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Finland's Poutiainen Wraps Up Slalom Title

MARIBOR, Slovenia Jan. 24, 2005 (AP by Roy Kammerer) - Finland's Tanja Poutiainen captured the overall slalom title Sunday, establishing herself as one of the favorites for the world championships.

She finished third in a race won by Sweden's Anja Paerson, a slalom winner for the first time this season. Paerson tore down the slope on a sunny day to finish both runs in 1 minute 32.38 seconds, 0.28 ahead of Croatia's Janica Kostelic. It was her 14th World Cup victory.

The also race underlined the strength of the U.S. women's team. Sarah Schleper was fourth to match a career best while Kristina Koznick was fifth and Lindsey Kildow 11th. The three seem to be peaking, judging by this week's performances leading to the start of the world championships next Sunday at Santa Caterina, Italy.

``I think the whole team is confident,'' said Kildow, who won a downhill at Lake Louise, Alberta, this season. ``But the best thing is not to think about medals and concentrate on good skiing.''

Schleper's fourth-place finish capped the best month of her career _ she already had posted a fifth and sixth place.

``Because we have such a strong team, it gives everybody confidence,'' Kildow said. ``We support each other and back each other up.''

Poutiainen was third in 1:32.73, wrapping up the slalom title with 520 points entering the final race in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Marlies Schild is second with 376, followed by Koznick at 355.

Paerson won the slalom and giant slalom events last year in Maribor during an outstanding season in which she captured 11 races on the way to the overall title. But it's been a rough year for the Swede, who skidded out in three out of the seven slaloms so far this season. Her previous best slalom result this season was second at the opener Aspen, Colo.

``This place is special for me,'' Paerson said. ``It's been a frustrating year in slalom. It's good to come back in good shape for the upcoming world championships.''

On Sunday, she was almost flawless in taking a first-run lead and stringing together heat times of 45.57 and 46.81 in perfect weather at the Goldenfox, one of the easiest stops on the women's tour.

Poutiainen has had a breakthrough year with four victories and nine top-three finishes.

``I'm even more relaxed now because no matter what happens, I've had a special season,'' the Finn said.

Until this season, Poutiainen had reached the podium just six times and collected one win.

``It's the little things this year,'' she said. ``I had a good summer training, I've been healthy _ it gives me a lot of confidence.''

She also built her lead in the overall standings and now has 902 points. Kostelic is at 879 and Paerson jumped to third with 856. Kildow is sixth with 691.

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