By Elaine Lies
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Even during the dark days of a suspension, Carolina Kostner never lost the hope and resilience that has allowed the 31-year-old Italian to complete at a fourth Olympics in a sport where many fade in their 20s.
A bronze medalist at Sochi four years ago, Kostner failed to make the podium at Pyeongchang but said after her free skate on Friday that she had savored her final Olympic experience.
"Being part of such a high level of figure skating is for me a true honor," she told reporters after finishing fifth. The Italians finished fourth in the team event.
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"For us, Italy placing fourth in the team event with all these big strong nations was such an amazing accomplishment."
In 2015, the five-time European champion was handed a 16-month ban for allegedly assisting her former boyfriend, Olympic race walker Alex Schwazer, with covering up his illegal doping.
"I never stopped believing in my abilities. I hope my passion and my journey can be an inspiration and motivation for people that face challenges," she said.
"If you keep believing in yourself and keep on fighting -- it's not always easy but when you've passed a tunnel you always find light and sunshine."
"I found an amazing high level in my skating that I thought wasn't possible and I found... passion for the sport that I thought was not possible," she added.
At a news conference after the competition, the top two medalists -- both teenagers representing Olympic Athletes from Russia -- said the indomitable Kostner had been an inspiration.
"I don't know whether I will be able to skate at that age," said 15-year-old gold medalist Alina Zagitova, who was eight months old in 2003 when Kostner competed in her first European championships.
NO RETIREMENT THOUGHTS
Silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva was more effusive.
"Carolina is one of the people who motivates me. She is an example of perseverance, of a long-lasting athlete. I have trouble imagining how someone can stay in that shape for a very long time," she said.
"When you see people like Carolina, you understand that if she can do something, then that something is possible. If you love what you do, you put all of yourself into it, like Carolina Kostner."
Kostner is looking forward to the world championships, which will be held in Milan in March. More long range plans include possibly helping skating to grow in Italy so that young skaters will not have to leave home at 13 the way she did to train.
But retirement is still nowhere on the horizon.
"I don't know yet, I think I will focus on worlds. Then decisions like that should never be taken in a hot moment, it will naturally come," she said, citing the example of her cousin Isolde Kostner, an Alpine skier who won three Olympic medals.
"She stopped skiing shortly before the (2006) Olympics in Italy," Kostner said. "Many did not understand why she wouldn't pull through because it was in her home country, and she said you will strongly feel when it is time to stop.
"And I haven't felt it yet," she laughed.
(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber; Editing by John O'Brien)