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No skier had ever won four medals at a single edition of the Winter Games. It was one of those records that seemed possible but was, in reality, unthinkably difficult. Plenty had tried, but nobody had ever succeeded. Achieving it would require not only great skill and extraordinary versatility, but also tremendous fitness, not to mention a slice of good fortune. In Salt Lake City, though, there was one skier who seemed to have a chance. Janica Kostelić of Croatia had started skiing when she was nine. She made her Olympic debut in 1998 when she was just 16 years old, and managed to record a very creditable eighth place finish in the combined. Subsequently, she went from strength to strength, winning both the slalom and overall titles in the 2001 World Cup. The Croatian prime minister presented her with 1,256 roses – one for every World Cup point she had recorded, and her face even appeared on a postage stamp!
Her preparations for the 2002 Winter Games were hampered by a string of knee injuries, raising questions as to whether she would be able to produce her best form. However, she returned from injury just over a month before the Games, shook off any signs of rustiness and arrived in Salt Lake City looking both fit and determined. She was entered into four events, and it was clear that she was eying the chance to make history.
Her first event was the combined. High winds meant that the slalom runs were held first and then the downhill. Kostelić was fastest on both slalom runs, leading the field by more than a second, but she knew that some of her main rivals had better downhill records than her.
Germany's Martina Ertl threw down the initial gauntlet on the downhill, but the biggest threat was always likely to come from the Austrian Renate Götschl, the winner of four previous World Cup combined titles. Sure enough, Götschl produced the fastest downhill run to set a target of 2 minutes 43.28 seconds. Kostelić needed to go fast – but she also had the leeway to exercise a bit of caution if needed.
As it turned out, she produced one of the best downhill runs of her career, recording the third fastest time, which was enough to give her overall victory by 1.5 seconds, a stunning margin.
Next came a silver medal in the super-G, in which she missed gold by just 0.05 seconds, before she set her sights on the slalom. This time her greatest challenges came from the French skier Laure Pequegnot, and from the weather, which was worsening just as Kostelić started her second run. However, she made light of the conditions, doing enough to win by 0.07 seconds and claim her second gold.
Three events and three medals. A place in history beckoned, and it came in the giant slalom, in which she dominated both runs, beating Anja Pärson (SWE) by 1.3 seconds. It was a remarkable achievement given that Kostelić had never previously won a giant slalom World Cup race. And more remarkable still, she had made Olympic history with her fourth medal.