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Latvia’s Strombergs defends Beijing win

    Gold medalist Maris Strombergs, of Latvia, right, pulled away from silver medalist Sam Willoughby, of Australia, in the men’s BMX cycling final run Friday.

LONDON >> It was already hard for Maris Strombergs to go unnoticed in the tiny Baltic nation of Latvia after winning his first Olympic gold medal.

Imagine what it’ll be like now that he has two.

Strombergs defended his BMX title Friday over a harrowing course in Olympic Park, taking the lead at the start and never relinquishing it. He cruised across the finish line in 37.576 seconds to add to the gold medal he won in Beijing, when the sport made its Olympic debut.

Strombergs was chased the entire way by Australia’s Sam Willoughby, the world champion, who held on for silver.

Carlos Mario Oquendo Zabala made it a banner afternoon for Colombia with bronze, adding to teammate Mariana Pajon’s gold in the women’s race.

“It’s just amazing,” Strombergs said. “I think everyone at home, they watched the race, and deep inside they were hoping I could repeat, and I think my country believed in me.”

Athletes from Latvia first participated in the Olympics in 1924, but they competed for the Soviet Union from 1952 to 1988, after it was forcibly annexed by Moscow. When the Soviet Union finally crumbled, Latvia made its return as an independent nation at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

It wasn’t until Igors Vihrovs won the floor exercise in gymnastics in 2000 that Latvia had its first Olympic gold medal, and it wasn’t until Strombergs stood on the podium four years ago in China that a nation with a population of just over 2 million had its second.

Now, fans back in Latvia are celebrating a third.

“Latvia is a small country — it’s not big,” Strombergs said. “When I go home, they recognize me, but you know, I don’t really focus on it. My main focus is BMX, and just doing my thing.”

Just doing it better than anybody else.

Strombergs wasn’t considered among the favorites coming into the Olympics, despite a resume that includes two world championships and numerous World Cup victories.

He’s struggled with injuries the past couple of years, and a particularly hard crash in November 2010 left him with a broken hand, dislocated wrist and damaged shoulder. He required two rounds of surgery and couldn’t compete for about six months.

“Coming back from my injury, I wasn’t focusing on the Olympics,” Strombergs said. “It was all about myself, getting my confidence back, getting right physically, back to where I was before.

“The Olympics at that time was far away,” he said, “but it was in the back of my mind.”

Strombergs won a World Cup race in the Netherlands this year to gain confidence, but he wasn’t dominant in London.

He only managed a second and a fifth before winning his final quarterfinal heat, then squeezed through his semifinal as the third of four qualifiers.

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