KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Noelle Pikus-Pace leapt off her sled, hopped up into the stands, hugged her family and looked on in glee as she clinched a silver medal at the Olympics. She was watching the Olympics with her kids, and she was in the Olympics with her kids, all at once. There were screams from her daughter at her side – "I'm thirsty!" – and screams from the fans all around her. She leaned over and brushed her daughter's hair out of her face. "We did it!" she said. They all did it.
Moments later, in the relative darkness of the mixed zone, Katie Uhlaender stood alone in the cold, wiping away tears, trying to think of something, anything to say about the tiny sliver of time that kept her from her dream. She had missed the podium by four one-hundredths of a second – 40 milliseconds.
"I'm so heartbroken," Uhlaender said. "I'm sorry. I'm trying not to cry. I don't know what to say. I'm sorry."
There are times when we feel we have it all. And there are times when we feel we gave it all and got nothing in return.
For Pikus-Pace, it was all too perfect, "better than gold for me," in her own words. She had gone into retirement after a devastating fourth-place finish in Vancouver, deciding to raise a family instead of sledding. She had two beautiful children and then had a miscarriage. It crushed her soul when doctors told her, after 18 weeks, that the baby's heart had stopped beating. But her husband, Janson Pace, told her to pick up the sled again, and this time the whole family would be a part. "I know you can be great," he told her. He was more right than he knew.
On Friday, after months of splitting her time between dropping off the kids at school and training – sometimes lifting weights with her children scampering around her feet – Pikus-Pace, 31, got to the starting line of the skeleton final.
It was the same starting line Uhlaender, 29, had crossed only minutes before. She had dealt with her own struggles, including the loss of her father five years and two days before. Ted Uhlaender was a big-league ballplayer in the '60s and '70s. He was part of a National League pennant-winning team. Katie lost her purpose when he died of a heart attack, but she always took him with her during her races: She wore his National League championship ring even as she slid. She made it all the way to the Olympics in Vancouver, and then came back again this year with a medal in mind. On Friday, before her final run, she gave her dad's ring to her coach. This time, she said, she would go on her own.
Uhlaender's race was fantastic. She came from well behind to vault herself into the lead. When she got up off the sled and saw her time, she fell back down onto the track in a blend of shock and exhaustion. She was right there.
"I thought my dreams came true," she would later say, "for a second."
Noelle Pikus-Pace earns silver in women's skeleton
Pikus-Pace's Olympics had been rough. During a training run last week, she went hard into a turn and blacked out. She suffered a concussion and needed an MRI a week before her final race. She had to scale back on her practice runs, and that was no light matter considering the track here has three uphill stretches – a rarity for skeleton courses. There was even a brief hesitation about whether she should compete.
She went ahead, though, and with the world watching she breezed into first. Then she was climbing into the stands. "What is she doing?" Janson said to himself. "What is she doing?!" Then, "I guess I better go hug her." He did, and the entire family watched the greatest moment of their lives unfold.
Uhlaender watched a nightmare unfold. She had been good enough, but a Russian racer named Elena Nikitina had been a fraction more so. It's hard to fathom how close Uhlaender came. A lightning strike takes one one-hundredth of a second. She had lost by four lightning strikes.
"I don't even know how to process this," she said, looking down. "It's the first time I've put everything I had out there and it wasn't enough."
She showed class, saying more than once how happy she was for Pikus-Pace. Then she apologized because four one-hundredths of a second was the time between her and two American medals. There was nothing to apologize for, but she apologized anyway. "I'm so sorry," she said.
Her coach walked over and gave her a hug. "It hurts so bad," she told him.
The celebration around Pikus-Pace only grew. Janson carried son Traycen on his shoulders, and mom kept hugging daughter Lacee as she waited to walk up the stairs to the podium. Once she did, she was overcome. She let herself cry. She raised a fist. She couldn't stop smiling, for minutes that would become hours.
"I never thought this moment would come," she said. "I never thought this could be real."
Later, in the news conference, Pikus-Pace would be asked about the future. She was retiring for good, she said. She wanted to "go to PTA meetings and bake cookies." She was reminded that things would be different now: She would be an American hero, representing more than just sports but parenting, too, and being a wife with a doting husband. "It's not the same without them," she said of her family. "It's not perfect without them."
[Photos: Emotional Olympic celebrations]
But it is perfect. She'd made it perfect. There is no reason to doubt now. She has the belief of her husband, her kids, and a thrilled nation. She wants to speak to children and adults alike. And when she speaks of hope and faith, people will listen, and be inspired.
As Pikus-Pace and her family grinned for one more TV interview, Uhlaender stood well off to the side and watched. The silver medalist started to walk away and then saw her teammate standing there. She walked quickly over to Uhlaender and squeezed her in a long hug. She told her she was proud of her. Uhlaender's eyes welled up again.
Then Pikus-Pace walked off. There was so much to do: interviews, pictures, celebrations.
Uhlaender bit her lower lip, and watched her go.
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