Back on track at the UOP
It seems everything is returning to the Utah Olympic Park (UOP) track this year.
Not only is the site of the 2002 Winter Olympic bobsled, skeleton and luge events holding World Cup competitions on its track after a multi-year hiatus, but it also welcomed home some of its own this weekend at the U.S. Skeleton Team Trials.
After a particularly nightmarish 2005 season, which saw top female slider Noelle Pikus-Pace break her leg in a bizarre accident with a bobsled, Zach Lund suspended after testing positive for steroid-masking finasteride and a coach charged with sexual harassment, the American skeleton contingent took to the Park City ice to finish the beginning of what promises to be a much better season.
"It feels good," Lund said. "I had a complete lack of motivation all year. So it felt good to be here."
Lund, a native Salt Laker was sliding for the first time in months after he was banned from the sport and sent home on the eve of 2006 Turin Olympics Opening Ceremonies. Despite all of the controversy, he was still thankful for the opportunity to attend the Games.
"It helped me to be there, to know I did achieve my goal," Lund said, who stood by his claim that the drug was inadvertently ingested with a hair restoration product. "That has helped me a whole lot with my grieving and getting back on my feet knowing what I achieved."
Lund’s ban was lifted the day before the Utah event. He was looking strong after his hiatus, and slid to a top-four finish over the three-day trials.
Trials were also held in Lake Placid last week and points from both competitions were combined to determine this year’s World Cup team. The top four female finishers and top three men were selected for the team. Due to Lund’s suspension, he applied for a waiver through the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Management and Governance Committee for a spot on the team, which was granted.
Besides Lund, fellow Salt Lake resident and 2005 Europa Cup champion Chris Hedquist, 2006 Olympian Eric Bernotas (Avondale, Pa.) and Caleb Smith (Lake Placid, N.Y.), who won the trials, were also named to the 2006 World Cup team. Smith finished with 450 points, followed by Bernotas’ 440 and Hedquist’s 410 points. Lund’s three days worth of sliding earned him 300 points.
For the women, the trials were led by 2006 Olympian Katie Uhlaender (Breckenridge, Colo.) Pikus Pace, Courtney Yamada (Boise, Idaho) and Bree Schaaf-Boyer (Bremerton, Wash.) also made the World Cup team. Uhlaender finished with a final point total of 480. Pikus-Pace was second with 470, Yamada had 400 and Schaaf-Boyer took fourth with 370 points.
Pikus Pace, who quickly rehabbed her leg to finish out the 2005 season, said she still is not quite healed.
"My leg is not 100-percent and my push is about one-tenth off," Pikus-Pace said. "I think its makes me more mentally tough."
The injury, which essentially kept her from qualifying for the 2006 Olympics, where she was highly favored for gold, required a permanent rod in her leg and at one point made her question returning for the season.
"I’m sliding on talent, not passion," Pikus-Pace admitted. "I had been thinking I needed a year off, but I felt I needed to come back and compete. I think we’re all happy to turn everything around."
Pikus-Pace performed to a small hometown crowd and joined Lund and Hedquist in saying that sliding on their home ice to start off a brand-new season makes a big difference in their performance.
"I like having the trials at my home track. It’s hard sliding against guys who have seen a track like 100 more times than you," said Hedquist, who said that last year’s problems were stressful for the entire team.
The 2006 season should really be a fresh start all around for the team. Following the difficulties in 2005, the U.S. Skelton and Bobsled Team has since come under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Olympic Team and also has a new coach in Orvie Garrett (Mt. Washington, Mass.)
"We’re trying to get them focused," Garret said. "They’ve all been through a lot of adversity. I’m happy that this whole ordeal is done and we have a fresh start."
Garrett said he is already quite pleased with the early performances of his team and think this season should mark a big recovery.
"I’ve been happy with everyone who is racing," Garrett said. "Even people racing for the America’s Cup and Europe Cup spots are showing well this year."
Husband and wife sliding duo, Brady and Felicia Canfield of Park City slid to 12th and 15th place, respectively.
The sliders will return to Park City December 7-9 for a World Cup circuit stop at the UOP.
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Hotel occupancy in the Park City area during Sundance is projected to drop dramatically from a typical year as organizers shift the event online.