Pikus-Pace, Antoine top selection fields

LAKE PLACID – Noelle Pikus-Pace and Matt Antoine prevailed in the first of four skeleton selection races Monday after dominating the women’s and men’s fields.

Thirty-two athletes raced for a chance to qualify for one of 11 coveted national team spots at the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg.

“It’s really good to see these athletes step it up,” said U.S. skeleton head coach Tuffy Latour. “So many of these athletes are eager to make their first national team, and they are hungry to battle it out with their teammates for a spot. It was a really good competition today.”

Athletes are racing for five women’s and six men’s positions on the national team, which consists of the World Cup and Intercontinental Cup teams. Pikus-Pace and Katie Uhlaender have a bye onto the women’s national team, leaving three spots up for grabs. John Daly is the only men’s athlete with a bye, leaving five positions available for athletes racing trials.

Pikus-Pace claimed five World Cup medals and two World Championship medals last season to earn a bye onto the national team. Despite the pass, Pikus-Pace is using the trials to practice racing before the upcoming international season.

“The first week back is always a little nerve-racking,” Pikus-Pace said. “We are off of the ice for six months, so everyone is anxious to see where they stack up and where off-season training has put them. It’s nice to get the first trips down the track out of the way so we can all look forward to the competitions. After 10 years of sliding, it comes back pretty quickly, but I still feel the butterflies the beginning of each new season.”

Pikus-Pace started the 2013-2014 season the way she ended the 2012-2013 season: dominantly. The last time Pikus-Pace raced she won gold on the 2014 Olympic track in Sochi, Russia. The taste of gold fueled her throughout the off-season, and she’s returned in the Olympic year hungry for a repeat.

Pikus-Pace clocked runs of 56.80 and 56.45 seconds to finish a distant 0.92 seconds ahead of the women’s field with a total time of 1:53.25.

Annie O’Shea was runner-up Monday, which is a victory since Pikus-Pace has already secured a spot on the team. O’Shea competed last season while rehabilitating from knee surgery, and the veteran said she was excited to start the Olympic year healthy.

“I had nervous butterflies in my stomach today, which I haven’t felt in ages,” O’Shea said. “I think it’s beneficial to feel nervous, because it gives me extra drive. Last year I was just trying to get through trials, and it feels so good to finish up day one. I have more confidence now, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the races.”

O’Shea was a distant 0.87 seconds ahead of third-place finisher Savannah Graybill with a combined time of 1:54.17. Graybill clocked a total time of 1:55.04 to put herself in position for a spot on the team, while Lauri Bausch was fourth with an aggregate time of 1:55.27.

Uhlaender has a bye onto the national team based on last season’s results and did not race Monday.

Antoine said he competed “subpar” last year while recovering from knee surgery, and spent the off-season regaining strength and speed to regain his form. He left little doubt that he is ready for the Olympic season after completing the first selection race 0.96 seconds ahead of the field. Antoine slid runs of 54.81 and 55.20 seconds for a total time of 1:50.01 to make a strong bid for a national team position.

“I’ve had one focus and one goal, which was to get back to where I was physically and to get my head back into the game, and I’ve kept my head down working towards that,” Antoine said. “I’ve worked on getting faster and stronger, and never doubted my sliding ability. I want to be my best in Sochi. Last year didn’t go well for me and part of me feels like I’m undervalued heading into the season. Now I can concentrate on the task at hand and continue to get even better.”

Daly, who has a bye onto the team, finished second with a two-run total of 1:50.97. Latour said Daly made a few mistakes in the second run that prevented him from decreasing Antoine’s lead after the first heat, and he expects Daly and Antoine to be battling it out for the win today.

Athletes in position for a national team spot after the first race include Kyle Tress in third (1:51.21), Tom Santagato in fourth (1:52.27), Kevin McGlade in fifth (1:52.38) and Mike Dellemann in sixth (1:52.48).