Italy's Belmondo Wins First Gold of the Games

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Midway, Utah Feb. 9, 2002 (AP by Mark Long)--Stefania Belmondo of Italy won the first gold medal of the Winter Olympics on Saturday, taking the women's 15-kilometer freestyle cross-country race in 39 minutes, 54.4 seconds.

Larissa Lazutina of Russia took the silver in 39:56.2 and Katerina Neumannova of the Czech Republic won the bronze in 40:01.3.

Making her fifth appearance in the Winter Games, Belmondo won her second gold medal and eighth overall medal.

It was a perfect start to her final Olympics. She has said the Salt Lake Games will be her last.

The race provided a frantic finish. Lazutina and Belmondo broke away from the lead pack during a steep climb about 1.5 kilometers from the finish.

Lazutina charged ahead and entered the home stretch in first place, but Belmondo broke inside and sprinted past her in the final 100 meters. As she crossed the finish line, Belmondo screamed loudly, kissed her right hand twice and pointed to the sky.

Salt Lake City is where she claimed her first World Cup victory in 1989, winning a 15 kilometer freestyle event as a junior.

It was a sign of things to come.

In 1992, she won three Olympic medals _ taking home gold in the 30 kilometer freestyle, silver in the pursuit and bronze in the 5 kilometer relay. In doing so, she became the first Italian woman to win an Olympic cross-country skiing medal.

She won two medals at the 1994 Games. She won a silver in the 30 kilometer freestyle and anchored Italy to bronze in the 5 kilometer relay for the third consecutive games.

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