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Russian Skier Wins First Gold of Games

By Robert Millward
Associated Press
Saturday, February 7, 1998; 10:20 p.m. EST

Russia's Olga Danilova
Winner of the women's classical 15 km cross-country event, Russia's Olga Danilova, stands on the medal podium Sunday. (Joe Cavaretta/AP)
HAKUBA, Japan — Persistent underachiever Olga Danilova outclassed the big names from Norway to finally make a big name for herself as the first gold medalist of the Nagano Olympics.

The 27-year-old mastered the changing conditions on a tough Snow Harp course to win the women's 15-kilometer classical cross-country race ahead of teammate Larissa Lazutina.

Although they had four skiers in the top seven, the Norwegians, who had been looking at a possible sweep, wound up with just a bronze. Anita Moen Guidon collapsed over the line in third place.

"It's one of the happiest days of my life,'' said Danilova, whose only previous Olympic appearance at Albertville six years ago yielded a best of sixth place in the 5K.

Breaking into tears, Danilova said she was thinking of her 2-year-old twin sons Savily and Simeon, back home in Alexandrov.

"I'm happy but especially for my twins,'' she said. "Right now, I'm still not aware that I'm the Olympic champion. I guess I need to spend some time alone to realize what I've done.''

Danoliva's was the 99th gold medal won in Winter Games competition by an athlete from Russia and its two team predecessors, the Soviet Union and the Unified Team, according to records compiled by the Russian National Olympic Committee.

Danilova has spent the last few seasons on Russia's second-string team after a series of disappointing performances at World Cup level. Although she has climbed to eighth in this season's World Cup standings, she has failed to finish higher than third.

Lazutina, who has won two relay golds but just missed out on individual medals at the last two Olympics, appeared to be the main threat to the powerful Norwegians.

Going out 20th of the 65 starters, Lazutina was second to Moen-Guidon at the first timed checkpoint and maintained her speed even though the conditions changed during the race.

Starting out in bright sunshine, the skiers met colder, cloudier weather as a snowstorm loomed over the course and, on a wickedly undulating track, many began to slow down in the second half of the race.

But the two Russians seemed to thrive in the tough conditions and were the only two gold- and silver-medal contenders from half way, as the Norwegians wilted.

Danilova trailed Lazutina by 2.8 seconds at 8.5 kilometers and gradually cut her lead to a half second by the 13.8-kilometer mark.

Although both skiers had plenty of strength left for a fast finish, Danilova had the power to clinch the gold.

She completed the distance in 46 minutes, 55.4 seconds with Lazutina, who won relay golds at the last two Olympics, 5.6 seconds behind.

Moen-Guidon, who placed fourth in the 5k at Lillehammer four years ago, was third in 47:52.6, ahead of Irina Tarenenko Terelia of Ukraine (48.10.2).

"I've been No. 4 often and many times I have been close behind. So I feel very happy,'' Moen-Guidon said.

World Cup leader Bente Martinsen, expected to be the leading Norwegian challenger, finished 1:19 behind the winner and appeared to be close to a medal.

Martinsen, whose father won Olympic gold and silver medals at Grenoble 30 years ago, tied for sixth place with teammate Trude Dybendahl Hartz, who both were behind another Norwegian, Marit Mikkelsplass, at 48:12.5.

Stefania Belmondo, the 1992 30K gold medalist who also was considered a leading contender for this race, struggled throughout. She was a minute behind the leaders soon after halfway and her final time was 48:57.7, in eighth place.

Russia's Yelena Vaelba, who swept five gold medals at the 1997 world championships after teammate Lyubov Yegorova failed a drug test and was stripped of the 5K title, finished 17th, 2 1/2 minutes behind the winner.

Kerrin Petty, from Townshend, Vt., was the leading American in 48th place, one ahead of Suzanne King, of Minneapolis. Petty clocked 52:45.3, 5:49.9 behind the winner, while King had 52:58.9.

Nina Kemppel, from Anchorage, was the third American, in 53rd place with a time of 53:57.2 and Laura Wilson of Ketchum, Idaho, placed 54th in 54:10.4.

Yelena Vaelbe of Russia, another favorite, finished in 17th place, 2 1/2 minutes behind Danilova.

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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