SOCHI, Russia — In the days leading up to the biggest skeleton race of her career, Noelle Pikus-Pace did something world-class athletes rarely do: She took some time off to soak in the Olympic atmosphere with her husband and children.
The United States' top racer participated in only two of six official training runs here, passing on opportunities to familiarize herself with the course and its unusual uphill passes. It's an unorthodox approach — especially with the women's competition starting Thursday — but it's one that has worked for Pikus-Pace since she came out of retirement two years ago.
"Being a mom is my first priority and it always will be. To be able to do this all together is a perfect storm," she said before the Games officially opened. "To be able to come here with my husband and then to see [my children] Lacee and Traycen standing there waving has been a perfect experience."
Pikus-Pace, 31, has dominated her sport this season, reaching the podium in nine of 10 races. She won the 10th race too, but was disqualified for a sled violation in a controversial post-race inspection.
She finished second behind Britain's Lizzy Yarnold in the World Cup standings this year because of the disqualification, creating arguably the most exciting rivalry in sliding sports today. Both women are expected to make the medal stand in Sochi, though they'll face tough competition from German, Russian and Austrian racers.
"The competition is so fierce," Yarnold said. "We're a group of very, very strong and ambitious women so I'm very proud to compete alongside [them]. I'm just here to do my best and do myself justice."
Pikus-Pace and American teammate
"It does add confidence. We feel very confident at this track," Pikus-Pace said. "Neither of us came for international training back in November, so every other nation has quite a few more runs than we do on this track. But it's not about quantity, it's about quality. The track will be a bit different than it was last year with the ice conditions, and we are ready for that. "
Uhlaender, a three-time Olympian, has battled injury during the last year and ended the season ranked No. 12 in the world. She has finished in the top 10 in all six of her training runs here.
"I think I'm doing all right as far as ranking goes with what's happening down the track," she said. "I think race day is where you want it to come together anyway."