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Bjoergen leads Norway sweep in 30K cross-country

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — If this was Marit Bjoergen's last Olympic race, she couldn't have scripted a better finish.

A sixth gold, two teammates on either side of the podium, and no one above her in the history of the Winter Games. Bjoergen became the most decorated female Winter Olympian in history Saturday by leading a Norwegian sweep in the women's 30-kilometer cross-country ski race at the Sochi Games. It was her third gold of these Olympics and 10th medal overall — putting her ahead of Russian cross-country skier Lyubov Egorova, who had six golds and three silvers.

Being surrounded by her teammates — silver medalist Therese Johaug and bronze-winner Kristin Stoermer Steira — seemed to mean more to Bjoergen than her own record. "It's an incredible day for our team," said Bjoergen, who also won three golds in Vancouver four years ago. "When I'm finished skiing I can think about how many medals I have. But right now it doesn't mean much."

This may well have been her farewell to the sport's biggest stage, though. The 33-year-old Bjoergen said she'll make a decision after next year's world championships about whether to continue skiing, but doubted that she'll be in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.

"Four years is a long time, and I'm not getting younger," Bjoergen said. "I'm also thinking about having a family. I don't want to do this at 90 percent." Bjoergen's total medal haul is six golds, three silvers and a bronze. She also has 12 world championship gold medals. Two other women — Stafania Belmondo of Italy and Soviet skier Raisa Smetanina — also have 10 Olympic medals in cross-country, but fewer golds. Soviet speedskater Lidia Skoblikova had six golds, but no other medals.

The Norwegian women finally displayed their dominance of the sport as Bjoergen, Johaug and Steira pulled away after the 10K mark and then built a gap of over a minute to the rest of the field. Steira had to drop back on the final uphill climb and Bjoergen then pulled away from Johaug heading into the stadium and sprinted alone toward the finish.

"I knew that I am stronger than them in the sprints, so I was waiting for them to attack on the last climb," Bjoergen said. "Therese upped her speed and I just followed her, then I passed her." Bjoergen, who also won the opening 15K skiathlon and team sprint in Sochi, finished in 1 hour, 11 minutes, 5.2 seconds, with Johaug 2.6 seconds behind and Steira 23.6 back.

Johaug also finished second to Bjoergen in the 15K skiathlon at last year's worlds, but insisted she's not getting frustrated by her teammate's superiority. "Marit is a fantastic skier and I really look up to her, and I've done so since I was 10 years," the 25-year-old Johaug said. "She's a really good friend."

It was a perfect finish for the Norwegian team after the women's relay last weekend, when the heavily favored team finished fifth. The team blamed that result — and the men's fourth-place finish a day later — on having failed to find the right wax setup for the skis in the warm weather conditions. It led to a mini-crisis for the ski-crazed nation — until Bjoergen led Norway to gold in the team sprint on Wednesday.

"We weren't that good in the relay so we showed today that we are the best," Bjoergen said. It was clear from Saturday's race that the team now has sorted out the waxing problem — especially since all three medalists opted not to change skis to a freshly waxed pair at either the 10K or 20K mark.

That helped build the initial gap as many of their closest rivals did change after 10K, but they all quickly fell further behind the Norwegians despite having a fresh pair. Charlotte Kalla, who led Sweden to gold in the relay and won two individual silvers in Sochi, ran out of energy shortly after the 10K mark and finished 34th, more than five minutes behind.

Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, who won the 10K classical race despite skiing with a foot fracture, pulled out around the halfway mark when she was more than 30 seconds back. For Steira, it was her first individual Olympic medal after four fourth-place finishes at previous games.

"Finally," she said. "I've tried so many times and finally I succeed and get a medal. I don't think words can explain. Right now I'm smiling ... but when I crossed the finish line, I felt emotional."

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