Swedish skier finally adds gold to her impressive resume
SESTRIERE, Italy -- Anja Paerson heard from the king of Sweden moments after her Olympic gold medal triumph.
But the bigger thrill was probably the call she received from another famous Swede: former Alpine skiing great Ingemar Stenmark.
"He's my idol," she said. "I'm just a small girl from a small town in Sweden. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe it's true."
Paerson's long-sought gold medal in the women's slalom Wednesday cements her status alongside Stenmark and Sweden's other great sports figures.
And she's not done yet.
A top-three finish Friday in the giant slalom, the final women's Alpine event of the Turin Games, would bring her a sixth Olympic medal, tying her with longtime rival Janica Kostelic for the most by a female skier. And more significantly in Sweden, she would have as many as Stenmark.
Paerson had built quite the resume before Turin: 32 World Cup victories, four world championships and, for the past two years, the World Cup overall title. All that was missing was that Olympic gold.
"Now I feel the joy of winning again," Paerson said.
Despite bronze medals in the downhill and combined, she had experienced little joy in these games before Wednesday. After her combined finish, she stood stone-faced as she watched Kostelic celebrate the gold that she so wanted to be hers.
"We set up a goal for this year to try to achieve a gold medal," Paerson said. "It's hard when you do all five disciplines. We set up a totally different training schedule so that I would peak at the Olympics."
From the very beginning of the slalom competition on a fog-shrouded slope in the Italian Alps, Paerson had what she calls "that look in my eye."
"Sometimes she surprises even me. I saw her eyes when she came down," said Paerson's father and coach, Anders. "She was in a tunnel. She didn't hear and see, just the gates. She was so focused. Her eyes were like so open and then I know she wasn't going to do a mistake."
She was the first one out of the gate, and no one could match her time of 42.38 seconds. Then, on her second run, the last one down of the 30 top skiers, she made her way down the course in an aggressive run that did not play it too safe. Her second run was bettered only by silver medalist Nicole Hosp of Austria.
"I'm happy for her because I was the last one (from Sweden) to take a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Alpine," said Pernilla Wiberg, who won the giant slalom in 1992 and combined in 1994. "In Alpine, we finally have someone else. I got tears in my eyes, because she's such a great champion, and she deserves it."
"She deserves the gold medal," Kostelic said. "She's won everything now."
Austrian Marlies Schild took bronze. The second- and third-place finishes by Hosp and her marked the 10th and 11th medals for the powerhouse Austrian team, which seems sure to add to that total in the women's giant slalom and men's slalom -- the only events remaining on the Olympic Alpine schedule.
Kostelic was fourth, the first time in the last two Olympics that she had not earned a medal in an event she entered. She said she was so ill she probably wouldn't ski in the giant slalom.
Sarah Schleper was the top U.S. finisher in 10th place. Lindsey Kildow was 14th and, still aching from her nasty crash in a downhill training run early last week, said she might not race in the giant slalom.
The Americans still have not bettered Kildow's sixth-place finish in the combined at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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