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SNOWBASIN, Utah (AP) _ After a season of sorrow in which French skiers buried one of their own, the team had a chance to celebrate a surprising victory.

Carole Montillet captured the women's Olympic downhill on Tuesday despite never having won a downhill on the World Cup circuit. She became the first French woman to win the Olympic gold in the downhill.

Her victory came 15 weeks after French team leader Regine Cavagnoud was killed in a collision on the slopes during training in Austria.

``Of course, it was very difficult for the French team, particularly for me. I had a very difficult time this winter,'' Montillet said. ``Today was a very liberating day for me. Regine is gone. So life goes on.''

Montillet, who carried her nation's flag at the opening ceremony last Friday, seemed shocked as skier after skier failed to better her time.

Montillet, starting 11th, finished in 1 minute, 39.56 seconds. She then watched as the prerace favorites failed to match her time in a race that was postponed by strong wind Monday and delayed for two hours Tuesday.

First up was Germany's Hilde Gerg, whose body bobbed up and down on the crunchy snow. Next was Italy's Isolde Kostner, who won silver in 1:40.01. Then Austria's Renate Goetschl, who took the bronze.

Ten racers later came Austria's Michaela Dorfmeister, whose coaches had picked a late starting spot in hopes the course would become quicker as the snow melted and then became icy. They guessed wrong.

She was followed by Picabo Street, in the final race of her incomparable career. The snow was turning to slush by that point, and Street could do no better than 16th.

This has been a trying time for the French team. Even triumph can lead to a sense of guilt.

When French slalomer Laure Pequegnot celebrated a World Cup victory in November, three weeks after Cavagnoud's death, she almost defensively explained, ``I think Regine would not want us to cry all the time.''

Montillet and Cavagnoud were rivals, never friends. But they had been teammates for a decade, and Cavagnoud's death devastated the entire squad.

As the season went on, Montillet began to feel everything she did was overshadowed by her compatriot's death.

``I'd really reached a point where I was completely fed up. Whatever I did, ever since she died, a reference was always made to Regine's accident,'' Montillet said. ``I was beginning to feel I had lost my own identity.''

For a few days before the Olympics, Montillet left the World Cup circuit and headed to San Diego with her boyfriend. She told friends she needed to get away from the repeated questions about Cavagnoud.

``I didn't want to be unhappy at the Olympics,'' Montillet said. ``I gave myself a kick in my rear end and my coach certainly helped me. It was just impossible to be here and not take advantage of this great opportunity.''

Even the unflappable Street said she could not have dealt with the pressure faced by Montillet.

``I cannot imagine having to ski losing any one of my teammates,'' Street said. ``I don't know if I could have done it, to be honest.''

Montillet became the first French woman to capture an Olympic title in an Alpine skiing event since 1968, when Marielle Goitschel won the slalom.

``She skied the downhill of the century. She quite simply skied to perfection,'' Goitschel told the French daily Le Parisien. ``I've been waiting 34 years for a Frenchwoman to succeed me in the list of Olympic winners, and now it's happened.''

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin issued a statement congratulating Montillet for displaying ``the strength of great champions of legend, who are capable of surpassing themselves on D-day.''

Montillet's boyfriend, Olivier Carle, watched the race in their hometown of Villard-de-Lans, where celebrations lasted throughout the night.

``It was incredible. My legs were shaking, my hair was unbelievably on end, and I smoked cigarette after cigarette,'' Carle told France Info radio. ``Honestly, I wasn't expecting it.''