Fri, Feb 24, 2006 - Page 23 News List

Sweden's Paerson collects Olympic gold at long last


Anja Paerson from Sweden bodysurfs on the snow to celebrate her victory in the ladies slalom final in Sestriere Colle, Italy, on Wednesday. Paerson clocked an overall time of 1:29.04 to place in the lead.


Anja Paerson had won plenty of races, at all levels. Alas, never at the Olympics.

Each silver or bronze at the Winter Games made her crave gold that much more. Each disappointment added to the pressure, made her tight. She knew it. So did her biggest rival.

And yet Paerson felt a welcome calm when she settled into the starting gate and stared into the floodlit fog on Wednesday night, that ached-for gold one strong slalom run away. Less than a minute later, the Swede was at the bottom of the mountain tossing off her helmet and doing her trademark victory headfirst slide in the snow.

At long last, an Olympic champion. Riding up the mountain for the second of two slalom runs, Paerson later recounted, "I said to myself: `Dream about gold and how fun it would be.' Then when I got off the lift, I just focused. I just needed to go out and do it. I wasn't nervous at all."

Instead, she was flawless, despite tweaking her knee during morning practice.

Paerson put up the fastest first run and made it stand up with the second-best final trip, cutting through dense fog, pushing all the way, for a combined time of 1 minute, 29.04 seconds.

"Sometimes she surprises even me," said her father and coach, Anders Paerson. "I saw her eyes when she came down. She was in a tunnel. She didn't hear and see -- just the gates. She was so focused."

Just as she had focused all season on peaking at these Olympics.

Making her victory that much sweeter: Her chief tormenter, Janica Kostelic of Croatia, finished fourth, ending a streak of winning gold or silver in six consecutive Olympic races.

In between were two Austrians. Nicole Hosp finished 0.29 seconds behind Paerson for the silver, Marlies Schild was 0.75 back for the bronze.

It was Kostelic who noted Paerson's inner struggles earlier these Olympics, particularly on Monday, when the Croatian earned a silver in the super-G for her career-record sixth Alpine medal at a Winter Games and Paerson was 12th.

"The secret is that I feel just as happy whether I'm first, second or 11th. I love to ski and not take it so seriously like Anja," Kostelic said then. "She needs to relax and enjoy her skiing ... take it less personally."

Indeed, when Paerson won her second bronze of these games on Saturday in the combined event -- adding to a silver and bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002 -- she compared it to finishing last. Standing on the podium's lowest step she was unsmiling and dour.

"What [Kostelic] said was true -- I needed to relax -- but I had to do it in my way," Paerson said on Wednesday. "I was in a bad place at the Olympics. It was hard to stand there, third."

She's not used to being in that position elsewhere.

World championship gold medals? Four. World Cup race wins? Thirty-two. Overall World Cup titles? The last two.

This triumph meant more than all the others to Paerson, who's from the same small town in Sweden as former Alpine skiing great Ingemar Stenmark. He gave her a congratulatory phone call after the race, as did Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf.

With one more race on the Alpine schedule, today's giant slalom, Paerson will suddenly have a chance to tie Kostelic's career mark for medals.

Kostelic, who's been sick most of the Olympics, said she was "90 percent" sure she'll skip the giant slalom. US skier Lindsey Kildow, 14th on Wednesday, also probably will miss that race, because of pain stemming from her training fall last week.

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