Lolo Jones moves from track to ice; Noelle Pikus-Pace back in the game
The World Cup seasons for Winter Olympic sports bobsled and skeleton open this weekend in Lake Placid, N.Y., the first of nine international tour stops plus the 2013 world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland (Jan. 21-Feb. 3). Here are four key storylines to follow as the one-year-out date from the 2014 Sochi Olympics approaches ...
Take nothing away from a rising U.S. women's bobsled team, but the story of the bobsled season, at least to start, will be about a woman who had never competed on ice until this fall. Hurdler Lolo Jones, perhaps the most polarizing figure of the 2012 Summer Olympics, is the latest track and field athlete to give bobsled a try.
She spent three weeks at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center enduring combine testing (much like in the NFL), push-start championships (not on ice) and selection races (on ice). Jones and another Olympian, 4x100-meter relay gold medalist Tianna Madison, were among six women chosen to the U.S. team as push athletes. From those six, Jones and Madison were two of the three picked to suit up in the World Cup opener beginning Friday. Their job is simple -- help their pilot accelerate the sled for about five seconds at the start, jump in and enjoy the ride to the bottom.
So, what's been the toughest part?
"Texting people when my hands are numb from the cold," Jones joked in an e-mail.
"Truth: The maintenance of a 400 pound sled. This thing is like a mini copper [sic] with no engine. I always thought that there was a team that takes care of the sled for us. I've seen the Winter Olympics and seen the bobsled at the start line. I just never knew that team that takes care of the sled is the actual athletes. We are in charge of everything from the maintenance to loading and unloading to and from the track. Even have to wash and wax it. I don't even wash or wax my own car.
"This would be like if they asked me to set up all my hurdles when I got to the start line for a race...that would never happen in track."
Jones and Madison aren't the first track and field athletes, or athletes from any sport for that matter, to switch over. The top U.S. pilot, world silver medalist Elana Meyers, played softball in college. Jones' pilot this weekend, Jazmine Fenlator, threw the discus, shot put and hammer at Rider University.
The most notable male sports stars to convert supported Jones and Madison in unison, the news conjuring memories from two decades ago:
• Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker -- "She has proven she's a competitor."
• Former 110-meter world-record holder Renaldo Nehemiah -- "Any additional exposure track and field lends to another sport, that's good."
• Super Bowl champion Willie Gault -- "It's so cold. East Germany, 15 below zero, it becomes difficult to concentrate."
• Olympic hurdles champion Edwin Moses -- "The first impression is that it's a glamour sport, which I don't think it is."
Out of all of those men, Walker was the only athlete to compete in a Winter Games (in 1992). The women do not have a four-person event, just a two, meaning a maximum of three push athletes will make the Olympic team. So, can Jones and Madison succeed and make it all the way to the 2014 Olympics?
"I can't imagine them putting in this amount of time and energy without somewhere in the back of their mind wanting to go to Sochi," U.S. coach Todd Hays said. "They're going to have to fight for it. They know how hard it's going to be."
For the U.S. women as a whole, it's a building year. Meyers is the only national team pilot with Olympic experience (and that was as a push athlete in 2010). Another top push athlete, Aja Evans, is also converting from collegiate track and field. The results won't be as important as building momentum for 2014, Meyers said.
"We've got some great athletes, but a lot of inexperience, even from a drivers' perspective," she said. "The biggest thing we've talked about is to go into Sochi to sweep the podium."
There isn't much room left in Steve Holcomb's trophy case. He's the pilot of the Night Train, the reigning four-man Olympic bobsled champion, and two- and four-man world champion.
"My ultimate goal for the season is to win a world championship title on foreign soil," Holcomb said. "My three world championships [including one in 2009] came on U.S. soil."
If there's any international site an American man can drive a sled to victory, it's St. Moritz. It's the oldest track in the world and the home of U.S. Olympic triumphs in 1924 and 1948, the last gold before Holcomb ended the drought in 2010.
"St. Moritz is kind of a celebrated, storied European track, the last all-natural track," U.S. Olympic coach Todd Hays said. "It's one of the premier tracks in the world and would certainly be a great addition to the résumé of somebody like Steve."
Holcomb's crew has already navigated the retirement of Steve Mesler after the Olympics, replacing him with Steve Langton. But the two-time Olympian believes they can be better, even after sweeping the 2012 world championships.
