Making a name for himself
You might not recognize his name - and if you do, you probably can't pronounce it.
Ever since winning a bronze medal in the super combined at last winter's FIS World Championships here in Val d'Isère, Croatia's Natko Zrncic-Dim, 23, has deservedly been receiving more attention on the tour. However, his fellow competitors still struggle to get his name right.
"I don't mind. They can always call me Dim, it's easier," said Zrncic-Dim during an interview in Val d'Isère. "But with Zrncic they really have problems. Here in Val d'Isère, in the U.S. and everywhere I always have to really pronounce my name at the public draws. Only the Slovenians get it right because we have similar speech."
The young Croatian further explains that his last name, pronounced ‘ZhUN-chich DIM' comes from his mother's surname Zrncic and his father's Dim. While his parents are not married, they live together in his hometown of Zagreb.
Zrncic-Dim enters tomorrow's super combined, which will entail one run of super-G (as opposed to downhill) and one run of slalom, as a legitimate contender, especially considering his impressive third place finish last weekend in Beaver Creek.
Only 14th in the downhill portion on "The Birds of Prey" course, Zrncic-Dim skied an excellent slalom, posting the second fastest time. He catapulted himself up the leaderboard to grab third.
"In downhill I had one mistake, so it was not a perfect run, but altogether it was a good result," says Zrncic-Dim about his performance in Colorado. "I was really happy."
Factor in his success at last year's Worlds in addition to a previous World Cup third place in Val d'Isère, and there is no reason to believe that the Croatian can't find the podium again.
While Zrncic-Dim admits readily that he likes the steep and sinuous Face de Bellevarde slope, he offers another theory for his past success here in France.
"I think the reason I am good here is because I like this town and I like this place," he says. "My father and his brother were coming here for many years. Actually my father was here in Val d'Isère the day I was born, he was skiing here. Maybe that also means something."
Zrncic-Dim goes on to explain that he was born two weeks early and his father had intended to be there for his birth.
He will be seeking his third career World Cup podium on Friday - Zrncic Dim also was third at last season's combined in Kitzbuehel, Austria.
"I know that guys complain that the course is really tough, really difficult," he says. "Especially this year. Tomorrow there will be a lot of waves because there is less snow so it will be much more difficult, but I hope I will have good runs."
Last season, Zrncic-Dim finished ninth in the combined World Cup standings. Both he and his teammates feel that he is likely to improve upon that this season.
"He was always good in the downhill and slalom," says veteran teammate Ivica Kostelic regarding his potential. "I think he's a natural talent for the downhill. He has no fear, a lot of luck and of course he has a lot of slalom training behind him so he can be fast in slalom as well."
Natko's father also used to spend plenty of time skiing with Ivica and Janica's father, Ante. The closeness between the two Croatian skiing families has highly benefitted Zrncic-Dim.
"I used to train in the beginning with my father and I was also with the Kostelic family in training," says Zrncic-Dim. "They are great sportsmen. I learned from them how to fight to the end. Always 100% and always hard training."
"He's like my little brother," says Ivica, 30. "He used to follow me and Janica to training. Of all the guys on our team, he's the closest to our family."
This weekend, Zrncic-Dim's family is not in Val d'Isère. However, they will surely be watching and hoping that he can duplicate the success from last year's World Championships. The talented racer admits it was one of the biggest moments of his career and also one of the most exciting races.
"For me, it was great," he says about last season's World Championship bronze medal. "I'm really glad that I was concentrating and in good shape for both runs. That was important. To be one-hundredth in front of Zurbriggen (Silvan, of Switzerland) makes me very happy. He was standing next to me in fourth and I think he was not so happy about the one-hundredth."
Regarding tomorrow's super combined, Natko's coach, Peter Pens also likes the ski racer's chances on the highly challenging Face de Bellevarde piste,"If it's a difficult course or difficult slope he is always pretty good. Every year he gets a little better and after two or three good results, the strength in the head comes and it gets easier."
Despite his obvious affinity for the town and slopes of Val d'Isère, Zrncic-Dim is highly enthused, yet realistic about his goals for tomorrow's super combined, especially since it involves a super-G as opposed to the more traditional downhill.
"I expect to have a victory this year or soon in my career, but I don't know when it will happen," he says. "Every race where I am close, I hope to do that. Tomorrow I will be satisfied if I am really close to the podium or at least in the top seven."
It appears evident that the Croatian combined specialist will continue to improve finding himself on top of more and more podiums. And more than likely fans, fellow racers and maybe even the media will start getting his name correct.
You can count on that.
By Brian Pinelli