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Victorious Zubkov drained after carrying nation's hopes

Russia's pilot Alexander Zubkov poses with a gold medal during a ceremony for the four-man bobsleigh event at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics
Russia's pilot Alexander Zubkov poses with a gold medal during a ceremony for the four-man bobsleigh event at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

By Mark Trevelyan

ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Former taxi driver Alexander Zubkov steered Russia to victory in the four-man bobsleigh on the last day of the Winter Olympics on Sunday but looked more exhausted than elated after carrying the weight of the nation's hopes.

"Zero emotion, honestly. We gave everything," said the 39-year-old Siberian, who also won in the two-man bob.

"We put all our strength into the fourth ride because we knew our opponents had done a great run and we did everything not to allow the slightest mistake.

"I had one thought in my head. I was fighting the track, I wasn't thinking about the seconds," he said after beating the Latvian team by 0.09 seconds, with the United States in third place.

"We've done everything the country demanded of us. We took first place for the team and brought Russia two gold medals."

Sunday was Defenders of the Fatherland day, when Russians celebrate their armed forces and their menfolk in general, adding to a festive atmosphere at the Sanki Sliding Centre where Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was on hand to congratulate the winners and a boisterous crowd chanted "MOLODTSY" (Well done!)

With 13 gold medals, two more than nearest challenger Norway, hosts Russia topped the Winter Olympics table for the first time in 20 years.

"It's magnificent. No one thought Russia could get even into the top three, and it didn't just manage that - it won," said Zubkov, who recalls his taxi-driving days as a difficult period when his main priority was to feed his family.

"The next task is to rest, spend time with my family and recover emotionally because we're very tired, we've given all our strength over the last four years, it's all built up," said the man known as the "minister for bobsleigh" because of a spell as sports minister for the Siberian region of Irkutsk.

"I'm not telling anyone I'm retiring, so we'll keep going and we'll see. The main thing is be healthy," he said.

With his two victories, Zubkov was also vindicated in his decision to accept the honor of carrying the Russian flag at the opening ceremony, something others in the team had thought might jinx him in competition.

"All the sportsmen were very superstitious and were afraid of carrying the flag. I said I wasn't superstitious because I rely only on myself and my team," he said.

"It doesn't matter whether you carry the flag or not. If you're strong and you're the best, you can always win the gold medal."

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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