Kostelic arrived in Salt Lake City for the Winter Olympics in February 2002 with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over her. She had undergone three operations in the past year. She was ranked 17th overall. Her World Cup season had been abbreviated and unnoteworthy. She had been avoiding the downhill event and rarely trained at high speed due to concern for her reconstructed knees. She passed up the last pre-Olympic World Cup races to spend time resting and doing dryland training. Could she possibly compete for an Olympic medal? The 20-year-old skier with the solid 5-foot 8-inch, 166-pound frame did not take long to answer that question.
In the first women's Alpine event, the combined, Kostelic led the field by more than a full second after the two slalom runs. Her success was not altogether surprising; the slalom was her specialty. She was expected to falter, however, on the demanding downhill leg of the event. "But skiing last among the leaders, Kostelic sped along the downhill course in a low, seamless tuck, her hands and arms rarely rising as she negotiated the turns," Bill Pennington wrote in the New York Times. "If the 70-mile-an-hour speeds bothered her state of mind or her knees, she did not show it." Her combined time of 2 minutes 43.28 seconds was nearly 1.5 seconds faster than the second-place finisher. Kostelic and Croatia had their first gold medal. "This is a family medal," she told Pennington. "Everything was always me, my brother and my father. My mother was always there on the side, too, and she's the boss. This is great, the family's dream come true."