MIDWAY, Utah (AP) - Only minutes after completing the greatest relay race in U.S. cross-country history, the Americans began suggesting things that would have gotten them laughed off the snow a few months ago.
"I don't see any reason why we can't be medal threats in 2006, and 2010," said 21-year-old Kris Freeman, the confident skier who could become the leader of a new, vastly improved U.S. team.
The squad took fifth in Sunday's 40-kilometer relay, which won't look like much on the agate page of the morning paper. But the top previous finish in the event was sixth, at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. That was the same Olympics that produced the only U.S. medal, a silver by Bill Koch.
"In a few years, we'll be there. This is just the next great stepping stone," said Justin Wadsworth, who skied well on the third 10-kilometer leg despite a lingering cold. "I'm still not 100 percent, but I was totally inspired today. I would have hated to miss something like this."
The Americans nearly finished fourth, ahead of the powerful Austrians, which would have been a monumental upset. Carl Swenson was dueling with the Austrian anchor, Christian Hoffmann, but Swenson finished six-tenths of a second back.
"It was exciting that I was able to hang with him and give him a run at the sprint," Swenson said. "I wish I had a little fresher legs. I think I could have pushed him all the way to the finish."
The Nordic combined team also surpassed a milestone Sunday, finishing fourth in the team competition. Yet their mood was the complete opposite of the cross-country team's, which shows how high the Nordic athletes' expectations had risen after their strong showing in the ski jumping.
While Norway edged Italy in another epic cross-country battle, the U.S. team's race provided nearly as much drama:
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The first leg belonged to 33-year-old John Bauer, who held the lead briefly before settling into fifth. Freeman - who has diabetes, and only resumed racing two months ago after having surgery on both legs to correct a muscle disorder - slipped to sixth before moving up a spot and handing off to Wadsworth.
Wadsworth, also 33, struggled to hold the fifth position but fell back a spot behind Italy's Pietro Piller Cottrer.
"I tried going up with him in the first hill, then the speed was just another notch than I had today," Wadsworth said. "I just said, 'I can't let our team down. I've just got to hang on.' I crawled way back in the pain cave today to hang in there."
He then surged past Austrian Mikhail Botvinov for the handoff to Swenson.
"Justin made it real easy for me," Swenson said.
The crowd was loud and supportive - resembling those at European World Cup events.
"It feels like we're in Norway," Wadsworth said.
After proving they can compete with the world's top teams, the Americans now will set their sights higher.
"It's time to stop European-worshiping, as I call it," Freeman said. "We know how to race. You can be as good as you want to be, it doesn't matter what country you're from. And I think we're showing that now. The United States is coming."
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