Cross-country: Norway's Skari wins women's 10K

Tuesday, February 12th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIDWAY, Utah (AP) _ Bente Skari won Norway's first individual Olympic gold medal ever in women's cross-country skiing Tuesday, edging Olga Danilova of Russia by 2.5 seconds after a dramatic finish in the 10-kilometer classical style race.

The 29-year-old Norwegian finished the race, held under sunny skies on high-altitude trails of Soldier Hollow, in 28 minutes, 5.6 seconds.

Julija Tchepalova, another Russian, took the bronze, 4.3 seconds back.

Skari trailed both Danilova and Tchepalova with only a few kilometers left, but turned in a spectacular finish in the ski stadium.

``It's a big surprise,'' Skari said. ``I thought I was fighting for the silver medal until the finish line.''

At the 5.8-kilometer mark, Skari trailed leading Danilova by more than 15 seconds.

Skiing into the stadium, Skari's servicemen screamed that she was only four seconds behind.

``So it would have been very stupid not trying (for the gold),'' she said.

Danilova said she ran out of steam at the end.

``The last 1.5 kilometers were difficult for me. I just didn't have enough strength,'' she said.

Tchepalova, who is better known as a freestyle racer and who finished fourth in the opening 15K, finally established herself as a classical racer as well.

``It's a great achievement for me, especially in this classical style and especially in these Olympics. Today I wanted to overcome my fears of racing classical,'' Tchepalova said.

Skari won both classical style races in last year's World Championships in Lahti, Finland, and kept on dominating the most traditional style on the World Cup circuit this season.

She has swept all five classical style World Cup races this season.

Surprisingly, Norway had not won a single gold medal in women's cross-country since its debut in the 1952 Games in Oslo, despite being in the world's elite throughout the years.

The Norwegians had won three individual silver medals and two relay golds, in 1968 and 1984.

Skari was third in 5K classical in Nagano, Japan, four years ago, and also took a silver with the relay team.

She skipped Saturday's 15K freestyle race to focus on her stronger events. ``My skating is not so good,'' she said. But she will race in the combined pursuit, which pairs a 5K classical race, followed by a 5K freestyle race.

Skari's father, Odd Martinsen, won a gold medal for Norway at Grenoble in 1968 as part of a 4x10K relay, but he never won an individual gold.

Asked what she would tell him, Skari, 29, quipped with a laugh: ``I will tell him that I am a lot better than him.''

Martinsen, who works for the International Ski Federation, watched the race at Soldier Hollow.

``The finish was just unbelievable,'' he said.

Skari's triumph Tuesday prevented a Russian sweep.

Larissa Lazutina, who won the silver medal in the opening 15K freestyle, finished fourth. Stefania Belmondo of Italy, the 15K gold medalist, was fifth.

This was Norway's third gold medal in these games. Kari Traa won the women's moguls Saturday and Ole Einar Bjoerndalen prevailed in the men's 20K biathlon opener Monday.