KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — At the base of an icy mountainside track here Friday night, Noelle Pikus-Pace covered her face in disbelief, then bounded onto a stand and leapt up and down as she received flowers following her silver-medal finish in the women’s skeleton competition.
“This whole moment, I’m trying to take it in, and I can’t,” Pikus-Pace said. “I can’t comprehend this moment.”
Down a metal walkway, maybe 100 feet and a million miles away, Katie Uhlaender tried to consider her own fate. And each time she did, she sobbed.
“Four hundredths!” Uhlaender said. “I’m just having trouble processing.”
The nature of the Olympics is that delirium and dejection can be separated by single-ply tissue.
Pikus-Pace’s tale will be celebrated stateside, because the silver medal she won Friday — trailing only Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold, who was 0.97 seconds faster over four runs at the Sanki Sliding Center — is born of a journey to which Americans can relate. Four years ago, she missed the medal stand in Vancouver by a tenth of a second — a lousy tenth of a second — and she had raced her last race. She was a mother, and she and her husband wanted more kids. She was 27. She was done.
“I looked back and I said, ‘You know what? I gave my absolute best, and I’m pleased with it,’ ” Pikus-Pace said. “I wasn’t satisfied, but I was pleased, and it was easy for me to say, ‘I’m done with my sport.’ ”
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
Uhlaender might have said the same thing at some point, too. A year before the Vancouver Games, her father, former major league outfielder Ted Uhlaender, died following a heart attack that came after a year-long battle with cancer. She struggled to compete in Vancouver. She wore her dad’s National League championship ring, won with the 1972 Cincinnati Reds, around her neck. Eventually, she grew depressed.
This year, even as she had sorted through much of the personal travails, she knocked her head against so many slides in so many places, she suffered a concussion — or maybe several. Her head didn’t clear until two weeks before these Olympics. “I thought that the theme of the season was over — of me not really being able to race at my best,” Uhlaender said.
So those stories ran down the ice here, one after the other. Entering the final two runs Friday, Pikus-Pace trailed only Yarnold, and Uhlaender was fourth, squarely in contention for a medal as well. When Yarnold’s third run yielded a track record, she put distance between herself and Pikus-Pace, 0.78 seconds — a snap of the fingers but an eternity in skeleton.
Uhlaender, meanwhile, slipped to fifth — but barely, 0.22 away from a medal. And when she finished her fourth and final run, she moved into first. She then had to watch as the four sliders ahead of her — Russia’s Olga Potylitsina and Elena Nikitina, followed by Pikus-Pace and then Yarnold — tried to beat her. All had an advantage because they were, cumulatively, faster over the first three runs.
Then Potylitsina stumbled, however slightly — 0.06 seconds slower than Uhlaender. Then Nikitina, those 0.22 seconds ahead of Uehlander, slid. From Uehlander’s perspective, Nikitina appeared to be all over the track.
“When I saw her skid everywhere, I was like, ‘No chance is she going to get anywhere,” Uehlander said.
But when Nikitina crossed the finish line, the number next to her name appeared in green, not red — meaning she had grabbed the lead. Uehlander squinted at it. Four hundredths of a second. Four hundredths.
“I don’t even know how to calculate that,” she said.
Pikus-Pace was next, and the only calculations she cared about were the most basic of numbers.
“I just hoped for a ‘1’ or a ‘2’, ” she said, because if she were first or second with only Yarnold to go, she would be assured a medal.
Her sacrifices to get there, at the top of that run, were myriad. Eight years ago, she was struck by a bobsled, so she has a titanium rod in her right leg. Her daughter, Lacee, is 6; her son, Traycen, is 2; but she lost a daughter after 18 weeks of pregnancy. The only way she would return to her sport, at the urging of her husband, Janson, was if the entire family traveled together on the international circuit.
Throw in a concussion that limited her training at the Olympics, one she revealed only Friday night, and that was enough. When she got to the bottom of the run, with a total time of 3 minutes 53.86 seconds, she was in first. The medal secured, she leapt from her sled and dove immediately into the stands, where Janson and Lacee and Traycen awaited.
“The first thing she said to me was, ‘That’s our medal,’ ” Janson said.
Yarnold’s final run settled the results: gold for Great Britain, silver for Pikus-Pace, bronze for Nikitina. At the flower ceremony, they could hardly contain themselves. Pikus-Pace blew kisses, bounced up and down, smiled a smile that looked permanent.
“I never thought that this moment would come,” Pikus-Pace said. “I never thought that this could be real.”
And around a corner in the shadows, the other side of the Olympics played out.
“I put my heart out there,” Uehlander said, “which is why I’m crying because it broke a little bit.”