Skiers bash gates, not each other | AspenTimes.com

Skiers bash gates, not each other

Nate Peterson

Anja Paerson of Sweden pulls up in the finish corral after a training run Thursday in preparation for today's Aspen Winternational World Cup super G. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

Anja Paerson’s rivalry with Janica Kostelic begins at the start gate and ends at the finish line.Off the race course, the two best female ski racers in the world are close friends. It’s a bond that originates with success at the World Cup level but goes deeper than that, Paerson said Thursday.With two World Cup overall titles apiece in the last five seasons, Paerson, who hails from Tarnaby, Sweden, and Kostelic, of Zagreb, Croatia, each has become a huge celebrity in Europe. In their home countries, they retain the type of prestige shared by the likes of hockey star Peter Forsberg or basketball player Tony Kucoc. Even in street clothes, Paerson said, people recognize her “90 percent” of the time in Sweden – a reality that makes it difficult to have any sort of private life.When Kostelic returned to Zagreb after winning three gold medals at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, more than 100,000 fans reportedly lined the streets from the airport to the capital city’s main square.Thus, the two can relate on a lot of things that fall outside the safety nets of ski racing. “Between us, it’s not serious at all,” Paerson said Thursday morning after she and Kostelic posed together in front of a pack of photographers. “We just know that we have to focus on ourselves on the course. Off the course, we’re just having fun together like two young women.” The two are barely a year apart in age. Kostelic will turn 24 in May; Paerson will celebrate her 25th birthday in April. Considering their youth and the number of career top-three finishes the two have accumulated since earning their first World Cup starts in the 1997-98 season (62 for Paerson, 39 for Kostelic), the rivalry looks to continue for years to come.”We understand the sport,” Paerson said. “From the start gate to the finish, we’re the biggest enemies and we really hate each other. We’re friends after the finish.”Kostelic turned down two interview requests Thursday, saying she needed time to train after the one-hour free ski session allotted to racers on the track of today’s super G.Last year, both racers continued on previous success in Aspen with a pair of podium finishes each, leading into a spirited race for the overall. Kostelic was third in the opening giant slalom here, then won the slalom the following day. She failed to finish the last slalom, held the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Paerson finished second in both slaloms.The fate of the World Cup’s most coveted trophy wasn’t determined until the season’s final race, nearly five months later on a giant slalom track in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.Kostelic finished eighth – a result that left her just three points back of Paerson in her quest for her third overall title.Had she been nine-hundredths of a second faster, Kostelic would have edged Paerson by one point. This season, Paerson isn’t setting her sights on another overall. After taking silver in giant slalom and bronze in slalom at the 2002 Winter Olympics, her primary goal is to take gold in one of five disciplines at the Turin Games in February.”I’m just going for the Olympics, really,” she said. “It’s a long season, and I still have a lot to do for the overall. I’m just really going to focus on my gold medal. That’s the only thing I don’t have in my resume.”She has a point. With her imposing thighs and compact build, Paerson has accomplished the toughest feat on the World Cup circuit – aside from winning the overall – by taking gold in each alpine discipline in a single season.She did so in February after charging to a win in downhill on the same course in San Sicario, Italy, that this year’s Olympics will use.Paerson said she doesn’t care which Olympic race leads her to gold. She’s had her strongest showings in the technical disciplines of giant slalom and slalom but doesn’t intend to tighten her focus after coming on last season in the speed events. She was second and third in two super G’s before claiming gold in the discipline in Italy last February, a day before the breakthrough win in downhill.”I just want to have one gold medal. It doesn’t matter which discipline. I’m entering five [events] in the Olympics, but I want one to come home with,” she said.The podium finishes haven’t come as easily this season. She was third in the season-opening GS in Soelden, Austria, then struggled last weekend in Lake Louise, Alberta. Her highest finish was a 36th in the super G, after a DNF and a 53rd in the two downhills.Today’s super G race, which begins at 10:45 a.m., hopefully marks a return to the podium, Paerson said.”I had a really rough week in Lake Louise,” Paerson said. “Coming back here, it’s a really technical course and the snow is really nice. I just feel very happy and [I’m] really enjoying my time right now.”Not necessarily anonymously. While the two North American World Cup stops for the women are a nice respite from the fanaticism of the European leg of the circuit, every time she returns to Aspen more people recognize her, Paerson said. “In the U.S., where the sport is not that big, it’s awesome that people still here in Aspen recognize who I am and know that I had some pretty good results here before,” she said. “It’s amazing. I’m so proud that I can connect with some of those people out there.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com