Noelle Pikus-Pace has one of those quintessential Olympic stories.
She would have been a huge favorite for a gold medal in skeleton - the headfirst sliding sport - in 2006, then missed the Turin Olympics that year because a bobsled ran her over and shattered her leg. She missed a medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics by one-tenth of a second and retired, insisting she was content.
Now she can see the final finish line. The end of her racing story, the last time she'll ever jump on her sled and throw herself headfirst down a mountainside chute at 85 mph competitively. Another retirement beckons after the Sochi Games.
Noelle Pikus-Pace speeds down the track during her first run of the women’s skeleton World Cup finale this morning in Koenigssee, Germany. Pikus-Pace won the race for her fourth victory of the season.
(AP Photo — Matthias Schrader)
"Yes, I'm going for a medal," Pikus-Pace said. "I've never said that before."
The one-tenth of a second that kept her off the medal podium four years ago? Pikus-Pace insists it has not kept her awake at night. Instead, she's the sort who not just says, but truly believes, that everything happens for a reason. And if she won bronze in 2010, she probably wouldn't be and racing for gold in 2014.
She's one of two clear favorites in the women's race. Pikus-Pace and Britain's Lizzy Yarnold have taken turns atop the winners' stand all season. Their rivalry has been a polite one; quick hugs get exchanged after races and compliments get offered in interviews. But there's also some animosity, because the British were among those who complained about how much tape Pikus-Pace used on one of her handles in the season-opening race in Calgary. Pikus-Pace finished first that night, then got disqualified and Yarnold was promoted to first.
"It's never going to be about her or anybody else except for me and what I can do on my sled, one curve at a time," Pikus-Pace said. "If I get distracted by other people or what's going on outside of one curve at a time, that's when I lose my focus and the results don't come."
There's also two big favorites in the men's skeleton race, and they're from one family. Tomass Dukurs of Latvia might be the second-best slider in the world. He's also second-best in his own family, given that brother Martins Dukurs has been the dominant slider in the last four years and now gets a chance to solidify his resume with Olympic gold.
Here's five things to watch in Olympic skeleton:
KATIE'S COMEBACK: Pikus-Pace and Katie Uhlaender finished first and second in the women's race last season in Sochi, and Uhlaender has been targeting the Olympics all year. She got a concussion during a training run in Lake Placid this past fall, and the time that followed away from training and sliding pretty much wrecked her momentum for the World Cup season. So for her, it's been all about Sochi.
SPEED, SPEED, SPEED: Top racers got up to 80 mph at a World Cup race on the Sochi track last season, and that's even with the chute having three uphill sections that obviously curb speed. Pikus-Pace and Martins Dukurs were the winners there a year ago, and when combining that with the seasons they've had this year, it's difficult to envision them missing a medal in Sochi this time around.
US MEN: It's an individual sport, but make no mistake, the U.S. men's trio of Matt Antoine, Kyle Tress and John Daly are a team. They're extremely close friends and decided a long time ago that they all wanted to make an Olympic team together. Now that has become a reality. It wouldn't be a shocker to see any of the three in the hunt.
HOME EDGE: The more trips a slider gets down a track, they better they learn the subtle nuances - and the more they know about where to find that tenth of a second that often separates winning from losing. So clearly, Russian sliders like Alexander Tretiakov (who has the best shot of beating the Dukurs duo) and Elena Nikitina will have a major advantage. And the Russians expect big support from home-country fans as well.
BRITISH SUCCESS: It's not just Yarnold who will be a medal hopeful for Team GB at Sochi. The British are the only team to medal in each of the past three Olympics since skeleton was returned to the program. That streak should go to four.