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China’s Chi Chunxue was jumping and screaming, her eyes glued to the screen that showed the progression of the cross-country ladies’ 5km free race as she waited for the last competitor to cross the line at Birkebeineren Cross-Country Stadium. Having started second of the 40 athletes, Chi’s hopes solidified as athlete after athlete walked off the field of play without being able to best her time of 13 minutes, 29.9 seconds. But just when the Chinese thought she had it in the bag, Russia’s Maya Yakunina, who had started in 39th position, finished the race in 12:58.8.
“I was really hoping that I was winning gold, so when the Russian athlete beat me I felt very sad. I was getting very excited, so then I felt a bit bad.” Chi said she felt happy for Yakunina, because “she really is an awesome athlete. As much as I feel regret for not winning gold, I feel happy for her. Everyone wants to win gold, but you have to strive and really work hard for it. If I had performed better today I would have won gold. She won because she prepared very hard.”
Long-distance specialist Yakunina was proud of her first Olympic medal. “I feel wonderful. It was a great result and a great race. This is what I wanted to achieve.” And added, “I don't want to stop now, but want to get a real adult Olympic gold medal.” The demanding course, which featured a number of tough hills, “was not an easy one,” Yakunina said. “I tried not to think about the medal. I just wanted to do my best on the course and see what the result would be.”
China's Chi Chunxue competes in the ladies' 5km free race at Birkebeineren Cross-Country Stadium. Photo: YIS / IOC Jon Buckle
Like gold medallist Yakunina and bronze medallist Rebecca Immonen, of Finland, this was the first podium for the Chinese athlete at the Lillehammer Games. It was also China’s first cross-country medal at an Olympic level. Sweden’s Johanna Hagstroem missed her chance for a third medal of Lillehammer 2016, finishing fourth with a gap of 40.7 seconds.
The Chinese skier will leave Norway with some hard-won knowledge. “I learnt that, no matter what you arrive in a race, you don’t have to give up,” she said, before adding that “the Games have been a lot of fun. Meeting athletes from other countries widened my perspective. Here I met so many excellent athletes and this will inspire me to work even harder in the future.”
Rebecca Immonen (13:35.9), who declared the track “tough, especially the second-last uphill,” could not believe her achievement. “It is unbelievable that I won bronze. Before every race I think maybe I can win. But of course I think it, but then I can’t believe I really can do it,” she said. “This means so much to me.”
Written by YIS / IOC Emma Lupano with Kim Joo-Hyun and IOC Young Reporter Jerick Sablan
Emma Lupano is a reporter for the Lillehammer Youth Information Service ‘YIS’. Milan-based Emma has worked at the last five Olympic Games and also covered the Innsbruck 2012 and Nanjing 2014 YOGs. A China specialist, she has worked as a freelance journalist from Beijing for four years.