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TORINO: XC: Rejuvenated Estonian Smigun wins women's pursuit

TORINO: XC: Rejuvenated Estonian Smigun wins women’s pursuit{mosimage}PRAGELATO, Italy – A Red Sea vacation, lots of pasta and plenty of cake may not sound like ideal preparation for a cross-country ski race. It worked for Kristina Smigun.

”For the past five years, I was always extremely good at the start of the season. This year, I changed everything,” she said. ”It was risky, but without taking risks, I wouldn’t be drinking champagne now.”

Smigun had plenty to celebrate Sunday after winning her first Olympic medal — and gold at that — by capturing the women’s double pursuit. The race is run in two halves, the first 7.5 kilometers in classic style, and after a ”pit stop” to change skis, another 7.5 kilometers in the freestyle or skating technique.

The 28-year-old Estonian surged past silver medalist Katerina Neumannova of the Czech Republic, winning in 42 minutes, 48.7 seconds — 1.9 seconds ahead of Neumannova. The two broke away from the pack in the final kilometers. Russia’s Evgenia Medvedeva-Abruzova got the bronze, 14.5 seconds behind.

World Cup leader and favorite Marit Bjorgen of Norway dropped out before the midway point of the race with a stomach problem.

The field was also without Salt Lake City gold medalist Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle of Germany, one of the skiers prohibited rom starting last week for high levels of hemoglobin.

Smigun decided to change her approach to the Olympic season after doing well in early races in past seasons, only to drop off when it mattered — at the decisive few races late in the season.

So, instead of competing on the World Cup circuit, Smigun went for a vacation in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheik in November, then skipped more races in January to concentrate on the Olympics.

”I feel now like it’s the beginning of the season and I feel very fresh and strong,” Smigun said.

”I think I was stupid in the past five years, and to do it again, it would not be very smart.”

”This medal is why I went through hell in training — it’s my childhood dream come true,” Smigun said.

One thing Smigun did not change was her diet. ”I eat a lot of pasta and a lot of sweets,” she said.

Smigun also attributed her victory to doing some work with Inge Braten, a Norwegian coach with the Swedish team.

”He’s very important for me, he’s like a psychologist for me. Every time I am feeling down, I call him up. I don’t know what my phone bill is,” she said.

”I was very messed up in Oberstdorf,” Smigun said of last year’s World Championships, where she failed to medal and did not finish the double pursuit. At the 2003 championships in Val di Fiemme, she won the pursuit and got two silver medals.

Smigun did everything right in Sunday’s race.

”I needed to be in the front. When you’re in a group of six or eight skiers, you can’t control the race. But when you’re first, you can do what you want.”

Coming into the home stretch, Smigun said she saw Neumannova’s red boots.

”When I passed her 300 meters before the finish, I knew the gold medal was mine,” Smigun said.

Smigun had been at the center of a doping scandal. In December 2001, she tested positive for an anabolic steroid following a World Cup race. But, in a strange twist, a second sample tested at a different lab in Germany came up negative and she was cleared to compete in the Salt Lake City Olympics, where she did not medal.

The World Anti-Doping Agency investigated the case and agency chairman Dick Pound later said the first lab that tested her sample didn’t realize she was a woman.

Dussault top American in 48th
Rebecca Dussault of Gunnison, Colorado, was the top American finisher in 48th.

Dussault crossed the finish line in 47:53.7, 5:05 behind Smigun. Lindsey Weier was 55th in 48:45.0, Abigail Larson 56th in 48:47.5 and Lindsay Williams 62nd in 50:49.7.

All four American women are competing in their first Olympics.

‘I love the course,” said Dussault. “The climbs are hard and the downhills are so fast. Most of the course I can make up time on, but the stadium laps just killed me. I love the race but I hang on by the skin of my teeth in the classic and I pour it on in the skate and I always make up places in the skate.’

‘The conditions were perfect and I had awesome skis,” said Weier. “The classic leg was awesome. I felt pretty good on that. I got a little tired on the second half of the skate. The course was hard but that’s what I expected. I felt like I was right in there during the classic portion. It’s a big climb but there is a lot of recovery on the other side.’

The next cross-country event for the women is the team sprint, set for Tuesday, Feb. 14 in Pragelato.

