Skeleton's Pikus-Pace aiming for fairytale finish

Skeleton's Pikus-Pace aiming for fairytale finish

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EAGLE MOUNTAIN, Utah (AP) -- Banana bread baking in the oven, Utah Lake shimmering in the backyard on a spectacular afternoon. Noelle Pikus-Pace has put her daughter Lacee down for a nap, is contemplating where to go for lunch and is jabbering on about how her softball team won a championship.

The Olympics seem light years away. "Life is great, isn't it," Pikus-Pace said.

Days like this are how the 26-year-old former world skeleton champion spent the summer. Pikus-Pace was the Olympic favorite in 2006 until an out-of-control bobsled shattered her right leg 114 days before the Turin Games in a horrifying crash. The leg still hasn't fully healed, and her conditioning time and ability remain limited.

So this was her offseason plan to get ready for this winter's Vancouver Games: Focus almost entirely on the mental part of sliding, looking to recapture the mindset that once made her the world's best at sliding headfirst down the track used for bobsled and luge at more than 80 mph, and not log hours on end in the gym like many of her U.S. teammates.

It's risky. It's not what her coaches suggested. But it made perfect sense to Pikus-Pace.

"If I am there mentally, there is no doubt in my mind that I can win a gold medal at the Olympic Games," Pikus-Pace said. "If I can be ready when that green light goes off and be on that track instead of thinking about Lacee at home or the doughnut stand that's right outside that curve, I can win a gold medal. I can. I'm just figuring out how to get there."

She better finish that process soon. The calendar says it's still summer, but race season is nearly here.

Her Olympic quest -- her last, since she'll retire at season's end -- formally begins in Lake Placid, N.Y. Oct. 14 and 15, when the first two of four rounds of the national team trials are held. The trials conclude with two more runs in Park City, Utah, her home track, Oct. 23 and 24.

By then, she'll essentially know if she's headed to the Olympics. It's not going to be impossible to make the Olympic team without a top-three finish at the national trials, but it'll be extremely difficult.

That means, even after a summer where her aching leg kept her from sprinting and training in the same manner as teammates who want one of those three spots that she's counting on, Pikus-Pace has to be sharp from the beginning.

Or else, her farewell season could virtually end before the leaves finish changing.

"I hope it works out for her," U.S. skeleton assistant coach Greg Sand said. "I don't necessarily agree with it, but she's an adult. She's been a successful skeleton athlete for a number of years, so I'm going to have to trust that she's doing the best she can to make the team."

Pikus-Pace won the overall World Cup title in 2004-05, took the silver medal in that season's world championships, and was widely considered the favorite at every stop on the circuit. Then came the shattered leg, which happened when she and several U.S. skeleton teammates were standing near the end of the track in Calgary, Alberta and a bobsled operated by a relatively inexperienced American driver couldn't stop in time.

One onlooker described it like this: The bobsled was the bowling ball, Pikus-Pace one of the pins.

She went flying in a gruesome scene, then actually returned to racing about three months later in an ultimately futile bid to make the Olympic team. A year later, Pikus-Pace won the 2007 world championship, which she called "my Olympic moment."

Her gold medal from that race, incidentally, is somewhere in her basement. She's not exactly sure where.

"A big part of me has forgotten so much of what happened," Pikus-Pace said. "I don't know if it's because it was so emotional and so trying during that time, but at the same time, I need to remember. That's part of the journey. That's part of where I am today. I had so many hopes going into Torino and so little doubts. For the seasons following, that reversed. I've been sliding scared."

That's why this summer was about the mental side of racing.

Pikus-Pace is taller than many women's skeleton racers, and isn't one of the faster starters. Sliders hold the siderail of their sled with one or two hands (Pikus-Pace has switched to a two-hand start, rare in women's sliding but a move that relieves some stress on her leg) and sprint on the ice for a few seconds before hopping on and subtly moving parts of their body to direct the sled down the track.

"She's still an excellent pilot," Sand said.

Except, last year especially, she wasn't. Pikus-Pace took the 2007-08 season off to become a mom, and found herself at times last year thinking about her family back home in Utah. Daydreaming going headfirst at 85 mph toward a 10-foot-high concrete, ice-covered wall is not a good idea.

Her husband, Janson, accompanied her on the road sometimes, meaning Pikus-Pace could see her daughter whenever she wanted. That wasn't always the case.

"I missed her first word," Pikus-Pace said. "I had to leave one day after she took her first step. We celebrated her first birthday three days after she actually turned 1. It was hard."

The lure of an Olympics could make that easier. And the family is planning to be around often this season, too. "I need that," she said.

To those who are closest to Pikus-Pace, it's clear the drive is still there.

The letters "U-S-A" adorn the front door of her home. There's an American flag stuck inside the key holder on the side of her kitchen cabinets. A little knickknack with the Olympic rings is in the living room.

Sure, her priorities and methods have changed. That gold medal, though, remains as important as ever.

"My goal is just making it to opening ceremonies," Pikus-Pace said. "I think after what happened in 2006, I'm realizing how much it takes to get there. So I'm focusing on one race at a time. I've got to get through team trials, then it's one race at a time to qualify for the Olympic Games and represent the United States. I want a medal. I want to be on that gold-medal stand. And I know I can do it."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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