Head First In Sochi, An American Takes Second

American skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace took silver in Sochi on Friday. The medal was the first for the U.S. in the event since the Salt Lake City games in 2002, when Americans got the gold and silver.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. At the Sochi Olympics today, the women raced the skeleton. That is the terrifying sled event in which an athlete plunges headfirst down the track. An American from Utah went into the race a favorite to medal. Here's NPR's Robert Smith with her story and how she did today.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Noelle Pikus-Pace was having a very fast day. Going into her final run, she was already in second place. She needed one more perfect run. As she readily admits, she's not the fastest starter in skeleton. But she loves steering a difficult track, and Sochi is one of the toughest. By the middle of her run, Pikus-Pace was going 78 miles an hour, face-first remember. She scraped against the wall, bottled a bit on the corner and finished in 58.28 seconds.

(APPLAUSE)

SMITH: It's a good thing Pikus-Pace likes a tough track because her road to Sochi hadn't been easy. She suffered injuries, she took time off to have children. She decided to come back into the sport, but she found that everything in her life had changed.

NOELLE PIKUS-PACE: As an athlete, everything we do is very selfish. We have to focus on ourselves. We have to focus on when we need to train, when we need to eat, how much sleep we need to get. And as a mom it's opposite. It's selfless. And I have to worry about my kids.

SMITH: Her daughter Laci(ph) is six years old. Her son Trayson(ph) is two. And this is how she trained for the Olympics.

PIKUS-PACE: It's typically I wake up at like 5:30 in the morning. I have to get up before the kids do, or else it's near impossible for me to do it. So I get up around 5:30 in the morning.

SMITH: Then Pikus-Pace quietly leaves the house while it's dark and starts to run.

PIKUS-PACE: And I do it kind of Rocky-style. I do my sprints on the street or on the sidewalk right there.

SMITH: And then she sneaks back into the house, down to the basement and does some weight training.

PIKUS-PACE: And then the kids usually wake up, and they come downstairs, and they're playing on my weight equipment. I'm usually lifting Trayson as my 35-pound weight, doing sit-ups. And then I go upstairs, get some breakfast, get Laci ready for school, shower, get cleaned up, change a poopy diaper.

SMITH: Work on her sled, do some laundry, go over videos of her runs.

PIKUS-PACE: And then change another poopy(ph) diaper, get them ready for bed and do it all again the next day.

SMITH: By the way, Pikus-Pace is smiling as she gives this list. She says it's been a big change in perspective for her. It makes her appreciate her own mom. At the bottom of the run, Noelle Pikus-Pace looks up at the clock and screams. She is ahead. She yanks off her helmet, climbs up over the railing and hauls herself into the crowd, where she throws herself at her husband. Two-year-old Trayson grabs her leg; six-year-old Laci hangs on from behind.

The slider from Great Britain, Elizabeth Yarnold, goes next. She beats Pikus-Pace's time, takes the gold, but I have to say it does not look like the family notices. The group hug is still going on when the competition ends.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Second place, representing United States of America, Noelle Pikus-Pace.

SMITH: She's taking home a silver medal. Robert Smith, NPR News, Sochi.

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