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Soedergren survives setbacks, helps Sweden to gold

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) — Anders Soedergren's list of setbacks is a lot longer than his list of major accomplishments.

There's the two lung punctures, the surgery to remove a testicle, the injury and virus that wiped out much of this season and a number of near-misses at major championships over his decade-long career.

The Olympic gold he won Wednesday makes up for them all.

"This means everything," said the 32-year-old Soedergren, after being part of Sweden's winning team in the men's cross-country skiing relay. "This relay has been my big goal for the whole season. For me, it's fantastic to be here, standing as Olympic champion."

Soedergren skied the third leg in the 4x10-kilometer race for the Swedes, protecting a large lead over main rival Norway before handing over to anchor Marcus Hellner at the final exchange.

Hellner did the rest, pulling away from the French and Czech anchors and making sure the chasing Petter Northug never got close enough for the Norwegian to be in position to use his famous sprinting ability. Northug and Norway ended up with the silver, and the Czechs took bronze.

It was Sweden's first relay gold in 22 years, and Soedergren has been waiting quite a while himself to climb the top of the podium at a big event.

He already had five major championship medals but no gold, and few had expected him to be able to fight for one in Vancouver.

Soedergren has competed in just four World Cup events this season after sustaining a serious back injury in the offseason and then contracting a virus in December that kept him out of training for seven weeks.

That came after an even worse 2008. The Swede punctured his lung for the second time in his career during offseason training, and then needed surgery later in the year to remove a testicle after doctors discovered a tumor. He bounced back from that to take silver in the 30K pursuit at last year's world championships — leading the race for much of the way before being overtaken by Northug at the end — but wasn't sure until last month whether he'd be able to even compete in Vancouver.

"It's been very tough mentally, to get motivated," he said. "I've been out for four months this season."

He was only 25th in the opening 15K freestyle race, and then 10th in the 30K pursuit — where he helped Hellner win gold and teammate Johan Olsson take bronze after working as a support rider to slow down the chasing pack.

"I've been chasing my form for many weeks now," he said. "In the pursuit I started to recognize myself again. I felt my body starting to get that bounce again. It came at the last minute."

On Wednesday, he opened up a small gap late on the third leg to give Hellner a six-second lead on the French and Czech team at the final exchange and — more importantly — a 37-second head start on Northug.

"I've never lost 35 seconds in such a short race," Hellner said. "I knew it was going to be enough."

Soedergren was far from ready to celebrate, however, as he has seen gold medals slip from his grasp before.

He still remembers the Swedes' nightmare relay at the 2003 world championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, when Joergen Brink blew a massive lead on the final leg to end up with bronze.

"I was really, really nervous when Marcus was on the last leg," Soedergren said. "But he looked so strong on the last lap, and then I knew we had a gold."

Afterward, Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf — who has attended many of the cross-country races at Whistler Olympic Park this week — was among the first to greet the team, spending an extra few seconds to congratulate Soedergren on his hard-earned medal.

"I think it was because of my long and faithful service," Soedergren said.