SOCHI 2014

By Paul D. Bowker | Jan. 13, 2014, 11 a.m. (ET)

Katie UhlaenderKatie Uhlaender finishes in first place in the FIBT women's skeleton world cup on Nov. 16, 2012 at Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah.

Skeleton is one of the most daunting of the Olympic Winter Games sports as athletes slide down face first on sleds down the icy bobsled tracks. It made its Olympic debut in 1928, came back 20 years later and then cemented its spot on the Olympic program in 2002. When the sport re-emerged in 2002 in Salt Lake City, Team USA was ready for the challenge, winning gold medals in both the men’s and the women’s events. But Team USA did not medal in the sport in either the 2006 or 2010 Winter Games. Following the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the United States found itself in a rebuilding mode as several of its top skeleton athletes retired. But coach Tuffy Latour worked hard to rebuild and even saw one of Team USA’s top athletes come out of retirement and now has a strong cast of athletes ready to compete in Sochi in February.

WORLD’S FASTEST MOM
Noelle Pikus-Pace competes in Vancouver
Noelle Pikus-Pace competes at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 19, 2010.

In less than two years, 2010 Olympian Noelle Pikus-Pace has gone from retired athlete and proud mom of one to emerge as a 2014 Olympic gold medal contender and proud mom of two. Pikus-Pace missed a medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games by just one spot and retired from international competition. Since deciding in April 2012 to go for the gold again, Pikus-Pace has been burning up the tracks worldwide with her husband and two children along for the ride. She earned the silver medal at the 2013 world championships and won a gold medal at the Sochi World Cup. Her 2013-14 season began with gold medal runs at Park City, Lake Placid and St. Moritz, and another win in Calgary that was taken away through disqualification for having tape on her sled. Even with the DQ, she is ranked No. 2 in the FIBT rankings.

GOING FOR A THIRD GAMES

Katie Uhlaender is seeking a third U.S. Olympic Team berth and a run at her first Olympic medal. She placed sixth in her Olympic debut at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games. She won a world championship in 2012, two gold medals during the 2012-13 world cup season and finished runner-up to Pikus-Pace at the Sochi World Cup in February 2013. Yet Uhlaender just might be the comeback story of the year. She has battled back from a shattered kneecap and a concussion to be back in a position to contend for an Olympic spot. She grabbed a ninth-place finish in the Lake Placid World Cup in December, followed by sixth place in St. Moritz. In her blog for TeamUSA.org, she credits the motivating lessons from her father, Major League Baseball player Ted Uhlaender, who died in 2009.

BUILDING OF A SLED

Dr. Grant Schaffner, a former scientist and engineer at NASA, played a leading role in designing the ProtoStar V5 sleds that is being used by the U.S. skeleton athletes. ProtoStar Engineering, Inc., combined with Machintek Corp. deBotech and Carpenter Technology Corp. to produce the new sled. High-strength steels were built into the sled to improve structural efficiency and create more speed. “The ProtoStar V5 is the culmination of five years of intense development effort,” said Schaffner, co-founder of ProtoStar Engineering. “I credit the successes we have enjoyed and the performance gains we have made to the very close cooperation between the technology partners and the athletes, coaches and staff.”

20 YEARS, TWO MEDALS

It took John Heaton 20 years to win a pair of Olympic silver medals in skeleton, but that’s because 20 years passed before a second skeleton competition took place in the Olympic Winter Games. Heaton took the silver medal in 1928 in St. Moritz, Switzerland, (where he finished second to his brother, Jennison) and then earned a second silver medal 20 years later when the Olympic Winter Games returned to St. Moritz. The sport was not a regular part of the Olympic Winter Games until 2002. The sled used by Jennison Heaton to win the gold medal in 1928 is on display in the lobby at Hotel Soldanella in St. Moritz. John Heaton is the only two-time U.S. Olympic medalist in skeleton. He also won a bronze medal in two-man bobsled at the Lake Placid 1932 Olympic Winter Games.

IT STARTED IN 2002
Matt Antoine competes during the Viessmann FIBT Bobsled & Skeleton World Cup on Jan. 10, 2014 in St Moritz, Switzerland.

