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Czech Republic's Sablikova captures women's 3,000

RICHMOND, British Columbia (AP) — Martina Sablikova stands apart from her speedskating rivals.

She looks almost frail next to most of the top skaters. She relies on shorter strides to generate her speed, rather than a powerful glide. She sweeps through the turns longer than anyone, taking up all the ice and then some.

It sure is a winning formula.

Sablikova gave the Czech Republic its first Olympic medal in speedskating with a gold in the women's 3,000 meters Sunday, beating the field by more than 2 seconds.

"She is one in a million," said Canada's Clara Hughes, who finished fifth. "She is a very unique body type."

The 22-year-old Sablikova maintained an impressively steady pace, keeping her lap times under 32 seconds until her final trip around the Richmond Olympic Oval. Even then, she only went over by a mere hundredth of a second, powering across the line with long, lean legs that looked just as fresh at the finish as they did at the start.

"I don't think there is any secret to it," she said through a translator. "It's the technique I have. It's what works for me. It's how I skate."

Her winning time was 4 minutes, 2.53 seconds, comfortably ahead of the silver medalist, Stephanie Beckert of Germany (4:04.62). Still no gold for the host country — Canada settled for a bronze from Kristina Groves (4:04.84), who clipped Germany's Daniela Anschutz Thoms by three-hundredths for the final spot on the podium.

Sablikova went in the fourth pairing from the end, just as Sven Kramer did Saturday in the first speedskating event, the men's 5,000. Each of them put up the time to beat, then watched nervously as six more skaters tried — and failed — to take them down.

"I was so nervous because there were three more pairs going," said Sablikova, who sat in the middle of the oval, holding her hands to her mouth as she gazed up at the interval times on the scoreboard. "I was scared."

When the next-to-last group was done and she knew her time was good enough for at least a bronze, she jumped up to hug her coach. The Czech Republic and its predecessor nation, Czechoslovakia, had never won a medal of any color in speedskating.

"I was already happy when I got one medal," Sablikova said.

Defending Olympic champion Ireen Wust of the Netherlands skated in the final pairing with Anschutz Thoms and was more than a second under Sablikova's pace through with three laps to go. But Wust couldn't hold on, fading badly over the final 1,200 to finish in seventh.

While Sablikova celebrated, skipping across the concrete infield with a Czech flag, Wust collapsed on a bench along the backstretch, totally spent.

The 5-foot-7, 119-pound Sablikova is used to skating next to thicker, bulkier rivals. She dominated this event with her trademark turns, wide sweeps through the corners in which she carries her speed at least two strides longer than most skaters, still turning even after she gets on the straightaways.

She usually drifts into the opposite lane, a perfectly legal maneuver — even under International Skating Union rules toughened this season — as long as she doesn't interfere with another skater.

No worries there. She was all alone at the front.

"I don't think it's based on body type," Sablikova said. "All the gold medalists are completely different body types from each other. I think it was based on what I put into the performance."

Hughes shrugged off Sablikova's style coming out of the turns.

"Criticized for what? For winning races? Who cares," Hughes said. "It doesn't matter how you skate. If you execute, that is all that matters."

Nothing could slow Sablikova on this day — not even a problem with the ice that caused a brief delay.

The coaches from each nation were called together to discuss a rough spot near the finish line, apparently caused when the Zamboni stalled while resurfacing the ice midway through the competition. After doing repairs and making sure it wouldn't cause a problem, the competition resumed.

Sablikova isn't done. She'll be one of the favorites in the 5,000, the longest event on the women's program.

"I felt very good going in," she said. "I have one medal now, and everything is possible."

The Canadians hoped a strong women's team would give them a shot at their first gold medal at a home Olympics — they were blanked at both Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988 — but the drought went on.

Cindy Klassen, who won five medals at Turin and was declared "the woman of the games" by IOC president Jacques Rogge, was a shell of herself after coming back from surgery on both knees. She huffed and puffed across the line — her final lap taking nearly 38 seconds — and wound up 14th after taking bronze in this event at the last two Olympics.

"It was too hard for me physically," Klassen said.

For the Americans, it was another 3,000 shutout. They haven't won a medal in this event since Beth Heiden at the 1980 Lake Placid Games, and didn't come close again.

Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr. was ninth, Jilleanne Rookard 12th and three-time Olympian Catherine Raney-Norman 17th.

"Taking top 10 was my ultimate goal," Swider-Peltz said. "I had the best race of my life."