With two of the five U.S. Olympic skeleton racers in the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games hanging up their sleds and another undergoing surgery, the track is clear for new talent to emerge.
Noelle Pikus-Pace slid into retirement in triumph following her silver-medal performance while 15th-place finisher John Daly waited a few months to announce he was moving on.
Katie Uhlaender, who was fourth in Sochi — only 0.04 out of the medals — had ankle surgery and could be out all season.
That leaves Olympic bronze medalist Matt Antoine and Kyle Tress, who was 21st in Sochi, as the lone world cup veterans.
“The year after the Games there’s usually a lot of retirement and you see a lot of new people on the tour,” said U.S. skeleton head coach Tuffy Latour. “We’re still working on our technology projects and moving towards 2018, so we’re really looking for these kids to just come out and get their feet wet and put up results each and every week.”
This new wave of skeleton racers will have to bone up on tracks around the world. Some will race the world cup circuit, which begins in Lake Placid, New York, Dec. 12-13, while six others, who were also named to the national team, have already been competing in Intercontinental Cup events. The European Cup and North American Cup are proving grounds for less experienced athletes.
From Lake Placid, the Viessmann World Cup tour moves to Calgary, Alberta, Dec. 15-20, then to Europe in January and culminates with the world championships in Winterberg, Germany, from Feb. 23-March 8.
Olympic gold medalists Alexander Tretiakov, nicknamed the "Russian rocket,” and Elizabeth Yarnold of Great Britain will try to add more hardware to their collections.
Top Hope For Team USA
Antoine was guaranteed a spot on the 2014-15 national team thanks to his Olympic performance, but took nothing for granted and swept the U.S. trials.
“He actually dominated all four of the races,” said Latour, who is also USA Bobsled & Skeleton Director of Sport. “For Matt, it’s going to be a phenomenal year. He’s sliding very well early in the season and he has very high expectations for himself. With the way he’s been sliding up to date, he should be in the medal hunt each and every week leading up to the world championships.”
Last year, Antoine won his first world cup race in Lake Placid after many attempts, and Latour said he also excels on the tracks at St. Moritz, Switzerland, and La Plagne, France.
Tress has a career best of fifth place at the 2012 World Cup in Lake Placid.
Moving Up In The World
Stephen Garbett joins the world cup tour a year after he began racing on the North American Cup tour. He impressed the coaches with his performance in the selection races.
“We’re looking at him as a future prospect down the road and kind of moving up through the ranks over this next quad,” said Latour, a former bobsled competitor.
Savannah Graybill will make her world cup debut as USA-1. She was the women’s points leader in the selection races and is the reigning U.S. national champion. Annie O’Shea, a two-time national champ, clocked faster times earlier this week than the track record she set on the way to her first national title in 2011. O’Shea is also finally healthy after several injury-plagued years. Both Graybill and O’Shea raced on the Intercontinental Cup tour last year.
Allen Blackwell, Alex Ivanov, Greg West, Veronica Day, Kellie Delka and Megan Henry were named to the Intercontinental Cup circuit.
“We have a lot of great athletes in the skeleton program and we may end up switching people out throughout the year just to see who competes better on the world cup,” Latour said. “It’s a good problem to have. There’s a lot of talent in the program.
“We’ve got four different tours that we sent our athletes out on and we could pick them from any one of those tours depending on how people are starting to develop.”
A Fast Learner
Kendall Wesenberg won the women’s skeleton European Cup opener in Lillehammer, Norway, in her international debut. Wesenberg was also the first U.S. woman to capture a European Cup race since Uhlaender won in Igls, Austria in 2004.
“Kendall Wesenberg opened up our season by laying notice that the future of USA women's skeleton goes through her,” said U.S. coach Brian McDonald. “In my 20 years in this sport I have never seen an athlete comprehend the required skillset to excel in this sport as Kendall has displayed.
“It was great watching her dissect the track and then owning it on her way to victory in her first ever European Cup competition. She shows up wanting to win and believing she can win. You cannot teach that. One must have it, and she does.”
Wesenberg is a former club soccer player who began sliding a couple of years ago as a member of the Park City, Utah, development program. She was the surprise winner of the third U.S. skeleton selection race.
At the halfway point of the European Cup season, Wesenberg is the points leader.
"Learning all of these tracks has been kind of a whirlwind," she said. "I still have a lot to learn and I am excited to get back after it, but I am also looking forward to a little break and time with my family and friends."
The Competitive Edge
After Jimmy Shea and Tristan Gale won Olympic gold medals in 2002 (with Lea Ann Parsley winning the women’s silver), the U.S. missed the podium in 2006 and 2010.
“Both Zach Lund (who placed fifth) and Noelle came close in 2010, and we went out and started building our own equipment,” Latour said. “We’re on the sixth version of our new ProtoStar sleds. It’s all been USOC-backed and funded and we’ve done very well on them.”
He said the world cup sliders from Team USA will be on the ProtoStar V6.
“This sled is cutting-edge, there’s no doubt about it,” Latour said. “We’re using all the latest technologies. I hope (other nations) view us each and every year as a threat.”
The U.S. is up against very strong and well-funded teams from Germany and Great Britain.
“Both of those programs have a tremendous amount of backing,” Latour said. “We get great backing out of the USOC, but these guys definitely have a step up when you’re talking government funding and lottery funding. But we hold our own and we like it that way. We’re pretty excited about our prospects on all four tours.”
Can Noelle Stay Away?
Pikus-Pace attended the trials in Park City, Utah, as a spectator. “She had come down to watch the races, but she just couldn’t sit still,” Latour said. “She was just like she wants to jump back on that sled and take it down the hill.
“I was jokingly telling her, ‘Well, we’ll see you in two years.’ And she didn’t say no, so we’ll wait and see.”
Pikus-Pace missed the 2006 Winter Games after a freak accident in which a runaway bobsled smashed into her leg. She placed fourth in Vancouver, gave birth to her second child and then returned to the circuit following a two-year hiatus — bringing her husband and kids along with her. “You never know, but she’s happy with what she’s doing right now,” Latour said. “She’s getting to spend a lot of time with her family, and it’s really good for her.”
Taking A Break Isn’t All Bad
Uhlaender has a bye onto the women’s team, but may be unable to take advantage of it. She hurt her ankle a decade ago and had it fixed, but her doctor warned her she might need future work.
“Basically the ankle lasted 10 years,” Latour said, “so they had to go back in and clean everything up. The surgery went great, but unfortunately it’s a time-consuming thing and she’s out for the majority of the year, if not the entire season.”
However, Latour added that if Uhlaender follows Pikus-Pace’s example of “taking two years off and then coming back and just dominating the tour, it might be the best thing for Katie just to take a year off and then come back with a renewed interest in the sport. Skeleton really does take a toll on you and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for her to take the season off.”
Social Media Send-off
John Daly announced his retirement on Facebook on June 30, though he had filed his paperwork in April.
The 13-year veteran and two-time Olympian was in contention for a medal in Sochi after three runs, then slipped at the start of his final run to drop to 15th.
“I'm not really sure what to say and maybe I never will,” he wrote. “I have retired, I live in DC, and have a job that doesn't consist of sleigh riding. I came into skeleton as a kid and I'm leaving as a man (with the personality of a kid.) I'm not sure about the next chapter in my life, but this last journey has made me the person I am today. Good or bad I lived a dream and never let my fears get in the way of that. I wouldn't change a thing, and I'm so thankful for all the support. I will truly miss it. My career started with these words so it might as well end with them also...The track is clear.”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.