Italian cross-country skier Manuela Di Centa was considered an Olympic veteran by the time she began her preparations for Lillehammer in 1994.
She had made her debut at the Calgary Games in 1988 and returned in 1992, where she had won bronze as part of the 4 x 5km relay team. However, she had to wait until 1994, her third Games to land her first individual medal, and she did so in the face of some hardship as she had to content with thyroid problems. Previously, the nearest Di Centa had come to the podium in an individual event was sixth place in both 1988 and 1992.
By the time she arrived in Lillehammer, Di Centa had recovered from illness and seemed in confident mood. At the age of 31, it appeared that she had reached her prime and she was handed an early chance to show it, in the women’s 15km.
On paper, it looked set to be a close race. In reality, Di Centa set off at a rapid pace that nobody else could match.
She led by 5.5 seconds at the first split, then 38 seconds at the halfway mark. From there, winning gold was remarkably easy the Italian, who crossed the line more than a minute clear of the field. At last, she had the gold medal she had always craved.
One medal led to another. A silver followed in the 5km, then another in the pursuit. When she won bronze in the 4 x 5km relay, the athlete who had once been a symbol for near misses now boasted a record of four medals from four events. And there was a fifth event, the 30km, still to come. Eleven days after her first success, Di Centa went off just as quickly as she had in that first race. She led by a comfortable 2.5-second margin at the first checkpoint, then 18 secs at the second. The advantage stretched to 30 secs, allowing her to slow in the closing stages and still win easily ahead of Norway’s Marit Wold-Mikkelsplass.Five events, five medals. Four years later, Di Centa won a relay gold in Nagano at the age of 35. She later became a member of the Italian Olympic Committee and helped to organise the 2006 Games in Turin.