LAKE PLACID - Noelle Pikus-Pace of Orem, Utah and John Daly of Smithtown convincingly won the first of four skeleton team selection races Tuesday morning in Lake Placid.
Katie Uhlaender of Breckenridge, Colo. and Matt Antoine of Prairie du Chien, Wis. earned a bye onto the team based on their performances last season, leaving one women's and two men's spots on the World Cup squad up for grabs.
"The door is wide open for a lot of these athletes," said head skeleton coach Tuffy Latour. "I'm expecting three more great races. We have 36 athletes out here vying for a spot, and it's one of the most competitive fields we've had. It's also great to see both Noelle and John step it up with their push times. I have high expectations for both of these athletes, and I look forward to seeing what happens (today)."
Pikus-Pace announced her retirement after her final run of the 2010 Olympics, but decided to make a comeback this season. The 2007 World Champion will need to fulfill the international federation's rule of five races on three tracks over 24 months before she's qualified to compete on the World Cup tour. Pikus-Pace proved she's ready to challenge the best in the world after earning Tuesday's win by 1.37 seconds.
"It feels so good to be back, I really love sliding," Pikus-Pace said. "I love Lake Placid, the track crew is awesome, and it makes all the difference in the world to have my family here with me."
When asked if there was anything that surprised her about being back, Pikus-Pace said, "Going fast."
Pikus-Pace clocked the two fastest times of the race - 56.77 and 57.58 seconds - to dominate the women's field with a combined time of 1:54.35. She posted a start time of 5.44 seconds in the final heat to not only lead the field with the fastest push, but to break her personal best record.
"I'm on a new program and stronger and faster than I've ever felt in my life," Pikus-Pace said. "I was really super nervous for the first run of practice last week, but it's been great to get back into the routine."
Kimber Gabryszak (Park City, Utah) slid to the finish in 57.53 and 58.19 seconds for a two-run total of 1:55.72. Gabryszak, now a veteran of the team, finished second and continued to better her start times each season.
"I'm glad the first race is in the bank," Gabryszak said. "I was really nervous, as I always am for the first race of the season. It's nice to get that out of the way. The track is in great shape. I felt wonderful today and I'm super happy."
Meghan Sullivan (Bluemont, Va.) is entering her third season and finished third with a combined time of 1:56.31 after clocking runs of 57.64 and 58.67 seconds, while Savannah Graybill (Denver, Pa.) was close behind in fourth. Veteran Annie O'Shea (Port Jefferson Station) continues to battle back from knee surgery a few weeks ago and finished fifth, and Samantha Culiver (Phoenix, Ariz.) finished sixth.
Daly threw down runs of 55.68 and 56.30 seconds for a total time of 1:51.98. Daly earned his first win of the season by 1.11 seconds.
"It feels good, I like winning," Daly said. "It was a nice opening day of racing and there were some surprises in the results. Everyone slid really well and I'm happy I was able to win when the USA program is this strong. I'm excited for the season."
Daly clocked identical start times of 4.88 seconds for the second best push times of the competition.
Kyle Tress (Ewing, N.J.) popped out of the groove at the start in the first heat and was unable to make up time down the course. Tress relied on his veteran experience to stay focused and moved up three positions into second with a total time of 1:53.09.
"It's one of those things where it's actually beneficial for me to have a run like [my first one] because [popping out of the groove] is always a possibility in our sport," Tress said. "I'm really pleased I was able to pull things together ... We have a really deep field of great athletes and we're pushing each other every day. I'm extremely grateful to race with these guys."
Third year slider Ryan Sweeney (Whitehall) surprised the field by posting a combined time of 1:53.64 for third place. Tom Santagato (Astoria) wrapped up the first day of racing in fourth position, Greg West (Orange Beach, Ala.) is currently in fifth, and Mike Dellemann (Oregon, Wis.) is in sixth.