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The Last Race
Scholastic Reporter finishes her Olympic experience at probably the Games' most grueling event
By Alexandra Coffey
Scholastic Kids Press Corps

Alexandra Coffey with U.S. cross-country skier Andrew Johnson after he completed the 50m freestyle—the last event of the 2006 Olympic Games.
(Photo: Courtesy Alexandra Coffey)
Sunday, February 26—At the end of the final competition of the 2006 Winter Olympics, U.S. cross-country skier Andrew Johnson, who skied about 32 miles in two hours, collapsed in the snow just past the finish line.

"It feels awfully good to lay down for a while in the cold snow and cool off," said Andrew, who was soaked with sweat.

The 50km cross-country race is like running a marathon on snow—with boards on your feet! It is the longest event in the Olympics, and it provided a fairy-tale ending for Italians everywhere.

In a lovely valley surrounded by snow-capped Alps, Giorgio di Centa of Italy won the race by only 0.8 seconds. The dramatic finish pumped up the crowds with excitement.

The entire Italian cross-country team took a victory lap while Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run" blasted through the speakers. Everywhere you looked you could see the Italian colors flying—red, white, and green.

There was no red, white, and blue waving for Andrew Johnson, but he still felt great about his performance. Andrew, who is 27 years old, is a Brad Pitt look-a-like. He was the first American finisher, coming in 34th out of 63 who completed the race. That may not sound too good, but cross-country skiing in America is like baseball for Italians: it is not our strongest sport.

Andrew stayed with the pack for about 45km. "I could have been right with those guys if things had gone a little differently," said Andrew, who has been cross-country skiing since he was 7 years old.

Shortly after the end of the race, Andrew joined the crowds heading back to Torino, 65 miles away, to participate in the closing ceremonies. There, almost all of Italy watched as Italian di Centa received the gold medal for his spectacular cross-country win. He looked up at the sky with his hand over his heart, singing along as a 10-year-old girl sweetly sang the Italian national anthem.

Now that is what I call a fairy-tale ending.

Photos, left to right: © Rick Rickman/NewSport/NewSport/Corbis; © Joe Cavaretta/AP Wide World.