ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Czech Eva Samkova’s searing pace helped her avoid the rough and tumble of the pack and dominate the snowboarding cross final on Sunday to win her country’s first gold medal at the Sochi Olympics.
The 20-year-old, sporting a red, white and blue moustache drawn on her top lip, had the best time in the morning seedings runs and ran away with her quarter and semi-finals over the jumps and rollers of the Extreme Park course.
There was to be no change in the final and she had established a lead of some 10 meters by the time she was a third of the way down the hill.
Coming through a slight wobble at one turn around halfway, she held her nerve over the huge final hill to cross the line well clear of the field.
Tears of joy flowed as Samkova waited to be led to the podium as her country’s first Olympic champion in a snowboard event.
“I just listen to my coach, I just want to be the best and get the maximum from my movement. It’s just physics, that’s all,” she said, before adding of her distinctive good luck charm:
“It’s a lucky moustache. Today it’s in national colors.”
Canadian Dominique Maltais claimed silver to add to the bronze she won in Turin eight years ago, saying she had been determined to have “no regrets” in Sochi after crashing badly and failing to reach the final in Vancouver in 2010.
“The last four years have been like I was on a mission - everything I was touching, everything I was eating was to be a better athlete, to get faster on that course,” the 33-year-old said.
“So I’m really happy - like we said, hard work pays off.”
French teenager Chloe Trespeuch won the bronze after overhauling Bulgarian Alexandra Jekova over the last couple of hundred meters.
“It’s not sunk in yet, it’s the best day of my life,” said the 19-year-old, who had to be told by one of her rivals that she had won a medal.
“This is pure bliss. All the family is here. It’s so nice - it’s wonderful.”
Defending champion Maelle Ricker of Canada, who was riding with a broken wrist, was eliminated when she fell in the second quarter-final and the same fate befell Turin silver medalist Lindsey Jacobellis in the semis.
Jacobellis, who famously blew a 40-metre lead in the Turin final by showboating on the last hill, was leading her semi-final when she misjudged a landing.
Outspoken Australian Belle Brockhoff was mildly annoyed that a clash with Maltais in the semi-final had cost her a shot at a medal.
“If that Canadian hadn’t kicked me out I would have won,” she said with a smile.
“I’m going to write her a very strongly worded letter.
“She just took a really tight line, she’s very aggressive on course. She picked up her board and hit my board and I couldn’t stop myself running off the edge.”
Such incidents are nothing new in an event that has been described as a “roller derby on snow”, but the most damaging crashes on Sunday came in the seedings round where the boarders ride alone.
Two of the first six riders fell heavily and were taken away on stretchers, their injuries understandably the source of much concern after Russian freestyle skier Maria Komissarova broke her back on the same course on Saturday.
Although neither was able to ride in the knockout rounds, they were not seriously injured. Norwegian Helene Olafsen suffered knee damage and American Jacqueline Hernandez concussion.
“That’s the game of snowboard cross - you crash a lot and that’s how it is,” said Trespeuch.
Additional reporting by Philip O'Connor, editing by Ed Osmond