Norway wins women's cross-country relay 

Norway won the women's cross-country relay Thursday after Marit Bjoergen quickly decided the race on the final leg for her third gold medal of the Vancouver Olympics.

Bjoergen and Italy's Sabina Valbusa went out together at the final exchange, but the Norwegian immediately pulled away from her only remaining rival and skied alone the rest of the way.

Entering the ski stadium with a massive lead, she had enough time to veer to the side to pick up a Norwegian flag and then ski down the final straight using just one pole. She did a small jump over the finish line before being mobbed by her teammates.

The Norwegian team of Vibeke Skofterud, Therese Johaug, Kristin Stoermer Steira and Bjoergen finished the 4x5-kilometer race in 55 minutes, 19.5 seconds as Norway won its first women's relay gold since 1984.

"Three of us have been around for a long time," said Bjoergen, referring to herself, Skofterud and Steira. "We deserve this."

Germany was second after Claudia Nystad beat Finland's Aino-Kaisa Saarinen in a two-way race for the silver. Finland took the bronze and Italy was fourth after Valbusa faded.

Bjoergen became the first triple gold winner in Vancouver after also winning the individual sprint and 30K pursuit. She's also the first to earn four medals overall.

This time, she can thank one of her main rivals for helping the Norwegians out.

World Cup leader Justyna Kowalczyk skied the second leg for an otherwise weak Polish team and quickly climbed from 10th to first, pulling the field apart with her furious pace as Germany and France both fell behind by nearly 30 seconds. Norway's Johaug and Italy's Marianna Longa were the only two who managed to stay in contact with the World Cup leader. Their replacements, Steira and Silvia Rupil, quickly pulled away from Poland's Paulina Maciuszek to make it a two-way race.

Although Rupil stayed with Steira until the final exchange, Valbusa could do nothing about Bjoergen.

The Norwegian pulled away from the start and had an 11-second lead midway through her first lap. That margin only grew as Germany ended up 24.6 seconds back, with Finland 30.4 behind.

After winning the women's relay at the 1984 Sarajevo Games, the Norwegians have won five silvers since then.

"I wasn't even thought of the last time Norway won gold in the relay," said the 21-year-old Johaug. "It can't get any better."

The Finns were a full 45 seconds behind after the first leg, before steadily gaining ground the rest of the way to earn the country's first cross-country medal of the games.

"This was an exciting race," Saarinen said. "I tried to fight for second place, but the Germans were a bit better. ... It was an amazing day, and anything can happen in the relay."

The 28-year-old Steira finally got to celebrate an Olympic medal after four previous individual fourth-place finishes — including losing a photo finish to Kowalczyk in the pursuit last week.

"My smile almost goes around my head," Steira said.

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