For a change, this season's U.S. Ski Team medal hopes do not read like "The Picabo Street Story." (Street is still recovering from injuries suffered last season.) Nor do they read, as in the recent past, like a scene from Downhill Racer. Instead, for a glimpse at real medal potential, you need to look no further than the quick feet of Kristina Koznick, who in one season went from perennial U.S. underdog to world runner-up slalom queen.
The 22-year-old Minnesotan surprised even herself by finishing fourth in last year's season opener in Park City, Utah, where early season jitters had traditionally gotten the best of her. And at Park City, "Koz" was merely warming up. By the end of the season Koznick had finished all nine World Cup slaloms in sixth place or better, which included four trips to the podium and her first win, in Are, Sweden. She finished the season second in the World Cup slalom standings. This year, the four-time national champion has only one place to go. "It's pretty simple," says Koznick of her goals. "I don't want to be second again."
This assertion represents a new openness for Koznick. "I used to be very vague when talking about my goals," the slalom specialist explains. "But then I realized it was a fear of not reaching them. I need to put it all out there and risk it, or it won't happen anyway." Now she's perfectly comfortable to say what she wants: "A globe on my fireplace and a World Championship gold medal." Both goals are important, but the globe-the season-long World Cup slalom title-is the priority.
Koznick is equally honest about her shortcomings, particularly last year's Olympic disappointment. Coming into the Nagano Games, she was not only America's best hope for a technical medal, but an internationally recognized favorite. Instead of medaling, Koznick readily admits, she "choked." After a dismal first run, she failed to finish the second run-for the only time all season. The lessons of that disappointment were not lost. "I learned that I can't base four years of my life on a medal," she explains. Furthermore, she learned that there's no future in letting nerves take control. Koznick entered this season with the calm of a well-founded confidence.
In addition to last year's success, Koz is energized by being in the best physical condition of her career, 13 pounds lighter than last year, and injury-free. After recovering from a blown-out knee in 1994, she nearly lost her toes to frostbite in 1995, then suffered a back injury in 1996, the effects of which had often limited her training to a few runs per day. But over the summer, she spent two months with her therapist in Minneapolis. Together they amalgamated all the medical advice and diagnoses from the past several years, and honed a rehab plan that has her strong and pain-free.
This season also brings new coaches to the slalom team. George Capaul and his assistant, former U.S. Ski Team slalom skier Dan Stripp, took charge of the women's slalom team last summer. Along with Koznick, Tasha Nelson, Sarah Schleper, Alex Shaffer and Caroline LaLive form a strong team, with surprising experience for their age. All competed in the Nagano Olympics, and though they are still best described as "up-and-coming," their intensity and energy might push them farther and faster than expected.
"I challenge them to do their best every day," says Capaul. "That's how we operate." And it doesn't hurt to have the world's No. 2 skier as a training partner.