KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — For the last four years, Noelle Pikus-Pace has been haunted by two inches.
Her chance at redemption has arrived.
Pikus-Pace was in third place with one run left in the women's skeleton competition at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and saw her medal slip away with one mistake in Curve 2 of that final trip down the track. So now, for the final time — retirement looms — Pikus-Pace will vie for that elusive Olympic medal starting Thursday at the Sochi Games.
"I've had many opportunities to speak for companies and local groups and every time I go to speak I show a video of myself sliding just so they know what skeleton is," said Pikus-Pace, who hails from Eagle Mountain, Utah. "And it happens to be that fourth and final run in Vancouver that I show. And every time I see it, I look at Curve 2 and I see that I went two inches to the right.
"And I know that's where I missed my Olympic medal."
For the longest time, Pikus-Pace would say that she was sliding one final season so she could share the journey with her family.
That's the truth.
It's just not the entire truth.
Now it can be told: Pikus-Pace will finally say yes, she does want a medal dangling from her neck. It's why she's still sliding. Years of workouts, years of competing, it all comes down to Thursday and Friday in Russia, where the American and Britain's Lizzy Yarnold — who went back and forth as World Cup race winners all season — figure to be the gold-medal favorites.
"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) and I'm just here to do my best."
There are other contenders, for certain. Sarah Reid and Mellisa Hollingsworth of Canada have both been strong in training, as has Katie Uhlaender of Breckenridge, Colo. — and she was second to Pikus-Pace in a show of American dominance on this track at a World Cup race a year ago. Both Americans, though, have said that they're not putting too much emphasis on what they did in Sochi last winter.
"You just have to be able to adapt to the direction you have and know what's going to happen with the pressure and the direction you get," Uhlaender said. "Any good slider can adapt."
But if this World Cup season is any indicator, Pikus-Pace and Yarnold should be in the mix all the way to the end. Both had four wins this season, though one of Yarnold's came in the season-opener when Pikus-Pace was disqualified over how much tape she applied to one of her sled handles.
For a while, that sting — Pikus-Pace says she was treated unfairly — was a motivating factor this season.
Now, no outside influences or anything else is required. All Pikus-Pace has left in her career are four runs, for that one medal that was two inches away back in 2010.
"I absolutely would not be here if I had medaled in Vancouver," Pikus-Pace said. "I was done. More than done. And my husband and two kids are back here and it's fun to see them here as well. I know that everything happens for a reason, whether it's getting hit by a bobsled going into the 2006 season, missing out on an Olympic medal by a tenth of a second or anything else life brings you, it all happens for a reason."
Her Olympic journey has been like none other.
She was the Olympic favorite entering the 2006 season, then had a leg get shattered when a bobsled smashed into her about four months before the Turin Games. In 2010, the mistake took away her medal. And this time around, she came out of retirement two years ago after a miscarriage, deciding the time was right to give the medal one more shot.
"What it comes down to in our sport is timing and precision," Pikus-Pace said. "It's about being able to go two inches to the left and be exactly where you want to be so you can have those results at the finish."