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    Tuesday, February 10, 1998

    Larissa Lazutina gains vindication with 5K win

     HAKUBA, Japan (AP) -- A year ago, cross-country skier Larissa Lazutina was a basket case, frustrated by a disappointing performance at the World Championship and conflicts with her Russian team. She came close to ending her career.
     Instead, she quit the Russian team. Now she's an Olympic champion.
     Lazutina finally won the Olympic gold that's been missing from her trophy collection, bursting from behind today to clinch the women's 5K classical race.
     She beat Katerina Neumannova of the Czech Republic by 4.8 seconds, while Bente Martinsen of Norway, the World Cup leader this season, won the bronze, 11.5 seconds behind Lazutina's time of 17 minutes, 37.9 seconds.
     The victory was vindication for Lazutina, who had won a silver in the opening 15K Sunday. After seeing her closest challengers fade in the home stretch today during a snowstorm, Lazutina buried her face in her hands and burst into tears.
     "No, I am sorry, but I can't tell you what I was thinking about," she said.
     A little later, she gave a hint: "It's my bad attitude that's helped me win."
     Lazutina has spent her career in the shadow of Yelena Vaelbe, her more famous teammate.
     Vaelbe, the most successful World Cup racer in history, swept all five gold medals at last year's world championships in Trondheim, Norway. But Vaelbe has a history of bombing at the Olympics, and it's beginning to look as if history may repeat itself. She was dropped from Russia's team for today's race after a disappointing 17th-place finish in the 15K.
     The two women were never friends. Lazutina believed Vaelbe was being favored by team officials, who in turn accused Lazutina of having a bad attitude.
     After failing to win an individual medal at the Trondheim worlds, Lazutina was on the verge of quitting. She had a long talk in the spring with Russian team managers and told them she could no longer practice with chief national coach Alexander Grushin, whose training methods she felt were designed for Vaelbe.
     So Lazutina was allowed to go her own way. She found a sponsor in the ranks of newly-rich Russian tycoons, and hired a personal coach.
     She's been smiling ever since.
     "I was in a pitiful state after Trondheim, I had decided I didn't want to work any more," she said. "But I was in great spirits this summer, I had great training and I believe this explains my good results."
     "This is the pinnacle of my career."
     Today's race also was the first leg of the pursuit competition. Lazutina's triumph means she will have a five-second advantage in the second leg on Thursday, when the skiers return for a 10K freestyle race.
     Vaelbe, who has been battling health problems all season, will also miss the pursuit and is unlikely to be selected for the relay. Her only chance of winning her first individual Olympic gold medal is likely to be in the 30K freestyle on Feb. 20.