SOCHI, Russia -- An Olympic medal had eluded Noelle Pikus-Pace in the cruelest of ways during her career.
In 2005, a runaway bobsled struck her in outrun of a Canadian track, shattering her leg and causing her to miss the Turin Games in 2006. Five years later, she missed a medal by one-tenth of a second in Vancouver.
So, her jubilation was understandable Friday after she finished second in the women's skeleton event. When the journey has been as heartbreaking and mettle-testing as Pikus-Pace's, silver can look as good as gold.
"This is better than gold for me," she said, through a mixture of tears and laughter. "I'm trying to take it in and I just can't."
After finishing her last run, Pikus-Pace leapt into the stands to embrace her husband and two children. She did not leave the bleachers -- or stop the hugs -- until it was time for the flower ceremony.
"This is everything," her husband, Janson Pace, said. "It's everything to us and we're ecstatic."
Lizzy Yarnold of Britain won the event, setting a track record and besting Pikus-Pace by nearly a second. Elena Nikitina of Russia took third.
American teammate Katie Uhlaender finished fourth, missing the medal stand by four-hundredths of a second.
"I put everything I had into it and my teammate is on the medal stand," Uhlaender said. "One out of two ain't bad. I worked really hard with a lot of people to get here and my heart is broken."
Pikus-Pace, 31, revealed after the race that she had suffered a concussion during an unofficial training run last week, forcing her to miss several practices in the days leading up to the event. A U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Association spokeswoman previously had said she skipped the sessions to spend time with her family.
The injury did not impact her performance here, Pikus-Pace said.
"I felt like I laid down my best runs and Lizzy just threw down," she said.
Pikus-Pace initially retired from the sport after Vancouver, no longer content to spend months on the road without her family. Though she toyed with a comeback at various times, she didn't seriously pursue it until after she suffered a miscarriage with her third child at 18 weeks.
At her husband's urging, she returned to skeleton to find solace and the kind of empowerment that comes from flying face-first down an ice chute on a cookie sheet.
Her comeback, however, came with a caveat: The entire family had to join her on the road.
Few world-class athletes would consider such an unorthodox arrangement, but Pikus-Pace wouldn't hear any other option. She packed up her family and spent the past two years trekking across Europe and North America while competing on the World Cup circuit.
"It's not the dream without them," Pikus-Pace said, fighting back tears. "It's not perfect without them. ... For us all to be here together has been an experience of a lifetime."
And Pikus-Pace may not be the only American skeleton racer to stand on the Olympic podium, as two U.S. men are in medal contention after the first day of competition.
John Daly and Matt Antoine finished third and fourth respectively after two heats Friday, leaving them to battle for bronze when the event concludes Saturday. Daly is .16 seconds ahead of Antoine, his best friend, heading into the final two runs.
The Americans trail Russia's Alexander Tretiakov and Martins Dukurs of Latvia by more than a second. Their times will be almost insurmountable.
"It's ridiculous and mind-blowing," Daly said.
Daly indicated after the race that these could be his last Games. Pikus-Pace said there was no doubt that they would be hers.
She announced her retirement minutes after claiming silver, saying she wants to focus on motivational speaking and spend time with her children and their activities.
"I want to join the PTA. I want to bake cookies. I want to plant a big garden," she said. "I want to be at home and do the things I love.
(c)2014 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services