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Racy Relations

Fall Line
posted: 01/17/2001

Kristina Koznick had just posted an inspiring win at the World Cup Finals in Bormio, Italy, her second consecutive slalom victory. In 10 long seasons with the U.S. Ski Team, she had battled injuries, adapted to the styles of a dozen different coaches and overcome long odds to reach the top. But in the finish corral at Bormio last spring, surrounded by thousands of cheering fans in what should have been a crowning moment, she had mixed emotions: elation, to be sure, but also loneliness.

Dan Stripp, the U.S. women's team coach she credits for her breakthrough, wasn't there. He had been pulled off the World Cup two weeks earlier. Later, he would be fired. U.S. Ski Team officials said Stripp was spending too much time with his star pupil-and neglecting the other athletes on the women's slalom and giant slalom team. Complicating the situation were rumors that Koznick, 25, and her 39-year-old coach had become romantically involved. Koznick admits the two were close but says they didn't start dating until after the season; Ski Team officials insist that the nature of their off-hill relationship was never a factor in Stripp's dismissal.

At any rate, Stripp's firing left a gulf between Koznick and the remaining U.S. women's coaches, who, she says, didn't even congratulate her at Bormio. "There was no communication between me and the rest of the staff at the end of the year," Koznick says. But the estrangement had a silver lining: "It forced me to say, 'I know what I'm doing, and I know why I'm here.' I expended all my energy in winning those last two races."

At the end of the season, Koznick met with the U.S. Ski Team and asked for help. "I said, 'I'm fifth in the world right now and I want to be first in the world. I think I need a more individualized program.' I was completely willing to bring on someone who wasn't Dan. But the Ski Team said, 'No, we believe in our program.'"

So after exploring her options for four months-and against the recommendations of her advisors-Koznick decided to set out on her own, hiring Stripp as her coach. "This was not my first choice," she says. "But am I going to make it work? You betcha."

Koznick isn't receiving any funding from the team, though U.S. Ski Team CEO Bill Marolt says that if she gets on the podium in Salt Lake, the result will certainly count toward the team's lofty goal of winning 10 medals. She must wear the team uniform, and she can't solicit any sponsors that will conflict with the team's. It will cost her roughly $300,000 to get through the 2002 Olympic season, and while Koznick is raising some money through her website, the majority will come out of her own pocket. "I want this first year to be on my shoulders," she says.

Individual training programs are not uncommon within the dominant European alpine teams. Alberto Tomba had a personal coach, as do current stars Sonja Neff of Switzerland and Isolde Kostner of Italy. "They worked out deals with their federations because their federations didn't want to lose them," Koznick says. "I think when the Europeans see what's going on here, they laugh."

Successful coach-athlete relations that continue off the playing field aren't unheard of either. In 1971, U.S. Ski Team coach Bob Beattie married his slalom ace, Kiki Cutter. Canadian Olympic champion Kerrin Lee-Gartner was coached by her husband.

But the U.S. Ski Team-which promotes itself as the "Best in the World" even though it has been mired in ninth place for five consecutive years in the alpine Nations Cup-is adamant that ski racing is a team sport. "We are Americans, and we have different challenges than the rest of the world," says Alan Ashley, the team's vice president of athletics. "Part of what we are really good at is building teams. Do we change the system completely or let her go on her own?"

Koznick was a junior phenom under the tutelage of legendary coach Erich Sailer at Buck Hill, Minn., making her World Cup debut at the age of 15. Her path to internatioonal glory was slowed by an assortment of injuries, including a bad back, twisted knee and frostbitten toes. She finished second in the World Cup slalom standings in 1998 and last season was the U.S.'s top scorer with 503 points, 289 more than her next teammate.

Her relationship with Stripp is comfortable, professional and productive; she's also paying him more than he received as a U.S. team coach. She recalls her first training camp with Stripp two summers ago, when she realized he had hardly said a word all week. "Most coaches jump in and tell you what's going on. He earned my respect, and he made me earn his. When we talk, it's a team effort. It's not him saying 'You need to do this.' It's 'I know you: Tell me what you feel and I'll tell you what I see. Together we can figure this out.'

"We became best friends in the two years we worked together with the team, and this summer we kept growing closer," she explains. "We decided to date and see how it went, and it's been great. We both enjoy spending time together."

But with a close relationship comes risk. "It puts a little more on my plate, but at the same time he knows me that much better," she responds. "He knows me left and right, and that's what I need right now. This isn't uncommon, especially in women's athletics, like track and field." Notably, an athlete named Marion Jones managed to secure five medals in Sydney this past summer with help from her husband-coach.And what about marriage? "I think that's a little premature," Koznick laughs.

Even Koznick's closest supporters wondered whether she could be competitive as a one-woman team, facing the challenges of maintaining dryland conditioning, booking travel and arranging on-snow training. The answer came quickly when the World Cup tour opened, and Koznick had the top American result in the first four technical races, including a third at Aspen, Colo., which came with an $8,400 check plus bonuses from her sponsors. Despite baited questions from the press, Koznick resisted the urge to scold the U.S. Ski Team and say, "I told you so."

"She is the single most professional athlete I have ever dealt with in my life," says Tom Kelly, who's been with the Ski Team for 14 years and is now vice president for member relations and public relations. While the U.S. women's team coaches remain icy toward Team Koznick, both Kelly and Ashley are hoping they can return the slalom ace to the team. "She is a terrific person and a great ski racer," Ashley says. "I don't like having her outside the team."

One thing Koznick won't do is seek citizenship and funding elsewhere, as Marc Girardelli did when he split from Austria and formed a one-man team for Luxembourg. Don't even mention it to the wholesome, all-American girl from Edina, Minn.

"When I get my gold," Koznick says, "I don't want it for any country but the U.S.A."

Kristina Koznick has created a nonprofit organization to raise money for her Olympic Quest. Log onto koznick.com, or send a tax-deductible donation to Northwest Alpine Race Patrons, P.O. Box 40, Excelsior, MN 55331.

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