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updated: 2/15/2010 2:10 PM

Swede wins gold in women's 10K cross-country race

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WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Leaning on her poles and panting for breath after crossing the finish line, Charlotte Kalla needed a few moments to realize what it meant to see her name at the top of the scoreboard.

The title Olympic champion just seemed so unreal.

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"I feel a bit confused," said the 22-year-old Swede, who let a shout of joy when she realized what she'd accomplished. "It's going to take a while for this to sink in. ... I can't believe I'm a gold medalist."

The 22-year-old Kalla led from start to finish Monday to win the women's 10-kilometer freestyle race at the Vancouver Games for a gold medal in her first Olympic start.

It was a major breakthrough for the Swede -- who won the Tour de Ski on the World Cup circuit in 2008 but struggled at last year's world championships -- and just good enough to prevent a perfect comeback for Kristina Smigun-Vaehi.

The 32-year-old Estonian, who won two gold medals at the 2006 Turin Games before taking a 20-month break to become a mother, finished 6.6 seconds behind Kalla to take the silver medal. Marit Bjoergen of Norway won bronze, 15.9 seconds back.

"After my baby girl was born, I thought I'd never come back (to skiing), because I was so happy," Smigun-Vaehi said. "Now I'm here. ... It was a good decision."

The Estonian, who's 41st in the overall World Cup standings, said she geared her training toward Vancouver.

"I tried to copy what I did before Turin," she said. "But it was quite hard because I was so happy all the time."

Kalla led by more than 12 seconds with less than three kilometers to go in the interval-start race and had enough energy left to hold off Smigun-Vaehi's strong finish to win in 24 minutes, 58.4 seconds.

World Cup leader and double world champion Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland trailed from the start and finished fifth behind Anna Haag of Sweden.

"This course is not for me," said Kowalczyk, who has complained the Olympic track is too easy without a major uphill climb. "I'm very disappointed, not very happy."

The race had been widely expected to be a battle between Kalla, Kowalczyk and Bjoergen, the Norwegian veteran who again missed out on a gold medal -- she already has two silver medals from Turin and the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

"I didn't feel so good in the beginning, but better on the second lap," said Bjoergen, who was fifth at the 7.3K mark. "It's a good beginning. I dream about gold, so hopefully I can get a gold."

Caitlin Compton of Minneapolis came in 30th, nearly two minutes behind Kalla, for the best finish by an American in the event since Judy Rabinowitz placed 26th at the 1984 Games in Sarajevo.

Coming down the last hill into the ski stadium, Kalla nearly fell as she came around the final bend but managed to stay on her feet, and then sprinted against the clock to beat Smigun-Vaehi's time.

"I felt like I had good control in the final downhill, but I had quite tired legs right there," Kalla said. "I had time on the straightaway to think 'this isn't your ordinary World Cup race. But I tried to push those thoughts away as fast as possible."

The 10K freestyle is the Swede's best discipline by far, and she won a World Cup race in the same event in Canmore, Alberta, this month. It was the Olympic race, however, that's been on her mind the entire season.

"I was very nervous last evening," she said. "I've been preparing for this competition for so long."

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