KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — For Noelle Pikus-Pace — wife, mother of two small children and newly minted Olympic silver medalist in skeleton — it was the best Valentine's Day ever. For Katie Uhlaender, it only brought a broken heart.

Pikus-Pace finished fourth at the 2010 Olympics by 0.10 of a second, and it gnawed at her for four years. Uhlaender finished fourth Friday by an even smaller margin — 0.04 of a second. When Uhlaender hugged Pikus-Pace's 6-year-old daughter and wept under a gorgeous full moon, it was heart-wrenching to watch.

"I thought for sure I had it, so I was just on cloud nine," Uhlaender said. "Then it was just ripped away — four-hundredths. I mean, I'm really proud of Noelle. I'm glad that, one out of two, we did it. Four hundredths!"

Despite three herniated discs that put her flat on her back in recent days, Pikus-Pace vaulted a steel railing to reach her family after finishing 0.97 of a second behind gold medalist Elizabeth Yarnold of Great Britain.

"Oh my goodness, absolute best Valentine's in the whole wide world!" Pikus-Pace said later as she made her way through interviews. "Where is my husband? I need to give him a big smoocheroo. I need my husband. And my kids."

She kept jumping up and down with glee. Uhlaender swung between tears, wisecracks and more tears. She thanked supporters in her home states of Colorado, Kansas and Texas.

"I just felt the support of America behind me," Uhlaender said, "and I'm just heartbroken that I lost it by four-hundredths for them."


Advertisement

Uhlaender suffered a concussion in October and had only two weeks of normal training — on a new sled — before coming to Sochi.

"I was still getting my feeling for it, but I didn't want to make any excuses," Uhlaender said. "I said I'm going to drive this thing the best I can, I put my heart out there. Which is why I'm crying, because it broke a little bit."

Pikus-Pace retired after the 2010 Vancouver Games to focus on her family. Two years later her husband talked her out of retirement for Sochi.

Katie Uhlaender of the United States, right, greets teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace after their third runs during the women’s skeleton competition at the
Katie Uhlaender of the United States, right, greets teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace after their third runs during the women's skeleton competition at the Winter Olympics on Friday in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. Pikus-Pace won the silver medal. Uhlaender finished in fourth place. (Dita Alangkara, The Associated Press)

"I never thought this moment would come," Pikus-Pace said. "I never thought this could be real. Two years ago my husband said, 'Maybe you should come back, I think we could do it, if we do it as family, I know you could be great.' I came back and we traveled together as a family, through sponsors, through donations, one penny here, one penny there. This is better than gold for me, this whole moment. I'm trying to take it in, and I can't comprehend this moment."

Uhlaender stood in fourth place after the first two runs on Thursday. She thought she nailed her third run Friday and was stunned to see it put her in fifth place. But she had a good fourth run, and when bronze medalist Elena Nikitina of Russia appeared to have a ragged one, Uhlaender began to believe she was in the medals.

"I saw Nikitina skid her whole way down the track, and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I think I have it,' " Uhlaender said. "I couldn't look. I turned around and it said four-hundredths. Oh ... I thought my dreams came true for a second. But yay, USA."

Pikus-Pace was thinking on her last run that whatever the outcome, it would be the last run of her career. And when she hit the wall on curve No. 5, she thought, "There it goes. I just lost it."

She focused harder. She tried to execute every remaining curve perfectly, and when she crossed the finish line her dream came true.

"I couldn't contain myself, as you all saw," Pikus-Pace said. "My husband and I just kept saying, 'We did it. We did it! We did it!!' I'm a silver medalist in the Olympics, and it's just so hard to comprehend that right now."

But for Uhlaender, a night so hard to take.

"I need to go find her and give her a great big hug," Pikus-Pace said, "because I know how that is."

John Meyer: 303-954-1616, jmeyer@denverpost.com or twitter.com/johnmeyer