February 22, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Bob Baum)—Anja Paerson of Sweden positioned herself for the Olympic gold medal that has long eluded her by skiing the fastest time in the first of two slalom runs Wednesday.
Paerson's gold-laden rival, Janica Kostelic of Croatia, was a surprisingly slow fifth.
Paerson set a pace that could not be matched as the first skier down the fog-shrouded course.
"I have risked everything, said Paerson, bronze medalist in the slalom at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. "It was difficult in the lower part. Visibility is bad, not dark, but you can't see the contours of the snow.
The 24-year-old Swede has four Olympic medals, two at these games, but none better than silver. Her first-leg time of 42.38 seconds put her .45 ahead of Nicole Hosp of Austria. Another Austrian, Michaela Kirchgasser, was in third, .59 seconds out.
"She's very far ahead, said fourth-place finisher Tanja Poutiainen of Finland, "but anything can happen in skiing.
Paerson, cheered by supporters whose faces were painted in Swedish yellow and blue, had been a picture of grim-faced disappointment following her bronze medals in the downhill and combined. Then Paerson finished 12th in the super-G.
Kostelic was uncharacteristically sluggish at the start and found herself .69 seconds back. She has won gold and silver at the Turin Games to give her six medals, making her the most decorated female Alpine skier in Olympic history.
Entering the second slalom run seven skiers were within a second of Paerson. Laure Pequegnot of France, silver medalist four years ago, missed a gate near the end and didn't finish the course. One of the favorites, Austrian Kathrin Zettel, also missed a gate and was disqualified.
Sarah Schlepper was the fastest American, in 14th place, 1.23 seconds slower than Paerson.[pagebreak]American Kristina Koznick, who was on crutches just four days ago and was skiing with a torn ACL in her right knee, carefully negotiated the turns and was 3.34 seconds back. Koznick then said she would not race the second leg, which was to be held under lights on the slippery slope at the edge of Sestriere.
Koznick had a pair of fourth-place finishes on this season's World Cup circuit, but hurt her knee earlier this month.
It was her third Olympics, and the third to end in disappointment. She didn't finish the slalom in 1998 and was 17th in the giant slalom in 2002.
"It's hard not to be a little disappointed because I know I'm one of the best in the world, she said.
When Koznick finished, Paerson gave her a big hug.
"The first thing that Anja said to me when I walked out is, 'I'm so proud of you,' Koznick said. "I know what I did is huge and I've never faced anything like this in my career. I could have just gone home and didn't.
Koznick said she will go home Thursday and have surgery Monday in Vail, Colo.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press