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Koznick Goes From Unknown to Slalom Favorite

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 1998; Page C8




 Kristina Koznick
 Kristina Koznick went from being a B-team member on the U.S. ski team to a gold-medal favorite.
(AP File Photo)
NAGANO, Feb. 17 — Her back resting against a brick wall, Kristina Koznick sat on a ledge in her brightly colored Team USA jacket, no more than 10 yards from Nagano's bustling Central Square.

The gates to the square were locked. Koznick couldn't get inside as she had hoped, so she chose this stoop for a seat, next to a line of Japanese fans assembling early for the evening's festivities. This is the place the Olympic Alpine medals are awarded every night. Koznick would like to return Thursday after the women's slalom, as a medal winner.

In the last three months, Koznick, 22, has gone from being a complete unknown — a B-team member on the U.S. ski team — to one of the gold medal favorites in the women's slalom Thursday. Her rise through world class skiing has been blindingly fast — evidenced by the lack of autograph seekers today. Many people still don't know her name or recognize her face.

"I don't think I have surprised myself," Koznick said. "These are goals I've written down. Since I was 12, I wanted to go to the Olympics.

"In a way I've shot out of a cannon, but what's good to me is I've been consistent with it. I've proven to myself . . . the season hasn't been a fluke."

She finished fourth in her first slalom race last fall. She won a World Cup medal — a silver — for the first time in early January and proceeded to shave the head of the U.S. team's conditioning coach in a hotel parking lot after the race (the result of a bet). She won the Jan. 29 World Cup slalom in Sweden for her first gold medal.

Now, after a half-dozen finishes of no lower than sixth, she stands second in the World Cup slalom standings behind Sweden's Ylva Nowen and ahead of Germany's Hilde Gerg.

Koznick trudged through painful and relentless physical problems for the three seasons previous to this one. She has had major knee surgery, a bloody fight with frostbitten toes and back trouble that persists today.

"The question during those three years of injuries is, 'Do I have what it takes?'" Koznick said. "I thought, 'Maybe I'm not meant to do this. Maybe these injuries are a sign.'"

Koznick was on track for her first Olympic team back in 1993, but in November she tore a ligament in her left knee. The injury left her so distraught, she refused to watch the '94 Games on television. She returned to competition for the 1994-95 season.

The frostbite came the following year. Unhappy with a poor finish in a race in December 1995, Koznick stayed out on the slopes for several extra hours, not noticing the extreme numbness that developed in her feet. Her big toes were gray when she took off her boots. She suspected she had frostbite, but she wanted to race the next day. She did, despite being unable to walk that morning.

Koznick said her father — trying to be helpful — carried her to the starting gate for the race. Said Koznick, shaking her head: "It was stupidity on the part of everyone."

Despite the pain, she recalled, she actually had a decent run.

"I felt good," she said, "but when I took off my boots, my socks were just blood."

Koznick responded to this sight by skiing for another month. Finally, she went to a doctor who advised her to take several months off or risk having her toes amputated.

She took five months off, but when she returned to the slopes that summer, she injured her back. .

Doctors still haven't figured out the cause of the back trouble, which she said far exceeded her other physical hurdles. "From the summer of '96 until now, it's still a problem," she said. "I've seen over 15 different doctors, had X-rays, bone scans, everything. MRIs, discograms, you name it. Nobody seemed to know what the problem was."

She has gained relief only through certain flexibility exercises that she does religiously. Though she can be pain-free on the slopes, the back makes every night's sleep uncomfortable.

These physical obstacles remain tucked in the back of her mind as she sits down every morning to write out the day's goals. This has been a long-running tradition since her father forced her to put her dreams onto paper as a preteen. He told her writing down her goals would help her to accomplish them. Back then, she said, she wrote: "To marry Joe Montana. To own a Porsche." And, "To win an Olympic medal."

Koznick smiled at this recollection. She said she does not know what she will write before her first Olympic slalom competition — she explained that she doesn't plan her journal entries. Here, though, is a sneak preview:

"I definitely would like to bring a medal home," Koznick said. "That's what I expect."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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