THE U.S. SKI team has always been a place where dreams are made and broken, but the drama doesn't usually go down like a Shakespearean romance. That changed last spring when U.S. Ski Team women's coach Dan Stripp, 39, was fired by his boss, Marjan Cernigoj, for "overstepping the professional boundaries between coach and athlete." The athlete in question happened to be the nation's top slalom racer and best hope for a gold in the 2002 Winter Olympics: Kristina Koznick, an eight-year ski-team veteran now ranked fifth in the world in slalom. "The ski team does have a policy against relationships, and it is hard to enforce," says Koznick, 25. "We knew the rules. There was no [sexual] relationship between us." But the soap opera didn't end there. In August, after Stripp's firing, Koznick dropped her own bombshell: she had quit the team to train with her squeeze.
Training solo is a rare and risky strategy; World Cuplevel racing requires Napoleonic logistics and astronomical travel costs. "It hasn't happened before with an athlete at her level," says USST spokesman Tom Kelly. (In the mid-1990s, however, top-ranked world racer Julie Parisien opted for a private training regimen—with full support from the U.S. Ski Team—and tanked.)
Has Koznick thrown it all away for love? Not according to her. "He knows me like the back of his hand," she says of her coach, himself a former USST racer. "He knows everything about me, and my skiing's done really well. It's rare, and I can't let it slip away." Refusing to bow to their sport's ethical elite, Koznick and Stripp have in recent months trained on slalom courses set up by European teams. On a glacier in Solden, Austria, they awkwardly trained alongside the U.S. team—head coach Cernigoj is not on speaking terms with Stripp.
"I don't think a coach and athlete should be that close. It's not professional," says Tasha Nelson, one of Koznick's former teammates. "Some of the girls didn't like it. They felt cheated." Since the split, Nelson admits, "it's not been smooth by any means."
Koznick also misses her former colleagues. "I wish I could still train with the team," she reflects, "but they said it had to be all or nothing." She's determined to prove that she made the right decision. Used to facing slim odds—she's from flatland Minnesota, for one thing—Koznick thrives under pressure. For now, she's trying to raise the $300,000 needed to compete on the World Cup circuit and train for the World Alpine Ski Championships, in Austria this January, and eventually, the Olympics. "It's everything I've ever wanted, and it's coming down to the last straw. I know what I need to do to win."