Paerson golden in slalom |

Paerson golden in slalom

Sweden's Anja Paerson spreads her arms and slides on her belly after winning Sunday's slalom on Aspen Mountain. (Charles Krupa/AP)

It was all but over. The “Croatian Sensation” banner was waving furiously in the grandstands.After a nearly flawless first run in Sunday’s slalom on Aspen Mountain, Croatia’s Janica Kostelic had distanced herself from her nearest competitor – Austrian Kathrin Zettel – by .84 seconds. Fans clad in red and white were poised to celebrate a Kostelic slalom title in Aspen for a second straight year.It was Anja Paerson, however, who left a lasting impression in a final that race organizers couldn’t have scripted any better. The Swede trimmed 2.59 seconds off her first run to finish with a combined time of 1 minute, 36.01 seconds. Kostelic – the last to race – crossed the finish line, then glanced toward the leaderboard; she was a mere three hundredths of a second off Paerson’s gold-medal pace.Zettel finished third with a time of 1:36.44, making her second podium in as many days; she was third in Saturday’s giant slalom.”I wasn’t really focused on the lead cause you usually never take one second off Jan,” said Paerson, who trailed Kostelic by 1.03 seconds after run No. 1. “I was focused on making as quick a charge as I could and to fight through every gate. This is a pretty technical course and a lot of things can happen.” Paerson accomplished her objective as she tore through the 54 gates on the Lower Ruthie’s Run course. Her 46.71-second run in the finals was the fastest recorded all day.

Despite Paerson’s impressive second run, Kostelic had gold in her grasp. With a clean run devoid of any major errors, she would have taken the title. She was, however, a little too cautious. “It was the easiest run I skied in my life,” Kostelic said. “But it was terrible. I was doing turns I wasn’t supposed to do. It was my fault, so I have nothing to be mad about. I’m very sure that won’t happen again.”Kostelic, the 2002 Olympic slalom gold medalist who finished 17th in Friday’s super G and fourth in the giant slalom, faced a difficult judgment call. If she attacked run No. 2, Kostelic risked losing the lead she had worked so hard for. If she was hesitant, the rest of the field would find itself within striking distance. While her turns were smooth and her pace quick, Kostelic’s final run time of 47.77 was slower than 20 of the field’s 30 competitors.Because of the misstep it was Paerson, not Kostelic, who was sliding across the finish area snow on her stomach. “My technique was a little off,” Paerson said of her celebratory dive. “It’s normally smooth, but it’s good to have it back.”

It took just one weekend for Paerson to regain her confidence after a difficult and unsuccessful weekend in Lake Louise, Alberta. Paerson – second in Aspen last year in the giant slalom and slalom – matched her 2004 efforts with two more podium finishes. Her final run in Saturday’s giant slalom final was strong enough to catch everyone but winner Maria Jose Rienda of Spain.Paerson’s slalom training has been strong early this season, she said. The hardest part was waiting to showcase her talent in the discipline in a competitive event.”I have felt so good and comfortable and the hardest part was waiting for that first slalom race,” said Paerson, Aspen’s 2002 slalom champion. “I knew I was in good shape, and I didn’t want to lose it.”Zettel helped cap an impressive weekend for the Austrian contingent. The country occupied seven of the top 15 spots in the final standings of Friday’s super G, including the second, third and fourth positions. Zettel highlighted the country’s depth again Saturday as five Austrians cracked the top 10 in the giant slalom.Zettel, who left following the race to catch a plane to Europe, could not be reached for comment. Austrian dominance was overshadowed Sunday by two of the sport’s brightest and most charismatic stars. The performance will undoubtedly add fuel to the rivalry both insist is friendly. It is a rivalry that will be heightened by the upcoming Winter Olympics.

As Paerson eyes an Olympic gold to add to her already overflowing list of successes, she said this year will be her toughest yet.”There are so many girls that are good up there,” Paerson said. “Now they are so consistent, and everybody is doing less mistakes. I have to fight so hard on every gate.”Kostelic said she is not affected by the pressure, and was willing to shoulder the blame after a race that simply got away.She is confident similarly strong results will come as the circuit moves back to Europe this week, in Val d’Isere, France. There is no reason to doubt her.”It’s just another race and I’m on the podium so I feel good about it,” Kostelic said. “There are so many in front. I can’t wait to get to Europe.” Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is

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