Smallest margin between victory, defeat
SOCHI, Russia -- From the very beginning, Noelle Pikus-Pace said this was all about family. The only way she would return to the sport of skeleton for one final pursuit of Olympic greatness was if her husband and two children could follow along every step of the way.
So when she finished her fourth and final run Friday night, looked at the scoreboard and saw that her time of 3:53.86 guaranteed her at least a silver medal, she followed her heart into the stands. She climbed over the icy track, leaped up into the bleachers and fell into the arms of her husband, Janson.
"We did it! We did it!" the couple yelled back and forth.
"We did it," she said to her two children, 6-year-old Lacee and 2-year-old Traycen.
For a good five minutes, Pikus-Pace stayed in the stands hugging everyone she could get her hands on. Her mom. Her dad. Her brother. Her sister. Not until a Sochi volunteer poked her in the back and reminded her of the flower ceremony she needed to attend was the celebration put on pause. And even then, the smile never went away.
As she waited behind the stage for the ceremony to begin, she briefly had a moment to herself. She looked to the dark sky above and mouthed the words, "Thank you." She shook her head. She was genuinely in shock.
A few feet away stood another American athlete in a completely different emotional place. Katie Uhlaender had spent the past five years battling concussions, injuries, depression -- and at one point this past October had even pondered suicide. She had struggled to cope with the 2009 death of her father, former Major League outfielder Ted Uhlaender. Now, there she was, tears streaming down her cheeks, struggling to process what had just happened.
She kept repeating the same two words over and over again.
Less than an hour earlier, at the top of the Sanki Sliding Center, Pikus-Pace and Uhlaender both knew the final runs in the women's skeleton competition would ultimately determine the way they'd remember these Olympics. The 31-year-old Pikus-Pace already knew she was about to take the final run of her career. After retiring in 2010, she had returned to the sport two years later at the suggestion of her husband. At the time, she was recovering from a miscarriage, and she and Janson agreed that returning to the competition might be a good thing for her.
But the only way she would compete was if her family was with her, home and abroad. It meant that in between trips to the track there were diapers to change, children to feed and temper-tantrums to quell.
This week in Sochi she had battled the symptoms of a concussion she suffered in training, a secret she had kept quiet from the public. After an MRI, doctors cleared her to race. Before her final run, she sat comfortably in second place. Barring a major mistake, she would likely win a medal. She gave coach Tuffy Latour a hug and confessed, "This is incredible. This is what we've come all this way to do. To be in this Olympic moment."
Uhlaender, meanwhile, sat in fifth place after three runs, 0.22 seconds behind Russia's Elena Nikitina. For five years, Uhlaender had competed with a ring draped around her neck. It was her father's 1972 NLCS ring he earned as a member of the Cincinnati Reds. Before each run, she would kiss the ring and stuff it into the back of her racing suit. But on Friday night, before her final run, she took the ring off and gave it to Latour. She was doing this on her own.
As she flew down the track, her mind was clear. She slightly clipped the entrance to Turn 5, but otherwise slid flawlessly. When she crossed the finish line and looked up, her time read 3:54.34, the fastest of the competition. There were four sliders left to race and she knew she wasn't going to catch the top two, teammate Pikus-Pace or runaway leader Lizzy Yarnold, barring a crash during one of their runs.
She assumed fourth place was hers. She was OK with that. But then Russia's Olga Potylitsina finished 0.14 seconds slower than Uhlaender. There was hope. She looked into the camera, pumped her first and mouthed the words, "This is for you."
Nikitina then began her run down the course. A time faster than Uhlaender and Nikitina was guaranteed a bronze medal. A slower time and the podium spot would be Uhlaender's. The 29-year-old American couldn't watch. She dug her teeth into an assistant coach's shoulders. "You got it," he told her. "You got it."
With each passing interval, the margin between Uhlaender and Nikitina drew closer together. -0.39. -0.12. -0.11 -0.06.
But the final time was the only one that mattered. And when Nikitina crossed the finish line, her time was posted in green: -0.04.
Four-hundredths of a second, a span that is only measurable by modern technology. On back-to-back days, Uhlaender had slid more 5,460 meters. She had maneuvered through 68 turns. The task had taken her a little more than 234 seconds to complete. And she had lost a medal by less than the blink of an eye. As she stood at the finish, she couldn't fight back the tears.
