U.S. Olympic Skeleton Team: The Anatomy Of A Team
Matt Antonie, Noelle Pikus-Pace, John Daly, Katie Uhlaender and Kyle Tress were all recipients for the Skeleton Athletes' Choice Award for skeleton on June 29, 2014 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
As Matt Antoine listened to his coach announce the 2014 recipient for the Athletes’ Choice Award for skeleton, he was baffled.
The award was being presented at the recent gala awards dinner for the national bobsled and skeleton teams in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Usually, the choice is quickly apparent. But as coach Tuffy Latour spoke, he referred to all five members of the 2014 U.S. Olympic Skeleton Team.
“It was kind of confusing because it seemed like he was talking about everyone,” Antoine said.
That’s because he was.
|John Daly hugs coach Zach Lund after completing a run during the men's skeleton competition at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 14, 2014.
In a strange outcome, every member of the three-man, two-woman team voted for a teammate — but every athlete received just one vote. It was a five-way tie.
“In this particular case, we all chose each other, which is amazing,” said Kyle Tress, the only other member of the team with Antoine that night.
It wasn’t planned, Tress said. It just happened. But when he and Antoine later discussed it, they said it felt right — a reflection of the team attitude that developed heading into the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Antoine, Tress, John Daly, Noelle Pikus-Pace and Katie Uhlaender will all share the award, which is given to an athlete for teamwork, support, inspiration and contributions beyond athletic performance.
“Matt and I said the same thing, that we couldn’t believe that it turned out this way,” Tress said. “I said to him, ‘I voted for you,’ and he said, ‘Well, I voted for John. And John must have voted for you.’ So we were kind of in shock that it turned out that way. … But I guess after we started thinking about it, it was probably very much like us.”
For Uhlaender — who voted for Pikus-Pace and vice versa — the five-way tie made her feel “very proud.”
“I think it just speaks for itself in how we all believe in each other and came together for this season,” she said.
Building Team Atmosphere
When Latour became head coach four years ago, one of his priorities was to develop a team atmosphere.
“To go back four years ago, they were pretty fractured, the whole team,” Latour said. “They were all acting like individuals and basically all looking out for themselves.”
So Latour set about changing that, trying to build positive rivalries with teammates, better communication and teamwork. If an athlete came to him with complaints or concerns about another, he got them together to clear the air. Eventually, he was no longer acting as middleman. Athletes hashed out their own problems and, in turn, built better understanding.
“We focused on the team and the sense of, these are your teammates,” he said. “You don’t have to love each other, but you at least have to support each other because it’s Team USA vs. the world. There was a whole laundry list of things we did.”
Antoine agreed with his coach, saying, “Prior to this past quad our team really was rather divided.”
But Antoine says the team bonded over time through team dinners and activities — often scheduled on off days during training and tours. Because of the nature of their sport, the athletes — men and women — spent hours, days, weeks and months together traveling, training and competing.
Team dinners, said Antoine, helped change the culture.
“A lot of times dinner would end up going three, four hours because we’d end up having a good time, just all there talking,” he said. “Trying to bring us together in those down times. That way we’re not all kind of off in our little caves separated from each other. I think that’s where it began.
“And you start to build more of that together time because you enjoy it, and you start doing more and more things together.”
Along the way, the athletes — many of whom have known one another for 10 to 12 years — had a terrific season.
Among the highlights: Antoine won a bronze medal at Sochi and won three world cup medals; Pikus-Pace won a silver at Sochi and seven medals overall, including four gold. Uhlaender and Daly almost doubled the Sochi medal total, but just missed the podium. Overall, skeleton athletes were part of a bobsled and skeleton program that won a record 71 medals in international races.
|Matt Antoine and Noelle Pikus-Pace show off their medals at USA House on Feb. 16, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.|
Tress said all five members of the team were supportive of one another and drew inspiration from their teammates. Tress, for instance, said Antoine’s resolve was inspirational.
In 2010, Antoine didn’t make the Olympic Team for the Vancouver Games. And 12 years ago, Tress and Antoine went to skeleton school together at Lake Placid, New York, but Antoine wasn’t selected.
“He took that as motivation to train harder, to work harder and, 12 years later, he became an Olympic medalist, so that was definitely part of my thinking,” he said. “Here’s a guy who never gave up.”
Uhlaender credited Latour with setting the tone, being a good listener and being able to blend an athlete’s individual needs with the team’s.
“I really think that having the proper leadership allowed us to bond and become friends whereas before we were all fighting so hard to just survive individually,” she said. “It makes a huge difference being able to be friends and support each other.”
Uhlaender said the connection she felt with Pikus-Pace, in particular, was special.
“Noelle and I just had a really big bond going into the Games, and she had huge support for me and I for her,” she said.
Added Tress: “I don’t get sick of being around those guys. Ever. I know that I can always go to them for help. I know I can always go to them for support and I liked to spend time with them. They’re my best friends in the world.”
Latour recalls a news conference just days before the Opening Ceremony at Sochi when he knew for certain that the five skeleton athletes formed a team.
All five sat together in front of journalists to talk about the upcoming Games. Though skeleton is an individual sport, each of the athletes talked about how they’d pulled together.
“They were starting to put that messaging out to the reporters, and it was great to see,” he said.
Antoine remembers it, too.
|Noelle Pikus-Pace and Katie Uhlaender hug after completing their runs at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 14, 2014.|
“When somebody would answer (a question), another athlete would kind of jump in and answer, too, and just kind of encourage and build that person up,” Antoine said. “A lot of people were trying to be modest and maybe cautious with some of their answers. They didn’t want do comes across as too confident about how they were going to do and be slightly humble, but then someone else would jump in and … start talking the person up and build them up.”
In the end, the athletes created a community of support. In a sport where Antoine says performance might be 50 percent mental, attitude plays a big role.
“If you’re happy, excited and you’re enjoying your situation, where you’re at and everything that’s going on, that’s absolutely going to translate into the best,” he said. “If you’re upset, you’re down, you’re mad at people, you’re annoyed, stuff like that is going to translate into your performance. …
“We all love what we do, we’re having a great time. The morale is very high and I think that absolutely translated into everyone’s results this year.”
Latour says a five-way tie for the Athletes’ Choice Award couldn’t have happened four, three or two years ago. But this group became something special, and after seeing them at that pre-Olympic news conference and then watching them pull for one another at Sochi, he wasn’t all that surprised that the vote finished 1-1-1-1-1.
Said Latour: “It was a perfect ending to a great season for all of them.”Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.