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Whistler, British Columbia » It's the cruelest position, fourth place.
Many athletes at the Olympics would rather finish last than endure fourth place -- so close to the medals, yet so far from being remembered by history. Often, the penalty can be a lifetime of painful wondering what infinitesimal change might have made a difference.
And then there's Noelle Pikus-Pace.
Her glittering eye shadow wasn't even smudged as she laughed and joked and carried on like a star-spangled birthday girl, mere moments after winding up in the dreaded spot in the women's skeleton at the Vancouver Games on Friday night.
The 27-year-old Orem native and Eagle Mountain resident was only 0.1 seconds away from the bronze medal, to boot, yet the only hint that she even noticed was the fact that she mentioned it, on her way to sporting retirement and full-time motherhood.
"I got done with my run and I knew that was it," she said. "I just threw my hands up in the air, and said, 'What an incredible ride it has been.' This has been amazing. It's been perfect. I couldn't have pictured it any other way."
That last part might be overstating it, considering Pikus-Pace acknowledged she didn't want to finish fourth, behind gold medalist Amy Williams of Great Britain.
But after missing the 2006 Turin Games because a runaway bobsled broke her leg in a crash, the long-awaited opportunity to complete her comeback and take a crack at her dream -- with her husband, Janson, and 2-year-old daughter Lacee watching from the bleachers -- was just too valuable to be spoiled by the result.
"This was so worth the four-year wait," she said, her eyes still wide. "The anticipation of it was like a kid waiting for Disneyland or Christmas. It has been so worth it, I can't even explain. Everything happens for a reason, and I know that being here with my daughter and seeing her blow kisses to me between runs, that just made all the difference in the world."
Pikus-Pace cut a far different figure than teammate and fellow former World Cup champion Katie Uhlaender.
Uhlaender came back from a series of injuries to finish 11th, but spent her post-race interview saying her long recovery held her back -- earlier, she had insisted she would have "no excuses" -- and blaming the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation for not helping her enough during the Olympics.
"Honestly, this week was a complete disaster," she said.
Not so for Pikus-Pace -- or Salt Lake City's Zach Lund.
Lund slid to fifth place behind gold medalist Jon Montgomery of Canada, after entering the final two runs of the four-run competition in eighth, but only 0.14 seconds out of third.
His poor first run is what ultimately doomed him to miss the podium, four years after being thrown out of the Turin Games for a controversial doping violation. But like his fellow Utahn, Lund was grateful to have proved he could come back and finally reach the Olympics.
He even acknowledged he might not retire.
So while Pikus-Pace snapped photographs from the start area just moments before her final run, to preserve the moment, Lund knelt on his sled when he finished, as if in prayer, and came up blowing kisses and waving to the crowd after moving momentarily into first place.
"I'm disappointed and happy at the same time," he said. But "it's been totally worth it. There have been times when I doubted it, after everything I've gone through. But once I got here and experienced this, it's completely worth it. It's just an amazing thing."
Orem's Noelle Pikus-Pace finished fourth in the skeleton competition Friday.
» Zach Lund, who lives in Salt Lake City, finished fifth in the men's skeleton competition.
» Both say they're OK with missing out on a medal.