The two finalists were separated only by a photo finish, but Minjeong was later penalised and disqualified, which meant that Netherlands competitor Yara van Kerkhof was awarded silver. Canada’s Kim Boutin, the world’s fourth best at this distance, won bronze.
Fontana, who won bronze at Vancouver 2010 and silver at Sochi 2014, and who was Italy’s flag bearer this time around, had lead the race from the start. She managed to fend off several attempts from her competitors to overtake her and finish with a time of 42.569 seconds, ahead of Van Kerkhof’s time of 43.256.
World record holder Elise Christie (GBR) fell, just as she had done at Sochi 2014, and finished fourth. Minjeong had beaten Fontana to win the first semi-final, and set a new Olympic record of 42.422, but could not repeat the feat in the final.
Fontana admitted she faced a nervous wait for confirmation of her victory after having crossed the line. "I thought I was first and I looked at my coach and he (said), 'I don't know, but you did great.' When I saw I was first, I was just yelling and started crying.
“I'm speechless, really,” she added. “I worked for four years and the last four months were really hard for me. I was really focused on getting here in the best shape ever.
“I knew I was the fastest and more explosive than I've ever been,” said the gold medallist of her preparations. “I've got better race by race and felt more able to win this medal. I was on a strict diet. I like to eat, I'm Italian, so I like to eat a lot of carbs. I had to cut that off.”
Both Van Kerkhof and Boutin admitted to feeling proud of their silver and bronze medals respectively.
“I can't believe it. It's such a great day,” said 27-year-old Van Kerkhof. “I've dreamed of this for four years, and my dream came true. It means everything to me. I worked so hard for this and I've been through a lot. It's really nice. I saw my mum crying in the stands. I think it means as much for them as it does for me. I win this medal also for my teammates because I couldn't do it without them.”
“A lot of work has gone behind this and I'm really proud to win this medal,” added 23-year-old Boutin. “It's a lot of emotion right now. I'm just so happy. Just before [I left the ice] Marianne [St Gelais] said, 'You stay here'. So maybe she knew something was going to happen. I didn't know because when I'm racing, I don't remember my race. So I'm like, 'What happened? Where am I?’”
photos Janos Schmidt