Head-to-Head 

Olympic hopeful Lisa Kosglow shines in parallel giant slalom

Lisa Kosglow learned to ski at Bogus Basin when she was in the sixth grade. She swapped the skis for a snowboard around the time she turned 15 years old, and went on to compete in two Olympic Games. In the giant slalom she placed eighth in Salt Lake City, Utah (2002), and 27th in Nagano, Japan (1998).

She'll find out next month whether she's been selected for the 2006 U.S. Olympic team. Kosglow, 32, has her sights set on the parallel giant slalom in Torino, Italy.

click to enlarge COURTESY HOME DEPOT
  • Courtesy Home Depot

Despite her impressive credentials, Kosglow is among the majority of U.S. athletes who must hold down a day job to support their Olympic dreams. Sponsorships and prize money can provide a revenue stream, but Kosglow points out that purses for Alpine ski races are rarely big enough to cover a mortgage payment these days. As an example, she cites her recent win at a NorAm-circuit Race for the Cup event at Copper Mountain in Colorado. Her first-place finished earned her $350.

To make ends meet, Kosglow is employed in the garden department at the Home Depot in The Dalles, Oregon, where she's worked since 2001. The home improvement retailer employs some 200 Olympic hopefuls, and offers flexible schedules that accommodate the athletes' intense workout schedules. Kosglow logs about 20-30 hours week at the store when she's not away competing and training and says, "It's really amazing. The program is incredible."

She's less enthusiastic, however, about the United States' support of its athletes. Kosglow has to pay for her own airline tickets and meals while competing around the globe and doesn't receive any outright funds from the government or the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) other than a $2,500 annual grant. "The United States is one of the only countries that doesn't pay the athletes to compete," she says. The USOC does cover her health insurance premiums, however, and the U.S. Snowboard Team picks up the tab for lodging, rental cars and such for its members.

As for her training regimen, Kosglow typically spends the winter in Europe and puts in long hours on the hills. She says, "We're up in the morning, breakfast, then in the hills for three or four hours. Sometimes we'll have an hour off for lunch then go back for another hour or two."

And they make those hours count. The coaches often set a course that the athletes go through and inspect. "There are a lot of tactics involved in reading terrain and gate placement," Kosglow explains. Then the racers start running the course, which the coaches have set up with a timing system. "We train a lot with the Swedish national team," Kosglow says, "and we'll set two courses and run head-to-head so we can get practice."

This high-level practice on dual courses is a contributing factor to Kosglow's success in the parallel giant slalom, a timed event in which snowboarders maneuver through side-by-side courses marked by gates and flags.

"There's definitely a different mental frame of mind you have to keep in a [side-by-side] race like that," she says. "You can't get distracted. Sometimes the other person's ahead of you a little bit and they can spray you with snow."

But speed and focus are not the only deciding factors in parallel giant slalom. In order to bring home top-ranking results while competing on a world-class level, a snowboarder must also have stamina.

This is because a winning day of competition demands numerous runs through the course. A parallel giant slalom event begins with a qualifying run, and the fastest 32 racers proceed to a second run. The 16 fastest combined times go on to the knock-out round. This is where the "parallel" part of the parallel giant slalom kicks in. Racing on adjacent courses, pairs of athletes alternate runs on the blue course (on the left) and the red course (on the right). The two times are combined, and the individuals with the eight fastest scores advance to the next round. Two more runs, and the four fastest snowboarders advance to the medal rounds. Two more runs, and a victor steps up to the podium.

Officials don't re-set the course during a competition, either. "The entire field--the men and the women--is taking these runs without resetting so we end up with huge ruts," Kosglow says. "It's a lot of fun but it's not very pretty. There's a lot of falling going on in the parallel format. The quicker recovery is all part of the strategy, you're never out. You can never know what's going to happen. I think it's analogous to life."

Time and again throughout her career, Kosglow has proven she stands by her words. The athlete has suffered a broken back, a fractured pelvis and broken elbows, but after each accident, she has returned to the slopes determined to continue racing and winning.

"Injuries happen," she explains simply. "It's part of being active. I don't think snowboarding is a dangerous sport, and that if you go out and snowboard you're going to break your back. I was doing Super G when I broke my back. Most people don't go 70 mph on a snowboard. I don't do that anymore, either."

Currently the reigning U.S. Women's Alpine National Champion, Kosglow is also ranked among the top snowboarders in the world. She says 2006 will be her last year of competitive snow boarding, then laughs, "I've said that before, but I think I mean it this time."

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