Cross-country skiing-Norway's Johaug powers to gold in women's skiathlon

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ZHANGJIAKOU, China, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Norwegian cross-country skier Therese Johaug powered to victory in the women's skiathlon race to take the first gold medal of the Beijing Winter Olympics in dominant style on Saturday.

The 14-time world champion obliterated the field after the switch from classic style to freestyle, winning by a margin of 30.2 seconds to claim the first individual Olympic gold of her glittering career.

"It's a dream come true. I've been training a lot for this for many, many years. And it's been a special week for us, we just came here two days ago," an emotional Johaug said.

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Natalia Nepryaeva representing the Russian Olympic Committee, took silver while Austria's Teresa Stadlober snagged the bronze medal, but the day belonged to Johaug.

The race, contested in bitter cold and blustery winds, got off to a chaotic start as Coralie Bentz of France and Finland's Anne Kyllonen crashed to the snow after an early clash while American Rosie Brennan was making the early going.

Johaug gradually took control and finished the first lap in front before the Finnish pair of Krista Parmakoski and Kerttu Niskanen took over for a gruelling uphill climb.

That uphill stretch cut the leading group to eight and their ranks were further halved as the switch to freestyle skis was made with Johaug holding a slender lead and Niskanen, Parmakoski and Nilsson hot on her heels.

Their challenge was short-lived after the switch as Johaug leveraged her raw freestyle power to cruise away from her rivals, opening up a gap of 26 seconds at the 10-km mark.

She never let up, despite a frenetic spurt by Nepryaeva, Stadlober, Finland's Kerttu Niskanen and Swede Frida Karlsson, and glided across the line with her arms aloft, crying freezing tears of joy in the knowledge that the coveted individual gold was finally in her grasp.

The medal was also triumph for a Norway team hit by a number of positive COVID tests that threatened their usual cross-country dominance.

"At first I was really happy just to come here because we have the Covid in our team. And today when I'm reaching my goal, I'm so happy," Johaug said.

"I've trained thousands of hours for this and been away from home a lot over the years, so it's beautiful to reach this goal."

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Reporting by Philip O'Connor; editing by Clare Fallon & Shri Navaratnam

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