KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — After a season blighted by an ankle injury, Dario Cologna is finally having his day in the sun.
Wearing short sleeves and sunglasses in the spring-like weather, the Swiss cross-country skier won his second gold medal of the Sochi Olympics on Friday with a dominant performance in the 15-kilometer classical-style race.
Cologna is a three-time overall World Cup winner, but had ankle surgery in November and only returned to competition in January.
“It’s amazing. I couldn’t believe the first gold medal, after being injured, and now the second,” Cologna said. “The first gold was emotional after coming back from injury, the second is unbelievable.”
Cologna also won the opening 30-kilometer skiathlon race on Sunday, but had a disappointing freestyle sprint where he fell twice in his quarterfinal and was knocked out. On Friday, no one could match his speed over the last half of the race and he beat silver-medalist Johan Olsson of Sweden by 28.5 seconds.
Another Swede, Daniel Richardsson, took bronze after his strong finish put him 0.2 seconds ahead of Iivo Niskanen of Finland — to the delight of Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia, who were in attendance.
It made for a podium that few would have expected just a couple of months ago.
Olsson is the reigning 50K world champion but hadn’t competed since mid-December because of an illness and rib injury, and said he nearly gave up hope in January of making it to Sochi.
Richardsson, who like Olsson won gold in the relay in Vancouver in 2010, had an even tougher time getting here. The Swede was involved in a traffic accident last July that killed one of his close friends. The two were changing a tire on a road in Sweden when another vehicle struck them both. Richardsson escaped with a serious knee injury, but needed months of rehab to get back to skiing.
“It’s been a really tough road for me,” Richardsson said. “But at the same time, it was a form of therapy for me to put in all that hard work. ... Sports became my salvation.”
Olsson said he was even happier for Richardsson’s medal than his own.
“He really deserves it,” Olsson said.
Cologna started 30 seconds behind Olsson but caught the Swede before coming into the stadium, and the two were side-by-side on the final straight.
“I knew if I will catch him, it would probably be enough for the gold medal,” Cologna said.
The temperature at the start was slightly cooler than in Thursday’s women’s 10K race at 10 C (50 F), but still much warmer than what the skiers are used to.
Cologna was far from alone in going with short sleeves, with Norway’s Chris Andre Jespersen even modifying his suit by cutting off the pants halfway down his thigh.
German veteran Alex Teichmann finished eighth, but was among those who wasn’t happy with the weather.
“I became a winter athlete to do my sport in winter, not in summer,” Teichmann said. “That was definitely the warmest race of my career.”
Cologna, who also won the 15K freestyle in Vancouver, was a bit more diplomatic.
“You have to be prepared for every condition,” he said. “It was very tough today, but I think it’s not a big surprise that it would be warm here in Sochi.”
Overall World Cup leader Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway had a disappointing race, finishing 1:37.7 behind the winner.
The 22-year-old Niskanen was surprisingly in the lead early in the race and then second just behind Cologna at the 8K mark, but he faded toward the end and just missed out on a medal. The Finn has competed only once on the World Cup this season, finishing eighth in a 15K race in Italy two weeks ago. He won the under-23 world championship title in the discipline in January.
Richardsson said he was given reports by his coaches that he was gaining time on Niskanen, and coming up to the final uphill section he was only five seconds behind.
“Then all I could do was sprint and hope for the best,” Richardsson said. “I heard that Iivo was really tired at the end, and that was the thing that improved my own power.”
Norway dropped Petter Northug for the race after the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Vancouver struggled in the opening two men’s races. Russia, meanwhile, surprisingly dropped both Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin, who had been seen as the country’s top medal candidates.
The way Cologna is skiing, though, it’s unlikely anyone would have caught him.
“For me, it was just a perfect race,” he said.