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U.S. finishes near the back in men's cross-country relay

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Posted: Thursday, February 25, 2010 4:03 am | Updated: 1:24 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

• For complete Olympics coverage, visit our Olympics page.

• Matias Saari is in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games. Get the Alaska perspective here.

WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK — Sweden’s Marcus Hellner was simply too strong in the anchor leg.

Norway’s Petter Northug made a heroic charge but inherited too big of a deficit.

The Czechs were the surprise of the day.

The German and Canadians had hoped for more.

The Italians, despite their history, were never a factor.

The Americans managed to avoid last place.

And the Slovakians, with two connections to the Alaska Nanooks, were happy just to participate.

Those were some of the stories Wednesday from the glamour event of the cross country ski competition, the men’s 4X10-kilometer relay.

The first big development came amid heavily falling snow on the second classic leg, when Norway’s Odd-Bjoern Hjelmeset fell 34 seconds behind Sweden’s Johan Olsson.

“We hoped that we could get away from Norway, that was our biggest goal today,” Olsson said.

Once that was achieved, Sweden’s primary competition became France and the Czech Republic for the final two skating legs. And when Hellner attacked on a hill about midway through his 10 kilometers, he opened up an insurmountable advantage. Hellner coasted through the stadium, grabbed a Swedish flag from a fan and still won Sweden’s first gold in the event since 1988 by 16 seconds with a total time of 1 hour, 45 minutes and 5 seconds.

“I was very happy that I got the gap. I was enjoying the moment,” Hellner said, adding that he knew the 37-second lead on Northug for the final leg would be enough.

Norway had intended to be among the leaders the entire way, but Hjelmeset put them in catch-up mode.

“I (messed) up today,” Hjelmeset said in a post-race press conference.

Hjelmeset indicated he had trouble with slow skis in the tricky conditions: falling snow and a temperature near freezing. The Czechs’ Lucas Bauer guessed 90 percent of the classic skiers went with “hairies,” which have a scuffed kick zone but no wax.

But when asked whether the problem was his skis, body or both, Hjelmeset joked that it was “too much porn” because he’s been kept awake by late-night noises from the room next door to his. It’s occupied by Northug.

Northug — despite any alleged amorous activity — certainly had plenty of energy. Considered the best all-around skier in the world, he added another chapter to his legend by making up more than 30 seconds on Czech Martin Koukal and Frenchman Emmanuel Jonnier, then easily outsprinted them at the end.

“On the second (of three laps) I knew, ‘Now it’s the time to push if you want the podium,’” Northug said. “We have to be happy with silver.”

The Czechs, keyed by a second-leg surge from Bauer, were elated with bronze — their first team medal in 22 years — while France settled for fourth.

Germany, one of the favorites, was unhappy with sixth (44 seconds back) while Canada took seventh — almost two minutes behind.

“I am very disappointed. I tried everything,” German anchor Tobias Angerer said.

Canada entered as potential medal contenders after its four skiers all were among the top 16 in Saturday’s 30K pursuit. But its classic skiers — Devon Kershaw, who was fatigued after his third race in five days, and Alex Harvey, who pushed hard early but faded — dug a 52-second hole.

“We felt strong coming in, but we didn’t ski as well as we hoped for,” Harvey said.

Still, they did better than the Italians, who had two golds and three silvers in the previous five Olympic relays but were never a factor Wednesday.

Near the back of the 14-team pack were the Slovakians and Americans.

The Slovakians are coached by Peter Barton, who spent 2002-04 as a UAF skiing assistant under Bill McDonnell. Also, Michal Malak — who was a Nanook for one season about a decade ago — skied the third leg and held his team’s rank. Slovakia started strong with its ace Martin Bajcicak but wound up 12th overall.

“We only have four decent guys in Slovakia. We are glad we actually did the relay with them. Many teams, they need like five or six (guys) to put together a team,” Barton said.

The U.S. had a sprinter-dominated team and quickly fell back after the classic legs from Andy Newell and Torin Koos. Garrott Kuzzy of Wisconsin was third in line and tagged Simeon Hamilton of Colorado for the final skating leg, which he started one second behind Kaspar Kokk of Estonia.

“Tactically, I kind of just wanted to sit in behind the Estonian ... and then in the last climb before the stadium just kind of throw the hammer down,” Hamilton said.

The U.S. placed 13th, 6:22 behind Sweden but 13 seconds ahead of Estonia.

Hamilton, a first-time Olympian, said he was a replacement for Anchorage’s James Southam.

“I was all set to do one of the classic legs in tomorrow’s relay,” Southam wrote Tuesday on his blog. “Then I woke up with the beginnings of a little cold so it looks like I wasn’t meant to represent the U.S. in an Olympic relay. ... pretty disappointed. Now I get to do everything I can to be ready for the 50K (on Sunday).”

Contact staff writer Matias Saari at msaari@newsminer.com.

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