WHISTLER (AP) -- Petra Majdic lay curled up in a fetal position in the finish area, clutching her right side and screaming in pain as she wondered whether her best chance for an Olympic gold was gone.
A few hours later, after somehow finding a way to complete three heats of cross-country sprints despite a rib cage throbbing from a training crash, she was still in agony as she hobbled up on the podium for a flower ceremony -- with a bronze medal to her name.
Even for someone who was a big favorite ahead of the race, few accomplishments have felt sweeter.
"Today, this is not a bronze," the 30-year-old Slovenian said about her first Olympic medal. "This is a gold with little diamonds on it."
The real gold in the individual classical sprint went to Marit Bjoergen, the Norwegian veteran who finally earned her first Olympic title. Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland took the silver.
But Majdic's performance overshadowed them both.
She came into the race as the woman to beat, but looked unlikely to even compete after injuring her ribs in a scary-looking crash during her training run shortly before the qualifying round. She fell in a sharp curve and tumbled off the course, sliding on her back down a three-meter slope and onto some rocks, breaking one ski and both poles and scraping up the right side of her torso.
"At that moment I was thinking 'It's over,'" said Majdic, who won the World Cup sprint discipline the last two years. "I couldn't walk, move or breathe."
She still insisted on competing, and organizers agreed to let her start last instead of third in the qualification round to give her time to recover.
She completed that race against the clock around the 1.4-kilometer lap with her face twisted in pain and then collapsed in the fetal position, before she was helped out of the finish area.
"I was screaming my way around the course," Majdic said. "It was the first time all the coaches from all the nations were cheering for me."
She was taken to a nearby clinic for X-rays, and then rushed back to Whistler Olympic Park in time for the quarterfinals after doctors determined there were no broken bones.
She won that heat and then advanced from the semis based on her time, again collapsing in pain after each race. In the final, she was right behind Bjoergen and Kowalczyk going into the ski stadium for the final straightaway, but couldn't find a way past them.
Afterward, she hobbled up onto the podium for the flower ceremony, hardly able to stand up straight. She needed an escort to prop her up when walking to the news conference, gingerly easing into her chair with another grimace of pain.
"In two days, it will only be worse," she said.
Back at home in Slovenia, Majdic was a hero of the day. President Danilo Turk sent a congratulation letter, saying that she showed "exceptional heroics, courageous fight and great success."
"What an incredible race," he wrote. "It included a whole spectrum of feelings, from dismay to extreme happiness."
That means she's unlikely to compete in Friday's 15K pursuit and the team sprint, but Majdic said she might still have a shot at the 30K classical on Feb. 27.
There was no way, however, that she would give up perhaps her last chance at a medal in her favorite event.
"I've been fighting for this for 22 years," she said.