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Italian cross country skiing great, Stefania Belmondo, was making her final appearance at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, and she was keen to sign off in grand style. The 33-year-old had made her Olympic debut some 14 years earlier as a teenager in Calgary and had gone on to win seven medals from her four Olympics to date.
Known as “the Tiny Tornado”, due to her diminutive height, Belmondo combined natural talent with a determination and grit that had become the stuff of legends. At her peak, she would ski some 10,000km a year in training. Her stamina stood her in good stead and, once again, she was entered into five events in Salt Lake City.
Belmondo’s most successful Games to date had been Albertville 1992, when she won three medals – two in the individual events and one as part of the Italian relay team.
This time around, she started with the 15km, an event in which she had been crowned world champion three years earlier. Russia’s Yulia Chepalova established an early lead and remained at the front for the first half of the race. However, Belmondo stayed just behind her and then made her move with about 6km left.
The Italian was pulling away comfortably when, with 4.5km still to ski, her right pole snapped. Hindered hugely, she slowed down and slipped down the field to 10th place, some nine seconds behind the leaders.
Help, though, came in the shape of a French official, who reached out to the distraught Belmondo and gave her one of his own ski poles. It was a kind gesture, but the pole was too long and she still couldn't make up her time. Another 500m along the course, she was given a proper replacement pole by an Italian coach, enabling her to rediscover her earlier speed.
Now fired by a sense of injustice, the Tiny Tornado set about reclaiming her lead. She powered her way through the field finally overtaking the leader, Larisa Lazutina, to win by 1.8 seconds.
She followed up that victory with a silver medal in the 30km and a bronze in the 10km, meaning that she had matched her “full house” of medals from a decade earlier. She retired from the sport as only the second woman in history to win 10 medals at the Winter Games.