Nicola Spirig wins in photo finish

LONDON -- After two hours of lung-bursting effort, the clock couldn't separate Nicola Spirig and Lisa Norden in the women's triathlon at the Olympics on Saturday.

Following a grueling race through Hyde Park -- a 1,500-meter swim, a 43-kilometer (26.7-mile) bike ride and a 10-kilometer run -- Switzerland's Spirig won the gold in a photo finish.

Both women recorded the same time: 1 hour, 59 minutes, 48 seconds.

Spirig held off a late charge by the surging Swede through the final few meters in one of the best triathlon finishes ever. The Swiss runner thrust out her hips and upper body to win as the pair broke the tape together.

"Crossing the finish line, I had a feeling that I had won, but I wasn't sure," Spirig said. "I needed an official to tell me and it took a few minutes."

Both athletes celebrated -- but only after they'd fallen to the ground in exhaustion, alongside bronze medalist Erin Densham of Australia.

After the initial uncertainty -- and a few minutes of high drama -- Spirig was declared the winner by the tiniest of margins. It was Switzerland's first medal at the London Games.

"We tried to put on a good show for you guys," Norden said to reporters. "Nicola is an incredible sprinter, I've never been that close to her. I was surprised to find some energy still in my body and I pushed it all the way. I was close, but not quite."

Spirig initially pulled away from the other two with about 50 meters to go.

But Norden found an extra bit of fight. Grimacing, she chased down her opponent in the final few steps of a near 55-kilometer battle and only just missed stealing the Olympic title.

In swimming, competitors share a medal if they have the same time. Not in triathlon, where -- like track -- the photo finish decides the winner.

"I think that would have been a great idea," silver medalist Norden said when asked if they should have shared gold.

Sarah Groff of the United States was fourth in 2 hours flat, reigning world champion and home favorite Helen Jenkins of Britain faded to finish fifth, and top-ranked triathlete Andrea Hewitt of New Zealand was sixth.

The drama played out on a course through the famous park in central London, where thousands of spectators lined the route to cheer on the athletes. Fans didn't need tickets.

"It was a great race -- a hard and strong race as well," Densham said. "The crowd was just incredible. It was deafening ... but really good, and they surged us on."

Spirig said her ears were left "ringing" from the crowd noise.

"It was like after listening to really loud music," she said.

Spirig was always in contention after the swim, where she emerged 18th. She soon found her way to the front during the bike ride and stayed in the leading pack through the run.

After an overnight rain, some of the competitors struggled on the bike with a string of crashes on the slick track that wound through the park and then took the field briefly out of the park past Buckingham Palace.

Norden was second to Germany's Anja Dittmer at the final transition from bike to run. But Spirig was hovering close behind in fourth.

Through the final part of the run, Spirig, Norden, Densham, Jenkins, Groff and Hewitt formed a breakaway group.

Over the last 200 meters, Spirig pushed ahead, dropping Jenkins, Groff and Hewitt. But her Australian and Swedish challengers stubbornly stayed with her.

The No. 4-ranked Swiss kicked again about 50 meters out, leaving Densham behind this time and apparently Norden as well. But the Swede never gave up, roared back and forced the desperate Spirig to fight all the way to the line for the biggest moment of her career.

"Athletically, as an athlete, this is the highest I can reach," Spirig said.