Friday, February 20, 1998
Young Russian steals the showHAKUBA, Japan (AP) -- She's a young Russian rebel, fresh-faced and brash, punky with a half-dozen earrings in her right ear. At 21, she's also an Olympic champion.
Yulia Tchepalova won the grueling 30-kilometer freestyle race today, completing an unprecedented Olympic sweep of five cross country gold medals by the Russian women's cross-country team.
Racing through rain, Tchepalova beat Italian star Stefania Belmondo, the 1992 30K champion, who faded in the finish of the race, betrayed by a poor choice of wax and upstaged by the younger legs of the Russian.
"There was a time going up on a long uphill when I thought I wouldn't even make the podium," Tchepalova said. "On the last downhill they told me that there was a 9-second difference. My dad told me I could do it so I gave it everything."
Tchepalova's dad, Anatoly, is her coach, one of the men who wait at check points along the course, shout race times to their skiers and urge them to push ahead.
Belmondo, the 29-year-old, 102-pound winner in Albertville, seemed a strong prospect to make it three wins in a row for the Italians after Manuela Di Centa's triumph at Lillehammer four years ago.
But Tchepalova opened a 6.8-second lead with 3.7 kilometers to go. A newcomer to the powerful Russian team, she crossed the line in 1 hour, 22 minutes, 1.5 seconds, 10.2 seconds faster than Belmondo.
"When the snow became wet, I felt the skies were not gliding. I also fell and it was very difficult," said Belmondo, a freestyle specialist. "I really wanted to win because these are my last Olympics and I didn't do the 30 in Lillehammer," when the race was classical.
"When I saw the rain, it was a catastrophe. But it's not an excuse, Yulia was really the best," Belmondo said.
Russia's Larissa Lazutina won the bronze medal 1:14.2 behind to bring her tally for these Games to three golds, one silver and one bronze. She has medaled in every race. Adding her two relay golds in Albertville and Lillehammer, Lazutina now has a total of five golds.
At 32, Lazutina likely is approaching the end of her career. With Tchepalova around to lead a new generation of stars, Russia seems assured of continued dominance in women's cross-country racing.
Born in Siberia, perhaps an hour from Nagano by plane, Tchepalova lives in Moscow with her mother and older brother. She trains in Ramsau, Austria, with her father, who was the coach of the Russian junior team when she was a member.
She won her first World Cup race in January, but Tchepalova had to fight to gain a spot on the talent-laden Russian team. She was dropped from the 20K relay team, a decision that left her in tears.
"I got a bit cross, but then I thought, 'Who cares about the relay? I'll show them what I can do,"' she said.
Tchepalova then won a control race among four Russians to gain a place in the foursome for the 30K.
She and Lazutina are two mavericks on the Russian team who prefer not to train with coach Alexander Grushin. Lazutina split from the team a year ago, has a personal coach and trains mostly with the men's team.
"I heard him (Grushin) say that nobody achieved anything by leaving the team," Lazutina said. "I am glad that Yulia and I proved him wrong."