Finnish phenom conquers field; U.S. racer third |

Finnish phenom conquers field; U.S. racer third

Tim Mutrie

With two victories and a third-place finish in three days, Finland’s Tanja Poutiainen emerged as the overall leader on the women’s alpine World Cup tour.Nineteen months removed from racing due to knee injuries and a hyper-thyroid illness, Croatia’s Janica Kostelic returned to her championship form.Minnesota native Kristina Koznick climbed to her first podium of the 2004-05 season, and the Aspen Mountain course crew – which was strapped due to lack of snow a week earlier – rose and met the Herculean task of keeping the races on schedule despite 20 inches of sweet, sweet, new-fallen snow.All in an Aspen World Cup weekend.The stars of the Tanja, Anja and Janica show, up-and-comer Poutiainen, reigning World Cup overall champion Anja Paerson of Sweden and two-time former World Cup overall champion Kostelic, shared the top three spots in Friday’s giant slalom and Saturday’s slalom Poutiainen, Paerson, Kostelic; then Kostelic, Paerson, Poutiainen. And the trio seemed poised to complete a trifecta in Sunday’s final event, a second slalom race, with Kostelic joking Saturday that perhaps she should change her name to rhyme with her two rivals’. “Tanja, Anja and Mon-ja,” she offered with a laugh.But then came an overnight dump and the hard-charging Koznick, whose whole family was on hand.”You just gotta be tough,” Koznick said Sunday, after trailing only Poutiainen and Italy’s Manuela Moelgg in the second slalom.”That’s what this weekend was all about who’s toughest. It was so bumpy and rough and challenging, and we rarely ski in conditions like this. [Sunday] we thought the race was going to be canceled. But they pulled it off.”Paerson, along with 20 other racers, did not finish the first run on Sunday, and Kostelic, the first-run leader, went down on her hip on the upper course during the second run.Now, the overall World Cup standings list Poutiainen first with 340 points, followed by Paerson (260), Kostelic (192) and Koznick (157).The unflappable Kostelic said she wasn’t disappointed with Sunday’s result.”I was watching that turn on the inspection and I thought, ‘This is going to be hard because it’s really slippery,'” she said. “Then I started my turn good and ended up on my side.”But it’s OK. It goes up and down. That’s how it always is.”After Poutiainen’s first World Cup giant slalom victory on Friday, she told reporters, “It’s a great day for [Finnish] alpine skiing.”Full attack. In tough conditions on a tough hill, nothing less will do,” added Poutiainen, who finished second to Paerson in the first World Cup of the season, a giant slalom last month in Austria.It turned out to be a benchmark weekend for Finnish skiing.”What can I say? It’s just like it is. Four races so far and four podiums,” she said Sunday. “My best season [previously] I had two podiums.”So far my best result was 14th in Aspen. So before this weekend, I didn’t really have good memories here. But I just got it all together. I felt comfortable and confident about my skiing, but you also need a little luck. And I got that with my bib numbers.” She started first in the first run of all three races.For Koznick, the weekend improved markedly each day, from 24th in Friday’s GS to sixth in Saturday’s slalom to third yesterday, all bests for the American.”It’s awesome,” the 29-year-old Koz said. “I had huge expectations for the weekend, and honestly, in the past when it’s been bumpy like this, it’s not my forte and I think everybody counts me out. I know when it’s smoother I’m skiing so fast, so if I can do this – podium when it’s bumpy – I know it’s going to be a good year. I just can’t wait til it’s smooth.”Koznick knew what to expect of conditions Sunday, though she was one of many racers who wondered whether there would be any race at all with the new snow.”I knew it wasn’t going to feel good and it was going to be bumpy,” she said. “But seriously, the people here in Aspen did such an amazing job – and I’m not saying that because it’s in the U.S. – for real, there were so many people out on the hill with shovels and rakes so early in the morning.”In any other town we wouldn’t have had a race today, so it was awesome.”Jim Hancock, Aspen chief of race, said there were times when it appeared the race was heading toward cancellation due to the heavy snow.”I wasn’t real optimistic when I got up at 4:30 [Sunday] morning, I can tell you that,” he said. “There was so much snow the lift operator got his snowmobile stuck trying to get to the top and start the lift. So we were already a half-hour late and everybody was worn out from the days before.”While 21 racers did not finish the first run Sunday, Moelgg, the runner-up, came from deep in the pack with the No. 39 start bib. And Florine de Leymarie of France, wearing No. 42, finished fourth, indications that the course provided all the racers a fair shot.Approximately 120 crew workers were dedicated solely to clearing the course of powder, a job that began after darkness fell Saturday.”One guy literally dropped from exhaustion,” said Hancock. “We got him some oxygen, [but] it took us about a half-hour to revive him. He was OK, but that’s the kind of effort people were making.”What’s pretty amazing is that we’ve been waiting for a big dump for four weeks and it came six hours before the first race and continued on through the last one,” said Hancock. “It goes to show what we always say: You gotta keep fighting as long as you can. There were a lot of people who wanted to give up, but we didn’t.”Same goes for the heavyweights of the women’s alpine World Cup tour.Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is

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