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It's Another Triumph for the Home Team : Cross-country skiing: Alsgaard upstages more famous teammates with victory as Norwegians finish 1-2 in 30K race.

February 15, 1994|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

LILLEHAMMER, Norway — Monday was Norge Day at the Birkebeineren ski stadium, just as many had hoped it would be, in the 30-kilometer men's freestyle cross-country ski race.

It also was well below zero. But the sun was out. So naturally, the place went nuts. Bands played. Flags waved. People cheered. One side of the jammed stadium sang, "Heia, Norge! Heia, Norge! Ole! Ole! Ole!" Then the other side sang it. And that was before anyone had started skiing.

Then, a couple of hours later, when Bjorn Daehlie, one of the stars in the Norwegian constellation, strained across the finish line, bumping Finland's Mika Myllylae out of the lead before collapsing face-first in the snow, the place went nuts again.

And when Thomas Alsgaard, another Viking, steamed across moments later, to chants of "Oy! Oy! Oy!" surprisingly knocking Daehlie out of the lead, well, it was Mt. St. Helens East.

That gave Norway the gold and the silver--Myllylae took the bronze--and the only thing better would have been a sweep. Small matter to the hardy Norwegians, who weren't about to let either a missing bronze medal or a little chill spoil their day.

The stand-up stadium was filled with 31,000, and officials estimated that at least that many more, watching free, lined the course. There were tents and camp stoves out there, indicating that some of them had spent the night, and skier after skier remarked about how the exuberant fans had urged him on.

Alsgaard, 22, a power skier who had never won an international race, made the most of the moment, moving into the lead after the first seven meters, holding it the rest of the way and finishing in 1 hour 12 minutes 26.4 seconds.

He was at a loss to explain his victory, though. "I don't know," he said, when asked how he had won. "To be sure, I don't know. I never expected it. I had a little hope for maybe a bronze but I never thought of gold."

He finally realized that he might win, he said, with about seven kilometers left.

"The crowd began to sing and I started to think of the gold medal," he said. "Then I tried to ski faster."

Asked about beating his more celebrated teammate, Daehlie, winner of three golds and a silver two years ago at Albertville, France, Alsgaard said: "I'm afraid of what he's going to do to me tonight. Maybe beat me up."

Instead, Daehlie, 26, paid tribute to his young teammate.

"I thought my race was a super race," he said. "On the uphills, I was skiing as fast as I've ever gone, and he still beat me.

"Before the race, I didn't think of Thomas as the favorite. I thought more of (Vladimir) Smirnov (of Kazakhstan, winner of five of six World Cup races this season). I know Thomas is quite good, but I was a bit surprised he was so fast in the middle of the race."

Smirnov finished 10th, and Vegard Ulvang, another of the Norwegian stars, skipped this race because he does not ski the skating freestyle technique as well as he does the classical style, where each ski is in a track.

Alsgaard said he hadn't felt the cold during the race. "But afterward, my chest hurt," he said. "I don't think racing in such cold conditions is good for the body."

In fact, there was talk beforehand of postponing it until a balmier day. By then, though, fans had begun to arrive at the stadium and the course walkers were already lining the track. Norwegians tend to be somewhat reserved everywhere but at ski races, and depriving them of this day in the sun might not have been a wise decision. "There is nothing to prepare you for crowds like this," American skier Carl Swenson said. "I was really tired out there, but they made me feel better. I was psyched by the crowd."

As usual, U.S. skiers did not fare particularly well by international standards. Luke Bodensteiner of West Bend, Wis., was the first American, finishing 36th in 1:20:13.0.

John Aalberg of Salt Lake City, a native Norwegian who became an American citizen before the Albertville Games, was 44th. Swenson, of North Conway, N.H., was 46th, and Marcus Nash of Fryeburg, Me., was 66th among 72 finishers.

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