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    Sunday, February 8, 1998

    Russian surprises in winning 15K race

     HAKUBA, Japan (AP) -- It was no surprise that a member of Russia's strong cross-country team won the Olympic gold medal in the 15-kilometer classical race.
     But Olga Danilova?
     She had never finished better than third in six years on the World Cup circuit. After overcoming a difficult course for the Olympic victory Sunday, she could hardly believe it herself.
     "I am sorry, I am so excited I can't make a rational statement," she said through tears.
     "Right now, I'm still not aware that I'm the Olympic champion. I guess I need to spend some time alone to realize what I've done."
     What she did was surmount the rapidly changing conditions on what she called the most difficult course she had raced. She beat teammate Larissa Lazutina, one of the favorites, by 5.6 seconds. The bronze medal went to Anita Moen-Guidon of Norway.
     Russia's Yelena Vaelbe has been the dominant skier of the past decade, and she swept all five gold medals at last year's World Championship. But bothered by a cold for the past week, Vaelbe finished 17th, 2 1/2 minutes behind Danilova.
     Another favorite, Stefania Belmondo of Italy, finished eighth.
     Danilova began skiing when she was 12, and five years later joined the Soviet junior team. When she was 20, she decided to become a professional cross-country skier.
     Two years ago, Danilova gave birth to twin boys, Savily and Simeon. But 3 1/2 months later she was back on skis.
     Danilova lives in Alexandrovo, a small town near Moscow. She had been given an apartment and financial support by Rekord, a local radio and television factory, which went bust in Russia's post-communist days.
     Now, she trains with a local club and has the title of sports instructor.
     In Sunday's race, the Norwegians set the early pace on the challenging Snow Harp course, with its grueling climbs and steep downhills. But Danilova and Lazutina quickly caught up and pulled away.
     Danilova trailed Lazutina by 2.8 seconds at about the midway point, and gradually cut her lead to a half-second with 1.2 kilometers remaining.
     She completed the distance in 46 minutes, 55.4 seconds. Lazutina, who won relay golds at the last two Olympics, was 5.6 seconds behind and Moen-Guidon 57.2 seconds behind.
     The Norwegians fell victim to the choice of wax. They picked a stickier, warmer-snow wax, while the Russians went with a colder-snow wax. The race began in sunny weather, but clouds quickly gathered and the race finished just before a snow storm.