Anja Paerson dives headlong into Olympic history
WHISTLER, British Columbia – When Anja Paerson slides across the snow on her belly, all is usually well in her world.
Like Thursday, when the 28-year-old Swedish skier dived headlong into her trademark celebration in the finish area after taking third place in the women’s super-combined event.
The bronze was her sixth medal over three Olympics, tying Janica Kostelic as the most decorated women in Olympic Alpine skiing.
“I feel very proud of my career,” Paerson reflected. “I think I did nine starts and six medals. That’s pretty amazing what I accomplished.”
That be an understatement.
Rewind 24 hours and Paerson should have earned her record-equaling honor for a thrilling challenge to Lindsey Vonn’s unquestioned supremacy in the glamour downhill race.
Instead, Paerson hurtled across the finish line face down, without skis, at the tail end of an ugly crash after failing to land the final jump and flying 50 meters – half a football field – through the air.
A safe passage down the steep finishing slope and, her split times suggested, she would have edged American Julia Mancuso for silver behind Vonn.
Many witnesses Wednesday were surprised Paerson was able even to limp away from the fall with the help of two coaches.
Yet she was back in the start house Thursday morning for another downhill to open the super-combined.
“That was a fall that probably would have taken 98 percent of the field out,” said U.S. women’s head coach Jim Tracy.
“She really wanted to do something, and if she was physically able to do it, she was going to do it. I knew that. We all knew it. A lot of kudos go out to her because that was a great, great effort by her.”
Paerson talked of needing to get right back on her skis, and facing down any potential personal demons.
“I really wanted to do that jump in the bottom,” she explained. “For me it would’ve been a hard time to manage to cope with it in your head if I hadn’t done that jump.”
Her pain was physical as well as mental.
“I have a lot of bruises in my legs. The hardest thing is my left calf,” she said. “That’s what’s hurting when I go into the boots.
“I wouldn’t be able to win a beauty contest today. But I don’t care, as long as I could ski.”
So softly spoken when talking of the importance of finding harmony in her life, Paerson found she needed to get mad to cope with building stress levels before her start.
“I think my physio and service man were pretty scared of me,” she said. “It worked, and I thought if I can make the first jump after 10 seconds, I could make the whole course. After that I thought one thing, to make that last jump, to come over where I crashed.”
Paerson did it and set the seventh-fastest downhill time with the slalom leg to follow. Like the defending Olympic slalom champion she is, she delivered a fast run through the gates to take the lead with six racers still to come down.
Mancuso, then eventual winner Maria Riesch of Germany, would go faster, but morning leader Vonn hooked a ski tip and crashed out.
The medal was secured, the celebratory dive performed.
Paerson now shares a page in Olympic history with Croatian great Kostelic, who leads 4-1 in their gold medal count.
“(Janica) was a really perfect and great skier,” Paerson said of her longtime former rival. “I’m very proud that I managed to … race against her.”
And proud of herself that she raced again at Whistler.
“I was very, very nervous that I wouldn’t enter any more races. I was very determined to try to win a medal here again,” Paerson said.
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