Two For The Snow

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Croatia's Janica Kostelic started on skis when she was three; her mother thought she’d never learn

The Kostelics make a specialty of firsts. When the Croatian government issued the first postage stamp to honor a sports personality, Janica won the distinction — after becoming women's slalom and overall World Cup champion in 2001. Not to be outdone, elder brother Ivica set out to establish his own first and became the first person to win a World Cup race from the lowly start position of 64th out of the gate. Not bad for a couple of kids from a country with little tradition in skiing. If both perform to their undoubted ability in Salt Lake City they could also become the first Croatians to win Winter Olympic medals.

Janica was first in the family to win World Cup races. As a 17-year-old in 1999 she won her first two, but missed the rest of the season when she tore four ligaments in her right knee in downhill training at St. Moritz. The extra work required to get fit again, including long-distance running, cycling, gymnastics and even free diving, made her stronger and she came back to win eight consecutive World Cup slalom races of the 2000-01 season, as well as a slew of giant slalom and super-Gs. Her dominance in slaloms prompted Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg, a two-time Olympic champion, to consider that "she is definitely the best slalom skier in the world at the moment."

The pressure of expectation, however, was too much for Janica, who was widely tipped to win gold at the 2001 World Championships in St. Anton. She fell in the slalom leg of the combined and finished fifth in the slalom event. The overwhelming disappointment affected her so badly that her father and coach, Ante, told the Croatian newspaper, Vjesnik, "She's quitting at the end of the season."

Janica didn't retire but the agony of losing seemed to aggravate the pain from the old knee injuries and she underwent three separate operations through the summer, returning to racing in November and slowly improving her results to a fine third place in slalom at Berchtesgaden in January. Her determination moved Ivica to say, "Janica's a great fighter. I think mentally she is the strongest in the World Cup, not only for the women, but for the men."

But then Ivica knows what fortitude is needed to come back from severe injury. He needed three operations on his right knee and one on his left to repair damage from a 1998 accident. By his gifted sister's standards Ivica was a slow starter, waiting until he was an almost ancient 22 for his first World Cup win. That came in this season's opening slalom at Aspen in November last year, cheered on by his mother, Marica, who said afterward, "Last year, it's my daughter. This year, it's my son." Between his first and second runs Ivica took a call from his sister in Austria, but he couldn't understand a word she was saying, because "she was actually screaming into the mobile phone."

The Kostelics travel together as a family when they can, with brother and sister often training together. Father Ante, who coaches both, is pleased that neither "can ever have enough of skiing. Other skiers can't wait to take off their ski boots and do something else, but I have to make them stop."

It didn't always seem that they would develop such a passion for the sport. Janica was only three when she first put on skis, but her mother later recalled that she didn't seem to be a natural: "She was falling all the time and getting in the way of all the other kids on the slope. We thought she'd never learn." In the early 1990s Ante started taking the children to junior ski races around Europe. Money was so short that they slept in tents, or in their car when the weather got too cold, and Janica missed her mother (who'd stayed home in Zagreb) so much that she stopped eating properly and lost a lot of weight.

She may haveJust in case you've forgotten been thin but she still won races. During the 1996-97 season Janica won all 22 junior races she entered. Despite that impressive record, in her first World Cup season, 1998-99, her third place in a slalom event at Park City, Utah, took officials by surprise. They couldn't find a Croatian flag for the award ceremony and Janica had to dig one out of her ski bag.

If either of them wins a medal at Salt Lake City officials shouldn't have to ask them to provide their own flags. The Kostelics have put Croatia on the skiing map for the first time and look set to keep it there.