Noelle Pikus-Pace was all smiles after winning the season's first World Cup skeleton race.
An hour or so later, she was in tears, and the victory was gone. Pikus-Pace was disqualified from the event in Calgary, Alberta, on Friday after her sled failed a post-race inspection, and told The Associated Press that the British team complained about an extra piece of tape that was wrapped around the handle.
The sled — and the tape — had both been approved for competition earlier in the week, Pikus-Pace said, and U.S. officials are now appealing the disqualification. "Clearly, clearly, I should not have been disqualified," Pikus-Pace told AP in a phone interview. "I'm so frustrated. People get away with whatever and I get disqualified for a piece of tape? A piece of tape that they said was OK? It has no competitive advantage whatsoever."
Sleds have to adhere to very strict rules, and inspectors gave Pikus-Pace's sled the all-clear on Tuesday, with the extra tape around her handle. The tape, Pikus-Pace said, assists her start of races and in theory would only adversely affect her times.
After the disqualification, Britain's Elizabeth Yarnold was placed first, Russia's Elena Nikitina moved up to second, and Australia's Michelle Steele went into third. "Many other athletes have the same thing," Pikus-Pace said. "We were all told it's OK."
The FIBT, the sanctioning body for bobsled and skeleton, did not immediately return a request for comment. On its web site, the FIBT said Pikus-Pace was disqualified for an "incorrect sled," without elaborating further.
"Noelle is devastated," U.S. coach Tuffy Latour said in a statement released by the team. "She didn't violate the spirit of the rule. But I'll tell you what; this has released the lioness in her. She is going to be on a tear, and I have no doubt she'll back on the medal stand next week in Park City, Utah."
Park City is the site of the next World Cup stop. Pikus-Pace's hope is to end her final Olympic skeleton season with a gold medal. She was in line for a medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games and finished 0.10 seconds shy of the bronze, which some in the American camp felt she should have been awarded because of what they argued were irregularities with a British slider's helmet.
And now, this Olympic season is starting with some drama as well. "It's a travesty," U.S. assistant coach Zach Lund said. "There's no competitive advantage, and we are really disappointed." Pikus-Pace was in second after the first run, then overtook Yarnold in the second and final heat. Pikus-Pace's two-run time was 1 minute, 54.88 seconds. Yarnold was 0.16 seconds back and Nikitina took third, another 0.24 seconds off the winning pace.
"I could feel the speed," Pikus-Pace said after her final run. "My head got sucked down ... but I didn't know how fast it was." Ultimately, it didn't matter, though even Yarnold tipped her cap to Pikus-Pace after the race.
"She was exceptional," Yarnold said. Katie Uhlaender, whose preseason training was interrupted by recovery from a concussion, was placed 12th for the U.S. after the disqualification. The men's competition was far more simple. Latvia's Martins Dukurs is going to be the one to catch this season — again. And he let the circuit know exactly that with a dominant showing.
Dukurs won easily in 1:51.39. He was 0.75 seconds ahead — a gigantic winning margin in a sliding sport — of Russia's Alexander Tretiakov, and a whopping 1.35 seconds better than third-place Dominic Edward Parsons of Britain.
Like Pikus-Pace, Dukurs is entering the season as the favorite for gold at the Sochi Olympics. Matt Antoine was the top U.S. men's finisher, 1.69 seconds back in seventh place. He was fourth after the first run and in medal contention, then struggled in his second run.
"It's frustrating," Antoine said. "I showed all week in training that I was in contention. I was right there in the first run, so to have it fall away to something out of my control was disappointing."
John Daly, a 2010 Olympian, was 16th for the U.S., and Kyle Tress was 22nd.