By Julian Linden
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Claudia Pechstein might be the grand dame of women's speed skating with five Olympic golds to her name, but the evergreen German is showing no signs of slowing down.
Three days before her 42nd birthday, and 22 years after she first appeared at the Winter Olympics, she is going as strong as ever.
On Wednesday she lined up alongside her younger rivals in the 5,000 meters, the longest and most grueling race on the women's program, and though she missed out on another medal by finishing fifth, it made little difference to the sport's most decorated competitor.
"It doesn't matter," she told reporters at the Adler Arena.
"It was the best performance I could do and I delivered my best. It's too bad I didn't win a medal, but the competition was tight."
Racing in the final heat against Yvonne Nauta, a rising 22-year-old Dutch skater who was less than a year old when Pechstein first appeared at the Olympics, it was almost like old times.
Pechstein set off at a cracking pace and was on course for a medal midway through the 12-and-a-half lap race. But the fast pace took its toll and she began to tire over the final few laps, crossing the line in six minutes 58.39 seconds.
Pechstein did beat her younger opponent but was almost seven seconds behind the gold medalist, Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic, and nearly three seconds away from claiming the bronze.
"I'm satisfied because I'm under seven minutes," Pechstein said. "It was a hard race. It's a victory for me to be here again."
Pechstein was competing at her sixth Winter Olympics but her first in eight years after she was banned from the last Olympics in Vancouver for a doping offence she strenuously denied.
Although she never failed a drugs test, she was banned for two years in 2009 after her blood samples showed abnormal values in a series of tests.
The International Skating Union said the results were evidence she had been blood doping, a claim Pechstein refuted.
She lodged a series of appeals but was not allowed to compete in Vancouver and served a two-year ban, something that still irks her to this day.
Before then, Pechstein had long been the standard bearer in her chosen sport and an inspiration to a generation of women skaters who followed her.
"When I watched the Olympics in Salt Lake City 12 years ago I never thought I would have a chance to run in the same competition with her," said Germany's Bente Kraus after finishing 11th on Wednesday.
"If Claudia keeps competing, I'll still have the best role model in front of me."
Pechstein won her first medal, a bronze, in the 5000m at the 1992 Games at Albertville and won two medals at each of the next four Olympics, becoming the first female to win medals at five successive Winter Olympics.
A sergeant in the German Federal Police, Pechstein also won gold medals at four different Olympics between 1994 and 2006, including two at Salt Lake City in 2002, before her career was put on hold because of the ban.
She has not added to her medal tally in Sochi but has come close, finishing fourth in the 3,000m, then fifth in the longer event.
She still has a chance to pick up a medal in the women's team pursuit on Saturday - her birthday - and has not ruled out returning to the next Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018.
"Why would this be the end? I'm not going away," she said.
"I am still the best in my country and I am the oldest which isn't good for the young ones.
"This isn't a good sign, but I am not the coach. I skate."
(Editing by Mitch Phillips)