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June 28, 2017

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Lee sets record and takes the gold in 500-meter speedskating

SOCHI, Russia -- If Lee Sang-hwa was feeling any pressure about defending her Olympic title, she didn't show it.

The South Korean lived up to the hype as the overwhelming favorite in women's 500-meter speedskating Tuesday, zipping around the big oval with the two fastest runs to win her second straight Olympic gold.

Lee dominated the World Cup circuit this season, winning every event she entered, and kept up that form at Adler Arena.

"It's not easy to repeat that," said Lee's Canadian coach, Kevin Crockett. "It was a lot of pressure. She is a real champion."

Lee led after the opening heat and went even faster the second time, an Olympic-record time of 37.28 seconds to beat the mark of 37.30 set by Catriona Le May Doan at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Lee's combined time of 1 minute, 14.70 seconds was also an Olympic mark, beating Le May Doan's record of 1:14.75 at the high-altitude Utah Olympic Oval.

When Lee saw the "1" beside her name on the scoreboard, her head dropped back in obvious relief. She slapped Crockett's hand and grabbed a South Korean flag, reveling in a triumph that seemed assured the moment she toed the line in Sochi.

"Right now, she is almost Usain Bolt," silver medalist Olga Fatkulina said.

The only real race was for second and third. The Russian crowd roared when Fatkulina took the host country's second speedskating medal, finishing in 1:15.06.

Margot Boer claimed bronze with a combined time of 1:15.48, giving the Netherlands its eighth speedskating medal in Sochi. It was the first event at the Adler Arena they've failed to win, but was still a pleasant surprise for a team that had never been a strong contender in the all-out sprint.

Lee made it two in a row. She wasn't so dominant four years ago, edging Germany's Jenny Wolf by a mere five-hundredths of a second over two runs.

This time, there was never any doubt.

Lee's starts were flawless. She built up speed on the opening straightway with her arms swinging powerfully, her body low to the ice. By the time she came around the final turn, it almost seemed she could fly.

"Her technique is perfect," said Wolf, who finished sixth this time. "Right now, she is more athletic than four years ago. Once she was not so well-trained. Mentally, she is always strong."

Lee shied away from all the accolades.

"I don't like to be considered a phenomenon in my country," she said through a translator. "I am not a star. I dislike hearing it again and again."

The biggest surprise was China's Zhang Hong, who skated the first heat with the early group, which is made up of lower-rated skaters and rarely produces a medal contender. Considered stronger in the 1,000, she posted a startling time of 37.58 to hold the lead through most of the round.

Only at the end, when Lee and Fatkulina posted faster times, did Zhang finally fall out of the top spot.

She couldn't keep it up on the second run, going 0.41 slower even with a more favorable lane and dropping to fourth, a tenth of a second out of a medal.

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