"It takes time to make sure we're working together as a team, to have the best push start," Holcomb said. "In Vancouver, one of the reasons we were so strong and so fast was we had one of the top stats. If we can get back to that state, we can be money again. It's not like we're terrible; we're the world champions, but there's always room for improvement."
The biggest competition is likely to come from Germans, as usual, and Russian Alexsandr Zubkov, the reigning World Cup season champion. Holcomb-Zubkov could make for the biggest U.S.-Russia duel at the Olympics.
Katie Uhlaender and Noelle Pikus-Pace are friendlier now. The top two U.S. skeleton sliders are talking more about working together than in the past, where their competitive relationship often was as icy as the tracks they shared. They could also swap unique stories from their time apart over the last year.
Uhlaender's was more publicized. In March, she attempted to qualify for the London Olympics in weightlifting 10 days after winning a world championship in skeleton.
"I thought it would be a lot like stepping on a skeleton stage, but I think I'm a lot more comfortable in a helmet," said Uhlaender, who failed to complete a snatch lift in the third weightlifting meet of her life. "Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the stands. I choked a little bit."
Uhlaender, who's had eight surgeries at age 27, still lifts six days a week -- despite
"I know I'm the fastest woman in the world on my stomach," Uhlaender said. "To be the strongest woman in the world would make it even that much more sweet."
Pikus-Pace, the 2007 world champion, came out of retirement and won all four national team selection races culminating last week in Park City, Utah. Pikus-Pace hasn't competed since finishing fourth at the 2010 Olympics and won't join the World Cup circuit until around Christmas.
"I retired without a doubt in my mind that I was done," Pikus-Pace said. "I sold most of my equipment."
She had her second child, Traycen, in March 2011, and that fall, her husband, Janson, challenged her to take one last skeleton run on the Utah Olympic Park track.
"Go up once, and if you don't want to do it, then great," he said. "No regrets."
"Once I got down to the bottom, I was like, 'Oh, great,'" she said. "[My husband] just saw me, and he saw the big smile on my face. ... I still absolutely loved the sport."
But plans changed in the spring. Pikus-Pace was pregnant with a third child, a girl. She was at 18 weeks and already had a list of baby names saved in her phone the day before Easter. She had just gotten back from a barbecue restaurant, put the kids to bed and put on a movie when she stood up to go to the kitchen, when Pikus-Pace started bleeding heavily.
"Rushed to the ER," she said. "There are two or three scary moments of my life, and that's definitely one of them. Getting hit by the bobsled [in 2005, breaking her right leg] was another."
Pikus-Pace is open when talking about the miscarriage and how she responded to it.
"We started thinking about where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do," shed said, deciding after much thought to recommit to skeleton in June. "This, for me, coming back to the sled happens for a reason."
The scruffy Canadian authored one of the iconic moments of the 2010 Olympics after his come-from-behind skeleton gold win. Montgomery, the car salesman/auctioneer,
"Not a lot of people know my name or what sport," Montgomery said in a phone interview, "but a lot of people remember the guy drinking a pitcher of beer."
Montgomery's results soon turned bitter. He was out of the top five in seven of eight World Cup stops in 2010-11 (winning the opener in Whistler, though) and 11th at the 2011 world championships. He took last season off, to take "opportunities to develop equipment in my own vision," he said, engineering a new sled and building a training facility in his garage.
"It was a fairly easy decision to make because there was nothing to be gained by competing last year," Montgomery, 33, said. "We don't make any money. There's no prize money to be had. There aren't any sacrifices." (He said he earned less than $10,000 in his best year on tour, when he was second overall and second at worlds).
"I've got 10 seasons of experience competing to be able to draw from, and last season, nobody's going to know who won the world championship, who won a single race ... but people do know who won the Olympics."
His time off paid off. Montgomery said he clocked personal-bests in two selection runs at the Whistler Olympic track -- yet he was fifth at Calgary nationals and still made to the suddenly competitive three-man Canadian team.
"Anybody that knows anything about the sport knows that I'm going to be an underdog, for sure," Montgomery said. "Martins Dukurs is, hands down, the best athlete in the world."
Dukurs is the Latvian whom Montgomery upset for Olympic gold. Dukurs won 12 of the last 14 World Cup races since the Olympics as well as the 2011 and 2012 world championships by eternal two-second gaps.
"I'm going to do my damndest to make sure that I narrow the gap," Montgomery said. "I will be nipping at their heels come Sochi 2014."