Comeback Completed: Noelle Pikus-Pace Wins Medal as US Skeleton Flourishes

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Comeback Completed: Noelle Pikus-Pace Wins Medal as US Skeleton Flourishes
Michael Sohn/Associated Press

At last, Nicole Pikus-Pace found herself where she knew she always belonged, an Olympic medal platform, and tried to keep her lower lip from quivering.

Pikus-Pace, a 31-year-old mother of two, now has an Olympic medal, silver, to complete her collection for a lifetime. It also caps what is her final comeback to skeleton, the sport of 80-mile per hour, face-first dives that she couldn’t turn away from despite crippling injury and emotional turmoil.

For Pikus-Pace, a career of wondering what might have been is now a silver reality. She has been a World Cup and world championship medalist. Take them all. This is the one she kept coming back for.

"I've been hit by a bobsleigh, missed an Olympics. There have been a lot of trials that have led up to this moment,” she told reporters after the race.

No matter that she finished behind Great Britain's Lizzy Yarnold, for gold. Yarnold, 25, led through all four heats over two days to win the second consecutive women’s skeleton gold for Great Britain in three minutes, 52.89 seconds, 0.97 faster than Pikus-Pace.

Russia’s Elena Nikitina, 21, thrilled her home nation crowd with bronze in a four-heat time of 3:54.30, edging American Katie Uhlaender of Breckenridge, Colo. in fourth, an agonizing .04 out of the medals.

Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

Pikus-Pace, from Eagle Mountain, Utah, remained second throughout the competition, never able to summon a charge behind Yarnold, who proved worthy of her No. 1 world ranking. The top-three order of finish remained the same as when the day started.

When Yarnold crossed the line as the final slider, Pikus-Pace wasn’t even watching, having climbed into the stands to hug her kids and her sled-building husband and celebrate with a spirited American contingent.

Her medal is the first for the U.S. since skeleton’s return to the Olympics in 2002, when American sleds won three medals (Jimmy Shea, men’s gold; Tristan Gale, women’s gold and Lea Ann Parsley, women’s silver).

There could be more on Saturday, with U.S. men John Daly and world No. 3-ranked Matt Antoine sitting third and fourth, respectively, before the final two heats of men’s skeleton.

Being so close to a medal had to be painful for the crimson-haired Uhlaender, sixth in Torino in 2006 and 11th at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

In the four years since, she has battled depression triggered by the death of her Major League ballplayer father, Ted, in 2009. She brings his National League Championship ring with her to competitions and wears a baseball-shaped locket containing some of his ashes.

Dita Alangkara/Associated Press/Associated Press
Pikus-Pace (left) and Uhlaender.

The injury- and accident-prone Uhlaender also suffered a concussion in October and has sought advice and help from Olympic ski medalist Picabo Street, whom she considers a mentor.

But from an American standpoint, the day belonged to Pikus-Pace, because of other Olympic days that haven’t.

In 2010 at Vancouver, she finished fourth, one-tenth of a second from bronze, after returning to competition following a gruesome injury that kept her out of the 2006 Olympics in Torino.

At a track in Calgary in October of 2005, a runaway four-man bobsled hit her while she was picking up her sled in the finish area after a training run, throwing her into the air and shattering her leg, which required a steel rod to be surgically implanted.

She was coming off a world championship silver medal and was considered a contender for gold in Torino. She took the 2007-08 season off to have a baby, returned to make the 2010 Olympic team, then retired after the Vancouver Games disappointment.

But Pikus-Pace couldn’t stay away, coming out of retirement in the summer of 2012 after she suffered a miscarriage. In January of 2013, she won her first World Cup race since 2004.

After winning her silver medal Friday, Pikus-Pace, as relayed in a news release from her sport's federation, reflected on what she'd been through:

It was worth the wait. It was worth every minute of it. Honestly, getting hit by the bobsled, people said, 'Oh man, that's horrible. Getting fourth at the Olympics, they said ah, too bad.' Then I had the miscarriage at 18 weeks, and many tears were shed. But if I hadn't gone through every single one of those things I could not be here today. And this is right where I want to be, and to have my family here, the love and support, it's just beyond words. Just beyond words.

Memories of the accident came flooding back Thursday to those who knew Pikus-Pace’s background at Sochi’s Sanki Sliding Center, where a track worker was struck by a bobsled, suffering two broken legs on the same day the women’s Olympic skeleton competition started with two opening heats.

If that was a distraction to Pikus-Pace, it didn’t show. Neither did the fact she missed at least two days of training on the Olympic track after suffering from back troubles and a concussion.

Or the fact that a feud simmers between her and Great Britain. In November, the country protested a two-inch-long piece of tape on her sled handle and triggered Pikus-Pace’s disqualification after a World Cup race she had already won. Yarnold was declared the official winner.

Some surmised that might have been payback for a U.S. protest against Great Britain in 2010, when the U.S. complained about 2010 Olympic champion Amy Williams’ helmet.

None of that seemed to bother her, not when she was getting ready to realize a dream. Pikus-Pace stayed loose, even tweeting a photo and message prior to Friday’s final runs.

"My final goals for my last and final run of my career...see you at the bottom!" she wrote from the start house, just minutes before her start.

A few hours later, with tears in her eyes, her family nearby and a silver medal around her neck, none of that stuff mattered. It took a few more years than expected, and much more of a journey than she imagined. But now, Pikus-Pace had exactly what she wanted.

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