MIDWAY, Utah -- The Norwegians knew someone eventually would challenge them as the world's elite men's cross-country team. They just didn't expect it this soon.
Estonia won its first Winter Olympic medals Tuesday, as Andrus Veerpalu took the gold and Jaak Mae the bronze in the men's 15-kilometer classic-style cross-country race. Norway's Frode Estil got the silver.
''This is a great, great success for Estonia,'' Veerpalu said. ''I feel very proud.''
American John Bauer finished 12th, the best U.S. cross-country showing since Bill Koch won the silver in a 30K race at the 1976 Innsbruck Games.
Bente Skari won Norway's third gold of the games in the women's 10K classical, finishing ahead of Russians Olga Danilova and Julija Tchepalova.
While Skari's victory was hardly a surprise, the performance of her male countrymen has been. Estil's silver is only the second medal for Norway in four races, well off the pace of its stated goal -- 10 medals in 12 cross-country events. Johann Muehlegg, a German racing for Spain, won Saturday's 30K freestyle race, and the best the Norwegians could do was fourth.
At the Nordic world championships in Finland almost a year ago, Veerpalu won a 30K race by just two-tenths of a second over Estil. Afterward, Estil said the victory -- Estonia's first-ever world title -- was good for the sport. ''Norway has so many gold medals,'' Estil said at the time.
Estil didn't feel any different after Veerpalu beat him again.
''Norway has dominated this sport in the last 10 years, so I think it's important for this sport that other nations win, too,'' he said. ''But I hope there soon will be some gold medals for Norway, too.''
Norway won four cross-country golds in Nagano on the men's side alone, but three belonged to Bjorn Daehlie, who retired. Estil, Thomas Alsgaard and Erling Jevne should give the Norwegians chances to medal in the remaining three individual events, plus the relay, which Norway has won two out of the last three times.
After a slow start on the Soldier Hollow course, Veerpalu put the race away, and then the only drama was for second. At the 7.2K mark, Estil came around the bend and glided down the short hill to take over second place. That still left him 7.7 seconds behind.
By the 11.5K point, Veerpalu had increased his lead over Estil to nearly 23 seconds, and Veerpalu cruised to the victory.
''I was a little bit behind the Norwegians in the first kilometers, but the special point was between seven and eight kilometers, where I felt really good and where I made the gap,'' Veerpalu said.
Norwegian Anders Aukland, who rose from 22nd in the world rankings last year to second entering the Olympics, finished fourth, just over a minute off the pace.
Among the other Americans, Patrick Weaver was 16th and Kris Freeman -- who is diabetic -- was 22nd. Lars Flora was 54th.
Sweden's Per Elofsson, who was supposed to capture multiple golds in these games, did better than his previous race but still finished a disappointing fifth. Worn out by the highest course in the world, he dropped out of Saturday's race, saying he wanted to conserve energy.
Unlike Veerpalu, Skari was behind most of the way in the women's race until she made a late surge to win her first gold medal.
She finished in 28 minutes, 5.6 seconds, pumping her arms hard over the final 100 meters to cross the finish line 2.5 seconds faster than Danilova.
''It's a big surprise,'' said Skari, the 1998 bronze medalist in the 5K classical. ''I thought I was fighting for the silver medal until the finish line.''
Wendy Wagner was the top American, finishing 38th. She was followed by Nina Kemppel (40th), Tessa Benoit (54th) and Aelin Peterson (55th).
Skari's father, Odd Martinsen, won a gold medal for Norway at Grenoble in 1968 as part of a 40K relay, but he never won an individual gold.
Skari, 29, was asked what she would say to her father, who now oversees cross-country for skiing's international governing body, FIS. ''I will tell him that I am a lot better than him,'' she said with a laugh.
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