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Swiss triathlete wins women's Olympic gold medal

Saturday - 8/4/2012, 2:21pm  ET

By GERALD IMRAY
AP Sports Writer

LONDON (AP) - Olympic gold medals can be decided by tiny margins. Just not normally in a two-hour-long triathlon over nearly 34 miles.

After a grueling swimming, cycling and running slog, Nicola Spirig held off Lisa Norden in one of the best finishes in any sport at the London Games.

Norden's desperate late sprint following a lung-bursting, long-distance effort took the Swede across the line in exactly the same time as Switzerland's Spirig.

Only Spirig was awarded gold on a photo finish and Norden was pushed back to silver.

Agonizing.

"I'm always a little bit too late, hey?" Norden joked after arriving at the press conference a few minutes after the other two medalists.

She was only too late by the tiniest of margins in one of the best triathlon finishes ever.

"At least I can say I pushed it all the way to the finish line and I'm pretty happy with that," she said, pointing out she wasn't normally very good in sprint finishes. "I hope I made my coach proud today."

Track runners and swimmers are used to close calls _ ask Michael Phelps after he was nipped by Chad le Clos by five-hundredths of a second in the 200-meter butterfly.

But that race lasted less than two minutes.

At Hyde Park, the clock incredibly couldn't separate Spirig and Norden at the end of a 1,500-meter swim, a 26.7-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run.

After all that, the two athletes burst through the tape together in 1 hour, 59 minutes, 48 seconds. Then they both fell to the ground, exhausted, alongside bronze medalist Erin Densham _ who was only two seconds back.

Both athletes celebrated, but only after they had recovered. Who won? Nobody knew at first.

In the end, the photo showed a desperate Spirig had held off the late charge by a surging Norden. The Swiss thrust out her hips and upper body to win, denying her challenger a come-from-behind victory.

"Crossing the finish line I had a feeling that I had won but I wasn't sure," Spirig said. "I really needed an official to tell me and it took a few minutes."

After the initial confusion _ and minutes of high drama _ Spirig was declared the winner, clinching Switzerland's first medal of the London Games.

"We tried to put on a good show for you guys," Norden told reporters. "Nicola is an incredible sprinter, I've never been that close to her. I was surprised to find some energy still in my body and I pushed it all the way. I was close, but not quite, but that's the way it goes sometimes."

Spirig initially pulled away from the other two medalists with a little more than 50 yards to go.

But suddenly Norden _ the tall blonde-haired Swede _ found an extra bit of fight. Grimacing with the effort, she chased down her opponent over the final few steps.

Spirig also never gave in, finding enough strength to hold on.

In swimming, competitors share a medal if they have the same time. Not in triathlon, where _ like track _ the photo finish decides the winner and denies the other.

"I think that would have been a great idea," Norden said after being asked if they should have each been given a gold, like swimmers. "No question."

"I think that (the rule) was decided before the race," new Olympic champion Spirig countered, smiling.

The drama played out on a course through central London's famed park, where thousands of roaring spectators lined the route. Fans didn't need tickets to attend, and came out in droves.

They were rewarded with a thrilling finish.

Even though reigning world champion and home favorite Helen Jenkins of Britain faded and finished fifth, the spectators cheered loudly out of appreciation for the duel at the very end.

"It needed the mind to be convinced that I can win it, I want to win it and I'm going to be at the finish line first," Spirig said.

She was. Just barely.

___

Follow Gerald Imray at http://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)