A mom and a medalist: Cross-country skieri wins 10K silver | VailDaily.com

A mom and a medalist: Cross-country skieri wins 10K silver

AP Sports Writer
Estonia's Kristina Smigun-Vaehli celebrates winning the silver medal during the flower ceremony of the Women's 10k Cross Country race at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, Monday, Feb. 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

WHISTLER, British Columbia – When Kristina Smigun-Vaehi gave birth to her first child 20 months ago, she was sure her Olympic career was over.

Her maternity leave didn’t last long.

The 32-year-old Estonian who won two cross-country skiing golds at the 2006 Turin Games returned to the podium Monday after finishing second in the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle race at the Vancouver Olympics.

The silver medalist had an immediate message for little Victoria-Kris, her daughter who was born in June 2008 after Smigun-Vaehi decided to take a break from the sport to focus on her family life.

“I hope she understands that her mum is a very tough lady,” she said.

That should be pretty clear by now, even to a 1-year-old.

The Estonian veteran finished a mere 6.6 seconds behind gold-medal winner Charlotte Kalla of Sweden to cap an improbable comeback after sitting out all of last season and only returning to the World Cup circuit in late November. She finished third in a 10K freestyle race two weeks later, but had not had a podium finish since and is only 41st in the overall World Cup standings.

“I feel that I am blessed to be here,” said Smigun-Vaehi, who won the 10K classical race and 15K pursuit in Turin. “After my baby girl was born, I thought I’d never come back (to skiing), because I was so happy. Now I’m here. … It was a good decision.”

Hard to argue with that. But the desire to start training again initially had nothing to do with the Olympics. She said she started running last summer just to get in shape, quickly losing about 15 pounds.

“I started thinking, ‘What am I doing here running for myself when I am so good?'” she said.

On Monday, she cut her deficit to Kalla in half over the last few kilometers of the interval-start race but came up just short, falling to her knees and panting for breath after crossing the finish. She beat Marit Bjoergen, the Norwegian bronze medalist and one of the pre-race favorites, by 9.3 seconds.

The result left Bjoergen still looking for her first Olympic title after winning two silver medals in Turin and Salt Lake City. The 22-year-old Kalla, meanwhile, collected a gold in her first Olympic start after leading the race from start to finish.

While Kalla was competing on the junior circuit when Smigun-Vaehi had her triumphs in Turin, she knew enough about the Estonian’s abilities to make sure she didn’t let up before the end.

“I knew Smigun had finished very strongly before,” Kalla said. “I just wanted to go as fast as I could across the finish and not relax before that.

“I had time on the straightaway to think ‘this isn’t your ordinary World Cup race. But I tried to push those thoughts away as fast as possible.”

Kalla and Bjoergen may want to keep Smigun-Vaehi in their thoughts, however, as the Estonian suddenly looks a lot more likely to defend her gold in the 15K pursuit on Friday. For now, however, she’s more focused on celebrating her silver with Victoria-Kris and her spouse, Kristjan-Thor Vaehi.

“I just want to hug her and enjoy this moment with my family,” she said.

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