For Katie Uhlaender and Noelle Pikus-Pace, memories of the 2010 Olympics are not exactly ones to savor. Uhlaender was grieving her father’s death and dealing with injuries. Pikus-Pace missed a medal by a mere one-tenth of a second.
Now, four years later, they’re getting another chance at their sport’s biggest prize.
Uhlaender and Pikus-Pace were the women’s nominees Saturday to the U.S. Olympic skeleton team for next month’s Sochi Games, with the men’s roster spots going to Matt Antoine, John Daly and Kyle Tress. The announcement largely was a formality and lacked any real surprise, since those five sliders have primarily been the American competitors on the World Cup circuit throughout this season.
“Expectations for the team are pretty high,” U.S. Coach Tuffy Latour said. “We’ve had a motto this year: `You don’t have to be perfect to be fast.’ And the other thing that we’ve been really focusing on is one corner at a time and let the results happen for themselves. That’s what we’re going to do at the Olympic Games.”
Pikus-Pace, Antoine and Daly automatically qualified for the team. Uhlaender and Tress were discretionary selections.
It’s the third Olympics for Uhlaender, who was sixth at the Turin Games in 2006, 11th at Vancouver four years ago and has been dealing with aftereffects of a concussion since an early season training mishap. Pikus-Pace is going to the Olympics for the second time; she was a gold-medal favorite in 2006 before having her leg shattered when a bobsled crashed into her as she stood near the end of a track, that freak accident being the reason why she didn’t go to Turin.
So Vancouver was her Olympic debut, and was supposed to be her farewell, given that she retired after the race. The lure of a medal helped bring her back two years later, and now she’s a favorite for gold again after a season where she and Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold were well ahead of all other challengers on the World Cup circuit.
Another factor in the comeback: Pikus-Pace had a miscarriage in April 2012.
“I just needed something to move on with and my husband, Janson, still knew that I loved doing skeleton,” Pikus-Pace said. “The reason I retired was just the time away from the family.”
Her family has been in tow for the last two seasons, and her results have been stellar since.
“We were able to make it happen,” Pikus-Pace said.
Daly is going to the Olympics for a second time, after finishing 17th at the Vancouver Games. Antoine and Tress will become first-time Olympians, though Antoine will go to Sochi with medal expectations following a strong World Cup season.
“The three of us have been sliding together for 12 years and we’ve been talking about this moment for at least 10 of those years,” said Tress, who will make his Olympic debut at 32 but said he never considered giving up sliding after past bids to qualify came up short. “This is an emotional time for all of us, and if we get the chance to compete in the Olympics together, it will be indescribable.”
Antoine has a gold and two bronze medals from his seven World Cup races so far this winter, helping him to fourth in the season rankings. Antoine will likely move up at least one spot in next weekend’s tour finale at Konigssee, since Russian sliders – including Alexander Tretiakov, currently No. 2 in the points race – are expected to skip the race and use the time for additional Olympic training on their home ice in Sochi instead.
“I’ve built a lot of confidence over the last few years, particularly this year,” Antoine said.
Unlike World Cup competition, which uses a two-run, one-day format, the Olympic skeleton events are contested by having four runs over two days. The women’s skeleton competition at the Sochi Games is Feb. 13-14; the men’s skeleton competition is Feb. 14-15.
The U.S. bobsled team is expected to be unveiled Sunday night, with the biggest questions to be answered there include whether the men will have three sleds qualify and if Summer Olympic track veterans Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams make the women’s squad as push athletes.