Olympic hopeful Matt Antoine became interested in skeleton after watching the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Games on TV back home in Prairie du Chien, Wis. Even being cut from his first tryout with the national team didn’t kill his interest. Twelve years later, he is on the verge of becoming an Olympian for the first time. Antoine won the Lake Placid World Cup in December, which was his first career world cup win, and he is ranked No. 4 in the world. He has finished no lower than seventh place in world cup competitions this season and was first in every competition and training run on the Olympic course in Lake Placid.

MEDAL CONTENDERS

The top U.S. medal contenders include Noelle Pikus-Pace and Katie Uhlaender, who finished one-two in the world cup test event held last February at the Sanki Sliding Centre in Sochi. A repeat of that performance is not out of the question, especially considering Pikus-Pace’s strong start in 2013-14. “Katie and I on the podium together shows how strong we are going into the Olympic season,” Pikus-Pace said after the race in Sochi, “and a lot of that can be attributed to a great coaching staff and amazing support.” Top U.S. men’s contenders include 2010 Olympian John Daly and Matt Antoine. Antoine has medaled twice this season. Daly finished fourth at last season’s Sochi World Cup. The two finished fourth and fifth in the most recent world cup in Winterberg, Germany.

DATES TO REMEMBER
John Daly
John Daly competes at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 18, 2010.

The skeleton competition will be held over three days between the end of the luge competition and the start of the bobsled. Each of the skeleton disciplines will be conducted over two days: The women’s competition on Feb. 13 and 14, and the men’s competition on Feb. 14 and 15. Each athlete gets four runs, two on each day of competition. The combined lowest time for all four runs wins the gold medal.

THE MEDALS

Two sets of medals will be handed out in skeleton: Three medals for the women and three medals for the men. The United States did not win any medals in 2006 or 2010 and is seeking its first medals in skeleton since the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, when Americans scooped up half the medals on home ice.

USA SPOTS

The United States may qualify up to three men and three women for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, but the number won’t be known until Jan. 19. Team USA already has one spot secured. The number of U.S. slots will be determined by the FIBT standings, which include world cup, Intercontinental Cup, North American Cup and European Cup standings. A total of 30 men and 20 women will compete in Sochi.

TEAM USA SELECTION

The nominations to the U.S. Olympic Team will be made Jan. 18, after the qualification period ends. Three U.S. skeleton athletes were ranked among the top 20 men in FIBT rankings and two were ranked among the top 20 women through the first three world cups. Matt Antoine is ranked No. 4 in the men’s rankings and Noelle Pikus-Pace is No. 2 in the women’s rankings. Both won gold medals at the Lake Placid World Cup in December. The Jan. 13-19 Igls World Cup will be the last international event prior to the Olympic slots being awarded and the Olympic team nominated.

THE VENUE

The skeleton competition will be held at the Sanki Sliding Centre, which is located at the Alpika Service Mountain Ski Resort and is the first extensive sliding center to be built in Russia. It will also be host to the bobsled and luge competition. State-of-the-art technology allows for controlled temperatures along the entire course and it was designed to be one of the most challenging courses in the world. The venue can accommodate up to 9,000 spectators.

MEMORABLE DEBUT
 
Lea Ann Parsley (silver) and Tristan Gale (gold) receive their medals at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

Skeleton became a regular Olympic discipline at the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and it was at those Games that women were first allowed to compete in the sport at the Olympic level. Team USA was dominant on the home ice in Salt Lake as Jim Shea, Jr. won the gold medal in the men’s event and Tristan Gale and Lea Ann Parsley led a 1-2 finish in the women’s competition. The United States, however, has not won an Olympic skeleton medal since. Prior to 2002, skeleton’s only Olympic appearances were the men’s competitions in 1928 and 1948, both times in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

A TIE IS A TIE

In a sport where hundredths of a second can mean victory or a finish off the podium, a tie will be a tie. If two athletes tie for the quickest time after four runs, they will both be awarded gold medals. There will be no tiebreakers for any of the medal positions.

LOOK OUT AHEAD

Competing in skeleton is not for the faint of heart. After a running start that is helped by spiked shoes, an athlete plops face down and head first on a sled going down an icy track. Yes, helmets are required. Skeleton athletes will go 70 to 80 miles per hour on the Olympic track and there are no brakes. Two highly polished runners are situated underneath the sled, but they may not be heated. The temperature of the runners is checked electronically prior to each athlete’s run.

Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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