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Skeleton gold could be harbinger

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- According to delegation head AndyHunt, Great Britain came into these 2010 Olympics with one concrete goal: to improve on their results from the 2006 Turin Games, from which they returned with a single silver in women's skeleton. And so, in one fell swoop -- or one face-first slide, really -- that goal was achieved Friday night at the Whistler Sliding Centre when Amy Williams completed the last of four runs to take the gold.

"I can't believe it's actually happening right now," Williams said after she bested two Germans. "I feel like I'm in a little bubble and I don't know if it's all real, but I think it is when I pinch myself."

In terms of her winter success, Williams pretty much is in a bubble as far as the U.K. goes. Great Britain, host of the 2012 Summer Olympics, is something of an inverse Austria when it comes to Olympics, really good in the summer (47 medals in Beijing in '08), and really irrelevant in the winter (Great Britain's record haul of three winter medals comes from 1936).

"We're not an alpine nation," Hunt noted. "But skeleton is a sport we invested in properly, and when we do that, we can deliver." Hunt said that Britain has invested over $900 million in the last seven years in summer sports, and around $9.5 million in winter sports.

There are no sliding courses in Great Britain, which makes the development of a gold medalist like Williams unlikely. Williams had been a regional-level 400-meter runner, and in 2002 tried out for skeleton at the lone push-track in Bath, where she grew up in Great Britain.

Hunt added that there is internal desire to increase funding and to improve British winter sports, starting with sports where they've had some international success, primarily skeleton and curling, and perhaps bobsled.

For now, British fans will have to be content to go bonkers over a medal or two from Vancouver, as did a group of clamorous and shirtless Brits on Friday who had "Amy" written on their stomachs. "I have no idea who they are," Williams said.

U.S. skeleton athlete Noelle Pikus-Pace moved up from seventh after her first of four runs, to fifth after her second run, and then fourth after her third run, ending 0.1 seconds out of the bronze medal after her fourth and final run. But Pikus-Pace is about the last person on Earth to get self-pitying fourth-place syndrome.

Coming off of a silver at the 2005 World Championships, the 27-year-old Pikus-Pace was a medal favorite for Turin, until late '05 when a bobsled shattered her leg and her '06 Olympic dream. The brakes weren't pulled in time on the bobsled after a training run in Calgary, and it plowed into an area where Pikus-Pace and teammates were standing. Pikus-Pace had a titanium rod inserted into her right leg, and returned to competition less than two months later in a valiant but failed attempt to make it to Turin.

By the '07 world championships, Pikus-Pace had returned to peak form, and took home the gold, just before an extended break from competition that coincided with the birth of her daughter Lacee Lynne Pace, now 2. So after more time off -- in this instance by her choosing -- Pikus-Pace again returned to form, and the three time world championships medalist made her Olympic debut this month.

Despite being an Olympic rookie, Pikus-Pace said she had no butterflies. "I was listening to "Flies on the Butter" by The Judds, so that's pretty mellow," she joked.

Clad in her trademark pink sliding suit, her hair streaked with red and blue, Pikus-Pace shared an infectious smile and enthusiasm after every run, despite finishing a spot out of the medals. "This was so worth the four-year wait," she said of her dream deferred. "I was like a kid waiting for Disneyland or Christmas, and it's been so worth it ... Everything happens for a reason, and being here with my daughter and seeing her blow kisses to me between runs made all the difference in the world."

Pikus-Pace is known for putting messages on the bottom of her sled that fans can see before she puts the sled down on the track. In the past, her sled has borne sayings like: "keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle," or "never buy a car you can't push." In joking reference to the bobsled accident, she once had "break a leg." But, on Friday, on the run she said will be the last of her skeleton career as she turns to family and her Snowfire hats business, she pared down the message to simply: "U-S-A."

"I got done with that run and I knew that was it and I just threw my hands up in the air and said what an incredible ride it's been," Pikus-Pace said. "This has been perfect."

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