Sweden's best think Anja Paerson could be a legend in the making


Sweden’s best think Anja Paerson could be a legend in the making{mosimage}Still only 22 and on the threshold of winning the overall World Cup, Sweden’s Anja Paerson is already being compared with some of the greatest names in alpine skiing history.

“It’s incredible to already be at this level and sometimes I pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming,” Paerson said recently. “I have already achieved so much more than I thought I could.”

Barring mishaps, Paerson will become next month the third Swede to win the overall trophy, following in the ski trails of Ingemar Stenmark and Pernilla Wiberg.

With 10 wins this winter alone, Paerson has already joined an exclusive club comprising Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell, Swiss Vreni Schneider and Croat Janica Kostelic.

Paerson has secured the season’s slalom and giant slalom World Cups and could collect another two slalom race wins this weekend in the Finnish resort of Levi.

Four races — one in each discipline — remain after Levi, at the World Cup finals in Sestriere, Italy, next month, giving Paerson a chance to emulate Schneider’s record-setting performance in the 1988-1989 season when she won 14 events.

Schneider was the best technical specialist in the history of the women’s World Cup with a total of 55 victories between 1985 and 1995, putting her second in the women’s all-time list behind Moser-Proell.

Paerson, still only in her sixth season on the tour, has won 21 races so far, all of them technical events.

“It is certainly a goal of mine to win as many races as possible but I still have a long way to go to earn the right to be compared with a legend like Vreni whom I admired so much when I saw her on television 10 years ago,” Paerson said.

SPEED EVENTS

Paerson leads Austrian Renate Goetschl by 123 points in the overall standings and can expect to stretch that lead considerably in Levi, a new stop on the World Cup. Goetschl, who prefers the speed events of downhill and super-G, has not won a slalom since 1993.

Wiberg, who won the overall title in 1997, and Stenmark, who was the men’s champion for three years in succession from 1976, believe their young compatriot, who has already collected two world titles and two Olympic medals, is destined for greatness.

“I’m sure Anja will do better than me. She is gifted and stronger than I was at her age,” said Wiberg, who won six world and Olympic titles between 1991 and 1999.

After trying downhill for the first time this season — and nearly winning at St. Moritz, Switzerland, in December until a mistake close to the finish line — Paerson could develop into a winner in the speed events as well, Stenmark said.

“Anja has won some 20 races since 2001 and two gold medals in the technical disciplines but I think she is just as capable of doing well in the downhill and super G,” said Stenmark who was in Are last Sunday to see Paerson win a giant slalom.

“Taking account of her technique and her power she could even become one of the best speed specialists in the coming years. In that case there is no reason why she couldn’t win a dozen races a year right up to 2010. She will surely go on racing for six more years, up to the Vancouver Olympics.”

Stenmark, who like Paerson hails from the small Swedish resort of Tarnaby, still holds the record for World Cup victories with 86 race wins between 1974 and 1989.

COMING YEARS

Wiberg, who won 24 World Cup races, shares Stenmark’s views on Paerson. “Already this year she can overtake me in the number of World Cup victories. In coming years she will continue to accumulate medals in the big events,” Wiberg said.

“I also believe she is capable of succeeding like me in all the alpine specialities. It is only a question of time. She nearly won the St Moritz downhill in December.”

Paerson professes to be happy that she did not win that downhill, saying it would have been too much too soon. “A victory would have left me very confused. It would have been a shock, like a victory by a downhiller in a slalom race. I think I have a lot to learn before aspiring to victory.”

“Anja has fallen in love with the downhill this winter but it takes longer than she thought to excel,” said her father Anders who is also the head of the Swedish women’s team. “Racing the downhill was very important on a mental level. She enjoyed herself in St Moritz and that allowed her to change her ideas to stay motivated and concentrated.”

But the Swedish team will have to call in expert advice if Paerson decides to continue in downhill, her father said. “We will have to make some changes because we lack trainers experienced in the discipline,” he admitted.

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