Reuters - Wed, 24 Feb 22:57:00 2010
Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic emerged as Vancouver's speed skating queen by completing a golden Olympic double in winning the women's 5000 meters at the Richmond Olympic Oval.
The slender Sablikova added the long distance crown to her 3000 meters title and surprising bronze in the 1500m, with a time of six minutes 50.91 seconds.
The small-framed, 22-year-old donned a cowboy hat in the red, white and blue Czech colors and draped her nation's flag across her shoulders for her victory salute as her exuberant coach Petr Novak clutched her skates and kissed them in joy.
Sablikova, whose fluid, gliding style and acceleration in the corners has made her the competition's leading racer, held on despite exhaustion and pain in the final stages of the race and revealed she was not at her physical best for the event.
"The last three days I caught a cold and I'm quite exhausted from that," said Sablikova, who carries just 119 pounds on her 5-foot-7 frame.
"In particular today, my legs were hurting. They were extremely, extremely sore. I don't think I could have skated another 100 metres."
The Czech shot out to a fast pace and was more than a second ahead of German silver medallist Stephanie Beckert's target time by the 1000m mark. She built up that advantage until the last few laps when she began to fade.
Her last three laps were slower than Beckert and she held on through the pain to win by less than half a second.
IOC chief Jacques Rogge, who watched from the stands, was an unabashed admirer.
"She is definitely the queen of skating," Rogge told a small group of reporters as he applauded her performance. "She has this elegant style, this effortless style."
"What a performance."
Sablikova was tired yet moved by what she had done.
"I'm so exhausted, I can't even comprehend I have two golds. All I want to do is sleep.
"Of course I didn't expect to win three medals. I'm almost on the verge of tears."
Clara Hughes, the 37-year-old Canadian who won the race at the 2006 Turin Games, grabbed a heartwarming bronze medal with a time of 6:55.73.
Hughes won thunderous cheers from the home crowd, and when her medal became official after the last pair skated, she jogged around the infield waving to the crowd, who waved Canadian flags back at her.
"It was awesome," Hughes said. "That was the best I had, the best race I've ever done in an Olympics including the one I won four years ago. It was such an amazing feeling."
Hughes joined skating team-mate Cindy Klassen as the most successful Canadian Olympic athlete with six career medals.
"I lived my dream today," Hughes said.
Hughes's extraordinary career spanned four Olympics and two sports, with two of her medals coming as a cyclist at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
The Winnipeg native said the home crowd lifted her up.
"With six laps to go when the race gets really hard, I said to myself, Now let this energy in, let this energy move you forward.' Before that I could hear the crowd but wasn't letting it in because I was saving it for when I really needed it."
Factbox on Sablikova:
Place of birth: Nove Mesto Na Morave, Czech Republic
Residence: Velky Osek, Czech Republic
Previous Olympic results:
Fourth place, 2006 Winter
Seventh place, 2006 Winter
Gold medallist, 2009 World Allround Championships, small combination
2x gold medallist, 2010, 2007 European Championships, small combination
2x bronze medallist, 2009, 2008 European Championships, small combination
Sablikova began skating in 1998 and has also been competing in road cycling since 2007. Her younger brother, Milan, is also a speed skater.
A lack of artifical ice tracks in her homeland has forced her to train on short tracks or travel abroad. In 2007 she won the national speed skating title competing on a frozen lake.
Her Vancouver victory made her just the second Czech woman to win a Winter Games gold following cross-country skier Katerina Neumannova in 2006.
Follow the Winter Olympics 24/7 on British Eurosport (Sky 410 / Virgin 521) and Eurosport HD (Sky 412). British Eurosport channels are streamed online via the Eurosport Player.