"I put my heart out there," she said. "The reason I'm crying is because it broke a bit. My dreams almost came true for a second.
"It hurts so bad."
After Nikitina it was Pikus-Pace's turn to slide. Barring something unforeseen, she was all but guaranteed a medal. She knew this. But then she, too, hit the wall in Turn 5 and the normally level-headed Pikus-Pace had one thought.
"I just lost it," she said. "I just lost it."
She tried to tuck herself into perfect form. She tried to execute her run to perfection the rest of the way, hitting every point on the track like she had planned. When she crossed the finish line, her career was finished. She desperately hoped that when she looked up, she would see the No. 2 next to her name. Instead, it was a one. That's when she lost it and went to her family. Soon after, Yarnold crossed the finish line with the gold-medal time. Pikus-Pace didn't even notice. She was too busy picking up her daughter.
"I didn't know I had that high of a vertical to be honest with you," she said. "I didn't know I could jump that high. I just completely lost it when I saw that '1' by my name. Once I saw that No. 1, my heart was just filled and the emotions overwhelmed me."
From that moment on, the two American women were a study in emotional contrasts. Pikus-Pace couldn't stop smiling. She bounced from interview to interview, hug to hug and couldn't force herself to stop grinning even if she wanted to.
"This whole moment is just ... I'm trying to take it all in and I can't comprehend it," she said. "I'm a silver medalist at the Olympics!"
Uhlaender, meanwhile, also struggled to grasp what all had happened. For far different reasons. She talked about the support of family and friends in Colorado and Texas. She mentioned her father's former teammates, like Charlie Manuel. She said she felt like she let them all down.
"I thought for sure I had it," she said. "I was just on cloud nine and then it was just ripped away. Four-hundredths. I'm heartbroken that I lost by four-hundredths for them."
If there was anyone who understood what Uhlaender was feeling, it was Pikus-Pace. Four years earlier in Vancouver, she had finished fourth, one-tenth-of-a-second off the podium. She retired the next day. For the past five months, Pikus-Pace and her family had traveled the world chasing this precise moment. When they would tell their kids they were heading home only to end up at another hotel, Lacee would persistently ask, "When do we get to go home-home?"
On the road, Lacee would often slip into her mom's helmet, slide on her racing gloves and say to no one in particular, "Yay for Lacee -- where's my necklace?" Necklace, of course, was kid-speak for medal. On this night, there would be no such confusion. As she stood a few feet away from the flower ceremony, watching the crowd shower her mother with praise, Lacee asked a U.S. Skeleton official, "Is this when Mommy gets her medal?"
"Not yet," she was told. "She gets flowers. Tomorrow she gets her medal."
A few minutes later, as Lacee continued to stare, her mom gave her some advice.
"Make sure you remember this," she said to the little girl.
"I think I will," Lacee shot back.
Pikus-Pace stepped off the podium and immediately looked for her family. "Where are my kids?" she asked. "I need a hug."
Lacee was in the middle of the interview area, hugging Uhlaender, temporarily putting a smile on the 29-year-old's face with no grasp of the gravity of the moment.
A few feet away, doping control was waiting for Pikus-Pace. But not before a quick mug for the NBC cameras. Once in place, with the bright lights shining in their face, they all stood and smiled for the television audience back home. Noelle. Her husband and two children. Her parents. Her sister. Her brother and her sister-in-law. All grinning as if they had just won the lottery.
"It's not the dream without them," she said. "I can't say it any other way. It's not perfect without them. To have them here every single step of the way, it's been an experience we'll cherish for the rest of our lives."
A few feet away, Uhlaender stood expressionless. No one in her family had been able to make the trip. One by one, members of the Team USA staff came by to give her a hug. A reporter from NBC wrapped her arm around Uhlaender's shoulder. She just stood there.
After the NBC spot, Pikus-Pace hurried to a transport van that was waiting for her. She posed for a quick picture, grabbed her bags and then began walking to the van when she saw something out of the corner of her eye. It was Uhlaender. She put her bags down and walked over to her teammate. She gave Uhlaender a hug, and then another. She told her how proud she was of what Uhlaender had done, and then she quickly turned and walked away.
The medal winners' press conference was waiting.