PARK CITY, Utah, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Italy's Stefania Belmondo overcame a broken ski pole and an emotional breakdown during the women's 15-kilometer cross-country race Saturday to produce an amazing sprint at the finish and claim the first gold medal awarded at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Spain's Johann Muehlegg had a much easier time in the men's 30-kilometer event, building a huge lead and coasting to victory by more than two minutes.
It was the eighth medal of an illustrious career for the 33-year-old Belmondo, whose only other gold in four Olympic appearances came 10 years ago at Albertville in the 30-kilometer event.
"After 10 years, to win another gold medal in the Olympics, for me, it's incredible," said Belmondo, came to a complete stop during the race to replace the broken pole and then won a thrilling duel with Russian legend Larissa Lazutina.
Belmondo fell back to 10th at the 10.5-kilometer mark when she suffered the equipment problem.
"At that point, when my pole was broken, I thought the race was over for me," said Belmondo, who was eighth at this distance at Nagano in 1998. "I cried. I cried like I never cried in my life. I really cried."
This was the first-ever cross-country freestyle race to use a mass start in Olympic competition and Belmondo blamed the scramble for breaking her pole.
"Somebody was hitting on my pole," the diminutive Italian said. "It only happens in a mass start race like this."
Belmondo grabbed a replacement pole from a Frenchman along the hilly course, but it also was broken. She thought her day was done in the high altitude of Solidier Hollow before her trainer handed her another pole.
"I tried to get a replacement pole and then I had to get a second," she said. "From this moment on, it was difficult for me to get back to the leaders."
But she caught the lead group with just under two kilometers left and outraced Lazutina to the finish line, forcing the Russian to settle for her second straight silver medal in the event.
"The veteran racers were very good and difficult to beat," said the 36-year-old Lazutina, who won five of her eight career Olympic medals, including three golds, in Nagano.
The final 1.2 kilometers came down to a two-woman race between Belmondo and Lazutina, who was in solid position throughout on the challenging Soldier Hollow course.
By the time the two leaders reached the peak of the final downhill run, there was no one else in sight.
Lazutina had a slight edge as the two hit the final hill, but Belmondo pulled away on the final straightaway and won by 1.8 seconds.
"I said to myself, `This time it's going to be gold or silver,'" said Belmondo, who settled for bronze and silver medals in Nagano. "I said to myself, I just can't come in second this time."
Belmondo finished in 39 minutes, 54.4 seconds. Lazutina was second in 39:56.2 with Katerina Neumannova of the Czech Republic claiming the bronze medal in 40:01.3.
Because this year's race was changed from a classical style to freestyle, times were significantly faster than in the past. Lazutina's silver medal-winning time in 1998 was 47:01.0.
Muehlegg, who competed for his native Germany in the previous three Winter Games, charged out to a 16-second lead and won with a time of 1 hour, 9 minutes and 28.9 seconds. Austria's Christian Hoffmann nipped teammate Mikhail Botvinov for the silver medal.
A double gold medalist at the 2001 World Championships and the 2000-01 overall World Cup champion, Muehlegg increased his lead at every interval and gave Spain just its third Winter Olympics medal.
With victory assured, the 31-year-old Madrid resident blew a kiss to the crowd at Soldier Hollow.
It was the second time Hoffmann had been beaten by Muehlegg on this course. The German surged ahead to win a 30-kilometer Olympic tuneup last year. Hoffmann won the bronze medal in the 50-kilometer event at the 1998 Games in Nagano.
Pre-race favorite Thomas Alsgaard of Norway was a disappointing 13th, while Per Elofsson of Sweden dropped out at the midway point. Alsgaard is a four-time Olympic medalist who is ranked third in the World Cup standings. Elofsson is the defending World Cup champion and current World Cup points leader.