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Finland's Lajunen on pace for Nordic gold

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Friday, February 22, 2002
Lajunen wins sprint, sweeps Nordic medals

Associated Press

MIDWAY, Utah -- As much as he'd rather avoid the subject, Samppa Lajunen's run toward Olympic gold began last April, when the great Bjarte Engen Vik of Norway suddenly announced his retirement.

With Vik out of the picture, there was no one to stop Lajunen from running the table at the Salt Lake City Games.

The 22-year-old Finn completed a sweep of the three Nordic combined events Friday by winning the gold medal in the sprint, fulfilling the potential he showed when he won his first World Cup event at age 17.

"That was the year when I was surprised. Now I'm not," he said.

After leading Thursday's ski-jumping competition on the big hill at Olympic Park, Lajunen began the 7.5-kilometer cross-country race at Soldier Hollow 15 seconds ahead of Germany's Ronny Ackermann. Lajunen maintained the cushion and finished in 16 minutes, 40.1 seconds -- nine seconds ahead of Ackermann.

Felix Gottwald of Austria moved up eight spots to take the bronze.

Todd Lodwick started 12th but finished fifth, the best showing ever by an American in the sport. The previous best was Lodwick's seventh place in the individual competition on Feb. 10.

"To be recognized as one of the best in the world is great," Lodwick said, but added: "I would have loved to have had a medal and put Nordic combined in the history books with my name beside it."

Among the other Americans, Bill Demong finished 14th and Steamboat Springs' Johnny Spillane 32nd. Matt Dayton of Breckenridge, Colo. finished 36th.

Lajunen won silver in both Nordic combined events four years ago, losing to Vik and his stunningly long jumps. Vik won two world titles last year, then announced his retirement less than two months later, at age 30. "I lack the motivation to continue," Vik said.

Lajunen certainly was motivated at these games. He won the individual race by 24.7 seconds, and the margin would have been larger had he not stayed with teammate Jaakko Tallus, urging him to the silver. Six days later, Lajunen anchored the winning team in the relay.

"He was waiting for his first gold medal quite long, and he was working very hard," Gottwald said. "Three times gold is amazing."

Gottwald, ranked No. 1 in the world this season, said Vik's retirement opened the door for several competitors, but Lajunen is the one who burst through.

"Bjarte retired because maybe he thought his time was come," Gottwald said. "He won everything, and of course Samppa was very motivated. You just work hard and wait for the day you think is yours."

His victory in the sprint, which made its debut at these games, made Lajunen the first Finnish athlete to win three golds at one Olympics since ski-jumper Matti Nykanen in 1988.

Lajunen, who dyed his blond hair powder blue for the Olympics but let his teammates shave his head the night before his last race, became a bit defensive when asked whether Vik's departure established him as the Olympic favorite.

"You are looking too much just at Olympic races," he said. "You have to take a wider look at all competitions. It has been very difficult to win competitions. You have to jump very, very well and after that you have to ski the best skiing times of all if you want to win competitions."

Lodwick began 56 seconds behind the leader but just five seconds behind Gottwald. Knowing Gottwald is an exceptional skier, Lodwick stayed with him for most of the race, and even moved all the way up to third at one point before Gottwald passed him on the first hill of the final lap.

Lodwick held fourth until the final kilometer, when he was overtaken by Tallus.