KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - Noelle Pikus-Pace is two runs away from adding an Olympic medal to her already impressive sliding resume after finishing the first day of women’s skeleton Olympic competition at the Sanki Sliding Center in second position. Katie Uhlaender is just 0.14 seconds from podium position after finishing fourth at the halfway point.
“That would be a dream come true if Katie and I could both be up on that podium together, to have two U.S. flags flying and waving in the wind,” Pikus-Pace said. “That would be absolutely incredible.”
Competition continues at 7:40 p.m. tomorrow with the third and fourth heats. All four heats will be combined, and the athlete with the lowest total will be declared the winner.
Pikus-Pace kicked off the Olympic race as the first competitor to take a run. She pushed a start time of 5.15 seconds and clocked a record-breaking finish time of 58.68 seconds. Elizabeth Yarnold from Great Britain was next on the line. She posted a start of 4.95 and cruised to the finish in 58.43 seconds to break Pikus-Pace’s newly set record.
Russian Elena Nikitina was the 12th competitor to take a run in the first heat, and she blasted off the start block in 4.89 seconds to smash the record. Nikitina navigated her home track to the finish in 58.48 seconds to bump Pikus-Pace into third. Uhlaender, also late in the start order, finished on her teammate’s heels in fourth with a time of 58.83 seconds.
“My speed was low in the first run,” Pikus-Pace said. “I knew I had a lot to clean up in the second heat if I wanted to stay in medal position.”
Pikus-Pace corrected a few of the mistakes she made in the first heat and clocked a consistent second run of 58.65 seconds to maintain her position. Nikitina was next up, but she posted only the fifth fastest time of the heat after a mistake midway on the course and fell behind Pikus-Pace into third. Yarnold expanded her lead of 0.25 seconds after the first heat to a margin of 0.44 seconds with a second run time of 58.46 to solidify herself as the overnight leader.
“It’s a pretty big margin, to be honest,” Pikus-Pace said. “Anything is possible, but it’s a pretty big margin. Lizzy laid down two solid runs today and it shows. She’s done very well this season and she’s going to come out tomorrow and be ready to lay it down.”
Yarnold and Pikus-Pace each won four World Cup gold medals this season, and Yarnold edged Pikus-Pace for the overall title. Yarnold claimed eight medals, but stumbled in the finale with a ninth place result, while Pikus-Pace never finished lower than third this season. The pair was expected to battle it out for gold at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, so it’s not a surprise they are 1-2 at the halfway point; although Pikus-Pace raised a lot of questions from competitors and media when she decided to only take two of the six available official training runs.
“I’m just trying to take it a day at a time,” Pikus-Pace said. “It’s pretty hard when I only had only a few runs here, but I felt well coming into the race today, although my first run was pretty sloppy to say the least. I feel happy with how I was able to come back in the second run and put it down. I know what I need to change tomorrow, and I’ll be ready to give my best.”
Pikus-Pace missed the 2006 Olympics after suffering a compound fracture to her leg when a bobsled ran into her in the outrun during a training session that fall. She came back to win the 2007 World Championships, but she wasn’t satisfied until she could call herself an Olympian. She raced her way to fourth place in 2010 before retiring, but the dream of reaching the Olympic podium brought her back to the ice two seasons ago.
“After finishing fourth in Vancouver I’ve always said, obviously everyone is going after that gold medal, but after missing that bronze by one-tenth of a second, I’m pretty sure I’ll be stoked just to be on that podium tomorrow,” Pikus-Pace said.
Uhlaender had the third fastest time of the second heat, 58.75 seconds, and is in fourth position heading into the finals. Nikitina is in jeopardy of falling back to Uhlaender, who is hungry to make her first Olympic podium appearance. Uhlaender finished sixth in 2006 and 11th in 2010. She became a favorite to medal in 2014 after breaking the track record and finishing second to Pikus-Pace at the World Cup race on the Sanki track last February.
“I’m having mixed feelings,” Uhlaender said. “I was really happy with my first run even though I made some mistakes at the top that cost me quite a bit of speed, but the second run I had a huge mistake at the bottom that cost me from pulling ahead.”
Uhlaender said the ice conditions are optimal, and she’s eager to get back on ice tomorrow for the final heats.
“The ice is phenomenal,” Uhlaender said. “It’s better than it was in training and whoever they’ve got working on the ice, kudos, because they are doing Olympic level work.”
The men’s skeleton Olympic competition begins at 4:30 p.m., followed by the women’s medal deciding heats at 7:40 p.m.