They stood at the back of the grandstands at the bottom of Aspen Mountain, 20 men and women sporting their pink-and-blue hats, one holding a sign that declared, "We support the Koz!" As Kristina Koznick, the object of their affection, slashed her way around each gate in Sunday's World Cup slalom race here, they stomped their feet nervously.
All weekend at the Aspen Winternational ski races, as groups rose to cheer for entire countries -- Austria, Switzerland or the host United States -- Koznick, with a pink streak in her hair and an independent streak in her heart, roared down the hill as a nation of one.
"It's been very difficult," said her father, Jeffrey. "The U.S. Ski Team, they make it pretty difficult for her."
Of all the hopes for skiing medals the United States will carry to February's Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, Koznick's are unique. She skis in the spiderweb and blue uniform of the United States, but she is no longer a member of the U.S. Ski Team. Five years ago, she severed ties with the team, which provides funding and logistical support, amidst a swirl of controversy. And now, at 30, she is beginning what she believes will be her final World Cup season, one that will build to her final Olympics, in circumstances with which none of the other U.S. athletes deal.
So with tears forming in her eyes as she thought about what was likely her last race on U.S. soil Sunday -- one in which she finished a disappointing 14th -- she said she had no regrets about taking the steps that she deemed necessary to maintain both her success and her sanity.
"It was really the only option for me," she said. "The team really didn't provide me what I needed. When you know you're doing the right thing for you, it's the right thing."
Sweden's Anja Paerson, the two-time defending overall World Cup champion, capped off a strong weekend by storming from more than a second behind in the second run to win the slalom over her good friend, Janica Kostelic of Croatia. Kostelic was despondent over frittering away the lead, describing her run as "terrible," but she also could take solace that both she and Paerson could flip-flop positions on the podium all season, right up to and including the Olympics, because they are among the strongest women on the circuit.
Koznick, whose combined time of 1 minute 38.24 seconds over the two runs was more than 2.2 seconds off Paerson's mark, was not even in the conversation. And that was particularly painful, even if she was the top American finisher, ahead of Julia Mancuso (19th) and Lindsey Kildow (30th). Sarah Schleper, the best American slalom racer, is out until late this year with a back injury.
"It's pretty disappointing," said Koznick, who finished third in this race last year. "I feel really comfortable for the first time in a long time."
She was talking about how she feels on her skis. But she also is comfortable with her personal and professional life, something that wasn't always true. "She fought with the U.S. Ski Team since she was 15," Jeffrey Koznick said.
The battles, her father said, were over organization, communication and training procedures. "You could be fourth in the world or 50th in the world, and they wanted you to train the same way," he said.
The confrontation reached a head following the 2000 season. It was then that Dan Stripp, one of the team's assistant coaches, was fired at least in part for his burgeoning relationship with Koznick. Stripp is now not only Koznick's independent coach, but he is her boyfriend, though the pair maintain the latter relationship didn't take off until after both left the team. The two are the main cogs in "Team Koz," the slogan that adorned all those pink-and-blue hats worn by Koznick's friends and family from her home in Minnesota.
"Dan's an incredible coach," Jeffrey Koznick said. "When he was let go, that was kind of the final straw."
In addition to Stripp, Koznick employs an assistant, a technician and a physical trainer. The annual cost to run Team Koz: $250,000. "I haven't spent a penny," Jeffrey Koznick said. Rather, Koznick sells T-shirts on her Web site, www.koznick.com, and solicits corporate sponsorships and private donations.
"She's basically getting a business degree while she does this," Stripp said.
There are times when it becomes overwhelming, and that could be one of the reasons she is "99.9 percent" sure she won't go through the whole ordeal again.
"It's a little bit hard to focus," she said. She finds times when she says, "I don't know if I really want to do this anymore. But then, it's like, 'Focus! Focus! Focus!' "
Team Koz was focused Sunday afternoon. Some were focused on assembling the entire group for dinner and a party. Others were focused on taking down the Team Koz banner at the top of the grandstand. But Stripp and Koznick focused on the results.
"She's not there yet," Stripp said. The goal is to be in top form by Turin, where, Stripp said, a medal is realistic "for sure."
"It's a goal we know she can reach," he said.
But as the rest of the members of the U.S. team gathered together to head over to Europe for the rest of the season, Team Koz packed up its equipment and prepared to forge ahead alone.
"For me, it was the right choice," Koznick said, her pink-streaked hair tousled in the wind. "There's no other way I could have done it."