Kowalczyk, Poland break through

By Mattias Karen
Associated Press / February 28, 2010

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WHISTLER, British Columbia - Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland denied Marit Bjoergen a fourth gold medal of the Olympics, beating the Norwegian in a frantic final sprint yesterday to win the 30-kilometer classical cross-country race.

Kowalczyk and Bjoergen were side by side down the final straightaway before the Norwegian lost her rhythm near the end and watched her rival surge across the finish line.

Kowalczyk, the World Cup leader who settled for a silver and bronze in previous races at the Games, pumped both hands into the air before collapsing face-first onto the snow as she gasped for air. She finished in 1 hour, 30 minutes and 33.7 seconds for her first Olympic gold. Bjoergen was 0.3 seconds back to take the silver, and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland took the bronze, 1:05 back.

“It feels good to be No. 1,’’ said Kowalczyk, who won Poland’s first gold of these Games. “I don’t even remember the last 200 meters. But this is the Olympics, you must fight.’’

Bjoergen was looking to become the first woman to win four golds at the same Winter Olympics since speedskater Lidiya Skoblikova did it for the Soviet Union in 1964. The Norwegian won the individual sprint, 15k pursuit, and anchored Norway’s winning relay team in Vancouver, and looked headed for a win yesterday until Kowalczyk proved to have more energy toward the end.

It was Bjoergen’s fifth medal from five events - she skipped the team sprint - after taking bronze in the 10k freestyle race.

“She was just stronger than me today,’’ Bjoergen said of Kowalczyk. “But I get to take five medals with me home. I never would have thought that, and I’m incredibly satisfied.’’

After skiing in a group of about a dozen competitors for much of the event, Bjoergen and Kowalczyk made it a two-way race shortly after the 20k mark.

The Norwegian went up front and pulled away from everyone but Kowalczyk, who stayed within six seconds of Bjoergen before catching up to her as they left the ski stadium for the final 5-kilometer lap.

The Norwegian led for much of the last lap with Kowalczyk right behind, until the Pole tried to pull away with about 800 meters left. Bjoergen stayed close, however, and they entered the final straight together, matching each other with each push of the pole until Bjoergen faltered near the end.

For the first time in a 30k at the Olympics, the competitors were allowed to change skis during the race, with a maximum of three pit stops allowed. The format was first tried at the world championships last year.