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Posted: Feb 15, 4:23p ET | Updated: Feb 15, 10:25p ET

Cologna wins men's freestyle gold

Rising XC star inspired by compatriot's alpine win

WHISTLER (AP) -- Watching countryman Didier Defago win the gold medal in the Olympic downhill gave Swiss cross-country skier Dario Cologna the boost he needed.

NBC's Al Trautwig and Chad Salmela discuss the cross-country competition from Day 4 and preview Day 5 of biathlon.

"It pushed me a little bit," he said.

Cologna won the men's 15-kilometer Monday, Switzerland's first Olympic gold medal in a cross-country ski race. His victory came 48 hours after ski jumper Simon Ammann of Switzerland captured the first gold medal of the Vancouver Games.

"I hope there will be still more medals for Switzerland at these Olympics," Cologna said.

The Swiss already have three gold medals, more than any other country.

Norway?

None.

Italy's Pietro Piller Cottrer won the silver, finishing 24.6 seconds behind Cologna's winning time of 33 minutes, 36.3 seconds, for his fourth Olympic medal. The Czech Republic's Lukas Bauer won the bronze to go with the silver medal he won in the 15-kilometer classical style race in Turin. Bauer's time was 35.7 seconds slower than Cologna's.

The top American was James Southam of Anchorage, Alaska, in 48th place.

Bauer had been expected to contend for gold with World Cup leader Petter Northug Jr, the best skier from Norway since the great Bjoern Daehlie.

While Bauer settled for bronze, Northug finished in 41st place after realizing he wasn't going to challenge and coasting through the course at Whistler Olympic Park, much to the disappointment of his fans and to the dismay of his competitors.

An angry Northug initially refused to speak to Norwegian reporters after the race, but he came back 20 minutes later to answer questions.

"My body felt fine, but since I realized I wouldn't get a good result I obviously didn't give my all on the last lap," Northug said. "You can be sure I get angry after a race like that, and that I'm even more eager for revenge."

Northug is still expected to dominate in Vancouver, but the interval start Monday meant he couldn't use the ferocious sprinting ability that lets him dominate mass-start events.

Because the 24-year-old Norwegian is likely to compete in all six events in Vancouver -- including the sprints -- he had the luxury of choosing to slow down and save his energy for future races once he realized a podium spot was out of reach.

After trailing by more than eight seconds at the first intermediate mark, Northug did just that and finished more than two minutes behind the winner.

With Tord Asle Gjerdalen finishing as the best Norwegian in 28th place, it was the worst result for the ski-crazed country in an Olympic race. The previous low was when Frode Estil was 16th as the top Norwegian in the 15-kilometer classical race in Turin.

Norway failed to win a cross-country gold medal in those Olympics, and Northug is facing enormous pressure to end that drought in Vancouver.

While Northug's best event is the 30-kilometer pursuit -- a mass-start event where he excels at sprinting away from his rivals near the finish line -- he has shown tremendous improvement in interval-start races this season.

That's why the medalists expressed bewilderment that Northug didn't try to supplant them on the podium Monday.

"Yeah, I'm very surprised," Piller Cottrer said. "I was just checking the results, his 41st position is definitely not his normal position. Everyone was thinking we had to fight first against him and then all the others."

Cologna said he was stunned at Northug's performance.

"Today, he was the big favorite and I don't know exactly what happened," Cologna said. "I think we'll see him do better in the next races. Northug has a very good chance for the mass-start races and he'll be the big favorite again at the Olympics."

That's one reason Cologna promised to savor his surprising success in this race.

"It's incredible," he said. "I think I have to have a big party this evening. It is difficult to realize that you are an Olympic champion -- it was my first Olympic race."

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