Cross-Country women’s pursuit

1. Kristina Smigun, Estonia, 42:48.7.
2. Katerina Neumannova, Czech Republic, 42:50.6.
3. Evgenia Medvedeva-Abruzova, Russia, 43:03.2.
4. Kristin Stormer Steira, Norway, 43:06.8.
5. Gabriella Paruzzi, Italy, 43:18.9.
6. Beckie Scott, Canada, 43:20.6.
7. Olga Savialova, Russia, 43:23.7.
8. Justyna Kowalczyk, Poland, 43:25.6.
9. Julija Tchepalova, Russia, 43:39.5.
10. Hilde G. Pedersen, Norway, 43:40.5.
11. Petra Majdic, Slovenia, 43:41.7.
12. Svetlana Malahova-Shishkina, Kazakhstan, 44:00.0.
13. Riitta Liisa Lassila, Finland, 44:06.1.
14. Valentina Shevchenko, Ukraine, 44:13.6.
15. Britta Norgren, Sweden, 44:18.0.
16. Sara Renner, Canada, 44:30.9.
17. Sabina Valbusa, Italy, 44:44.7.
18. Claudia Kuenzel, Germany, 44:48.1.
19. Kristin Murer Stemland, Norway, 44:59.2.
20. Karine Philippot, France, 45:06.5.
21. Chunli Wang, China, 45:09.6.
22. Antonella Confortola, Italy, 45:11.9.
23. Ivana Janeckova, Czech Republic, 45:33.5.
24. Natascia Leonardi Cortesi, Switzerland, 45:34.3.
25. Elena Kolomina, Kazakhstan, 45:44.1.
26. Vita Jakimchuk, Ukraine, 45:48.1.
27. Hongxue Li, China, 45:56.4.
28. Stefanie Boehler, Germany, 45:56.9.
29. Helena Balatkova Erbenova, Czech Republic, 45:57.0.
30. Sumiko Yokoyama, Japan, 45:58.6.
31. Elin Ek, Sweden, 46:02.7.
32. Yuanyuan Liu, China, 46:18.5.
33. Elina Hietamaki, Finland, 46:20.5.
34. Kirsi Valimaa, Finland, 46:25.6.
35. Masako Ishida, Japan, 46:37.7.
36. Arianna Follis, Italy, 46:40.9.
37. Elena Burukhina, Russia, 46:42.9.
38. Chizuru Soneta, Japan, 46:45.5.
39. Maja Benedicic, Slovenia, 46:51.1.
40. Kateryna Grygorenko, Ukraine, 46:55.2.
41. Oxana Jatskaja, Kazakhstan, 46:57.0.
42. Clare-Louise Brumley, Australia, 47:03.1.
43. Alena Sannikova, Belarus, 47:05.6.
44. Ludmila Korolik Shablouskaya, Belarus, 47:07.2.
45. Tatjana Zavalij, Ukraine, 47:18.7.
46. Alena Prochazkova, Slovakia, 47:45.2.
47. Anna Karin Stromstedt, Sweden, 47:51.3.
48. Rebecca Dussault, United States, 47:53.7.
49. Ekaterina Rudakova Bulauka, Belarus, 48:09.2.
50. Yevgeniya Voloshenko, Kazakhstan, 48:17.2.
51. Olga Vasiljonok, Belarus, 48:20.4.
52. Manuela Henkel, Germany, 48:21.8.
53. Irina Terentjeva, Lithuania, 48:33.7.
54. Milaine Theriault, Canada, 48:38.9.
55. Lindsey Weier, United States, 48:45.0.
56. Abby Larson, United States, 48:47.5.
57. Chae-Won Lee, South Korea, 49:01.2.
58. Yinghui Xu, China, 49:47.3.
59. Monika Gyorgy, Romania, 50:15.3.
60. Chandra Crawford, Canada, 50:35.4.
61. Laia Aubert Torrents, Spain, 50:41.3.
62. Lindsey Williams, United States, 50:49.7.
63. Laura Orgue, Spain, 51:16.5.
64. Maja Kezele, Croatia, 51:36.3.

Did not finish
NR. Marit Bjorgen, Norway, DNF.
NR. Kelime Aydin, Turkey, DNF.
NR. Branka Kuzeljevc, Serbia-Montenegro, DNF.

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