the magic, but none of the pretense, of a superstar.

And it was a wonder she was there at all.

As a kid growing up in Zagreb, Janica’s entire national-ski-team support system consisted of her dad, Ante (a former handball coach), and her brother, Ivica, who would go on to become a world-class skier as well. The skiing family traveled around Europe to races while sleeping in their car and living on salami-and-pickle sandwiches. They scraped by, and Janica credits an Olympic scholarship, awarded by the IOC when she was 13, with making her career possible.

As I noted in a Seattle Times column during the Salt Lake Games:

The Kostelićs didn’t have a national training center, like the Swiss, Germans, Americans, Austrians, Norwegians, and other self-impressed ski nations do. They didn’t have physical therapists, sports psychologists, or loaner GMC Yukons. They barely even had a country.

From 1945 to 1991, Croatia was part of the Soviet-bloc Republic of Yugoslavia, which included Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slovenia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia. While political turmoil swept through the region, Kostelić, growing up in a new nation of 4.6 million people, honed herself into a ski racer.

She started skiing at age nine, progressing by age 14 to the top junior racer in her region. At 16, she skied all the alpine events in the 1998 Nagano Games, posting an impressive eighth place in the combined.

The following season, Kostelić was ripping up the World Cup, winning slalom races by unheard-of margins. A potentially career-ending crash in 1999 at St. Moritz derailed her, tearing four ligaments in her right knee. But after a long, strenuous rehab, Kostelić won seven straight slaloms and her first World Cup overall title in 2000–2001, at the age of 19.

She seemed to compile injuries as readily as medals. In 2001–2002, recovering from yet another knee surgery, she skied through the World Cup season leading up to the Salt Lake Games and posted not a single victory. Then she arrived in Salt Lake and rewrote the record books.

Back at the site of her first World Cup podium finish, Kostelić, then 20, literally took over the women’s alpine ski program. From my dispatches at the time:

Kostelić, on a gimpy knee, came to Utah’s vaunted steep, deep slopes—and pared them like a laser knife through meringue. Nothing, it turned out, could stop the dynamo from Zagreb. Kostelić has skied on all types of snow in all kinds of weather on four courses against 100 opponents—and destroyed them all. She began the Games by winning the alpine combined (slalom and downhill), one of the true tests of a skier’s overall ability. She won the super-G under sunny skies, then plowed through heavy, wet crud to win the slalom under impossible conditions at Deer Valley.

Yesterday, as she laid down another of her trademark smooth, powerful runs in springlike conditions at Park City Mountain Resort, Kostelić entered the Olympic history books, just ahead of a couple of legends. The grand slalom gold medal was her third gold and fourth medal of the Games—unprecedented for an alpine skier. Jean-Claude Killy of France and Toni Sailer of Austria were the only other skiers to win three golds in a single Olympics.

“I didn’t have any pressure,” she said, explaining her performance and beaming with a grin that can light up a train tunnel. “Maybe that was it, because I felt really relaxed—especially after my first medal.”

I’ve never seen an athlete, in any sport, in more of a groove. I concluded:

After this magical week, Janica Kostelić’s name will be branded forever across the Wasatch Front. Remember it: Here, for two sweet weeks, one of the world’s great skiers took on some of the world’s great mountains. It wasn’t even close.

And Kostelić wasn’t close to being done. After winning the World Cup title again in 2003 and suffering yet another knee injury in 2004, Kostelić got up off the canvas again to win the gold medal in the alpine combined and silver in the super-G in Turin’s 2006 Games, retiring from Olympic competition as the Games’ most medaled female skier (six), the only woman to win four golds in alpine skiing, and the only woman to win four alpine medals at the same Olympics (no other woman has yet won three).

The icing on the cake: Brother Ivica won a medal of his own, a silver in the combined, at the same Turin Games.

For Janica, all that, and three World Cup titles, from the most humble beginnings imaginable. And until the last day, she still had that sparkle in her eyes whenever she clicked out of her bindings.

Injured once again, Janica retired from active racing in 2007. The sport really hasn’t been the same since.

She is perhaps the best skier I’ve ever seen, and one of the greatest Olympians—in the true sense of the word—I’ve ever met.

I still wonder what’s taking them so long to make the movie.

Kjetil Andre Aamodt, Norway

Born: 2 September 1971, Oslo, Norway

Olympics: Albertville, Lillehammer, Salt Lake City, Turin

Medals: 4 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze

Note atop the official Turin Olympics biography of Kjetil André Aamodt: “Due to the especially long list of major performances for this athlete, some of the results are not displayed.”

It was an image of unbridled joy I’ll always remember.

