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Frenchman Pierre Vaultier won a thrilling Olympic men's snowboard cross final to clinch gold, less than two months after a knee injury almost ended his hopes of competing at Sochi 2014.
As many of the favourites toiled, Vaultier was in superb form throughout the competition, saving his best for the final. However, the Frenchman had to hold off a determined challenge from Russia’s Nikolay Olyunin – even more of a surprise package – who won silver.
USA’s Alex Deibold overtook France's Paul-Henri de le Rue right at the finish line to claim the bronze.
“I still haven’t landed”
The 26-year old, who became the first Frenchman to win Olympic gold in this discipline, came into the competition ranked the sixth in the world, and not widely expected to challenge for the podium. In fact, he wasn’t expected by many to be competing at all.
“I took off on the last jump and I still haven't landed,” said the boarder, who had defied the odds to recover from a cruciate injury suffered during a World Cup event at Lake Louise (CAN).
“First Frenchman or not, what’s happening to me is just incredible,” he added. “Fifteen days ago I was doing everything and working for this.”
Second seed Markus Schairer of Switzerland was wiped out in the last-16 and failed to finish, while top seed Alex Pullin of Australia and fourth seed Alessandro Haemmerle of Austria did not make it past the quarter-finals.
American fifth seed Trevor Jacob lost his balance on the final slope to the finish in the semi-final and was pipped to the podium by his team-mate Diebold.
All the while, Olyunin was majestic, wooing the home crowd as he won each of the three races in the build up to the final.
However, it was the Vaultier who had the last word in the final. Throughout the day, he had exuded the air of a boarder at ease with both himself and the course, and in the final stretch his burst of speed was too much for the rampaging Russian, as he capped a fairytale return to the Olympic stage.
Less pressure, more pleasure
As an 18 year old, Vaultier had participated in the debut of Snowboard cross on the slopes of Bardonecchia at Turin 2006, finishing a lowly 35th.
Four years on, and by now the world number one and FIS World Cup leader, he arrived at Vancouver 2010 as the hot favourite, only to suffer the disappointment of a quarter-final exit.
And then coming into Sochi 2014 he was a rank outsider, and he says that this unfamiliar role suited him perfectly.
“Being an outsider worked for me. I find it really hard to manage the kind of pressure you get in a big competition,” admitted Vaultier.
“Today, I had a lot less pressure and a lot more pleasure, and I was finally able to win. I didn’t get any more stressed than I would before a World Cup race, and I’ve won plenty of those.
“The only pressure I felt was really positive pressure. I performed as I can right from the first run, not like in Vancouver… Here, I managed to be myself and to express myself.”