At the base area of the Kandahar Banchetta course above Sestriere, alpine ski base for the 2006 Turin Games, a half-dozen coaches, trainers, and teammates are throwing a man in a speed suit high into the air, whooping loudly, catching him in their arms, and then launching him upward again.

Up, down. Up, down. Whoop! Whoop!

The man is wearing a red racing suit and old-style blue Lange ski boots that look as though they’ve been around the block—and back. Clutched in his two hands are the top corners of the red, white, and blue Norwegian flag, which flutters in the breeze as he comes down into the arms of teammates.

He’s wearing the kind of smile you get to wear only when you realize you’ve just entered the realm of Olympic immortality. I remember thinking: It’s very likely that some skier, somewhere, has been better in short stretches of time. But nobody has been as good for as long as Kjetil André Aamodt.

The Norwegian ski sensation, who actually lives on the Riviera in Monaco, retired from the full-time ski biz at age 35, months after that victory celebration for winning the super-G at the 2006 Turin Games. The medal was the capper on an Olympic ski career not likely to be equaled anytime soon.

He is the only alpine skier on the planet with eight Olympic medals, the only one with four medals in one event (super-G), the first to win four golds.

Even more remarkable is his longevity: Aamodt is both the youngest (age 20) and the oldest (age 34) alpine skier to win an Olympic gold medal.

And that’s just what he does between World Cup seasons. Over his World Cup career, Aamodt notched 21 career victories and earned 12 world championship medals. In spite of winning the overall title only once (1994), he stands first in the Marathon (cumulative points) ranking, with 13,252 points posted between 1989 and 2006. He also ranks as one of only five skiers to have won a World Cup race in each of five disciplines.

Each of his Olympic victories has its own story, but for history’s sake, it’s important just to post the tally:

Gold in super-G and bronze in giant slalom at Albertville, 1992. Silver in downhill and combined and bronze in super-G at Lillehammer, 1994. Gold in the super-G and combined at Salt Lake City, 2002. And then that gold in the super-G at Turin, 2006, where he edged out longtime rival Hermann Maier of Austria.

When he finally announced his retirement on Norwegian national TV, where he was receiving an award, Norway mourned. But the nation also paused to celebrate one of its greatest national heroes.

Aamodt, born in Oslo, said he grew up idolizing the great Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden, the all-time World Cup leader. Skiing ran in his family’s blood: His father, Finn Dag, was a noted ski instructor, and his son was a prize pupil at a young age. Aamodt won a junior world championship in 1990 and by 1989–90 was skiing on the World Cup circuit alongside his idol.

A key to Aamodt’s success was the company he kept: He grew up racing and training with countryman Lasse Kjus, another superstar on the World Cup circuit and himself a four-time Olympic medalist. Both excelled at being versatile skiers able to race in all five alpine events, a skill few skiers possess, particularly in the modern era, where specialization is more the norm.

Asked in Salt Lake City why more skiers don’t attempt it, Aamodt just smiled.

“It’s hard,” he said.

“It’s just been that way since we started skiing World Cup when we were 18 or 19,” Aamodt told CNN/SI. “It’s difficult to say why. But I love skiing and I always try to push myself.”

Many of his exploits at the Olympics came under improbable circumstances. Three months before the Albertville Games, his first Olympics, Aamodt was in the hospital with mononucleosis. Exhausted and somewhat emaciated, he returned to training within eight weeks and went on to win his first medal, in what would become his signature race, the super-G.

Likewise, his last medal came in true Aamodt bounce-back fashion. At Sestriere, Aamodt had sprained ligaments in his left knee while landing a jump awkwardly in the downhill, where he still finished fourth. The injury prevented him from defending his Olympic title in the alpine combined. Many of his fans feared the end, but in spite of the knee problem, Aamodt laid down a perfect run in the super-G—a fitting cap to a remarkable, unparalleled career.

It’s one that hasn’t escaped notice by the handful of younger skiers following in Aamodt’s five-event footsteps.

“If you’re talking about ski racing and medals, you’d have to say he’s the best athlete in the world,” America’s Bode Miller told reporters in Salt Lake City. “I think ski racing is one of the hardest sports there is to be good at, and be good at for a long time. There are only a few guys in the history of the sport who can stay on top for that long.”

Aamodt, as always, ended his career with a display of class.

“This sport has given me a lot of opportunities, and I’m very grateful for that,” Aamodt told reporters. “I love this sport. I have since I was four or five years old.”

Someone asked him about the key to his longevity.

“If you work hard over a long period of time, and really focus, good things will happen for you,” he said.

It’s just that simple. And just that hard.

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