Broken leg can't shatter skeleton dreams

Published November 13, 2005

Noelle Pikus-Pace, reigning World Cup skeleton champion, watched her Olympic hopes apparently get dashed last month in a fluke accident on the track.

No, she wasn't injured careening headfirst down a course in the daredevilish Winter Olympic sliding sport. The gold-medal contender suffered a compound facture of her right leg when she was hit by an American four-man bobsled during a practice on Oct. 19 in Calgary - with Turin only 114 days away.

She and five skeleton athletes had been waiting for a truck to pick them up at the finish area and were unaware the bobsled team was taking a practice run. Silver-medalist Lea Ann Parsley also was hit but wasn't hospitalized.

Meanwhile, paramedics raced to the scene and rushed Pikus-Pace to a nearby medical center, where a titanium rod was inserted in her leg during emergency surgery. Doctors told her that a typical recovery takes six months.

But don't count the first American woman to win the overall World Cup skeleton title out so fast.

Pikus-Pace is undergoing rigorous rehabilitation and already is walking without crutches. In fact, she plans to make her first run in Utah in two weeks and compete in the World Cup (which she won last year) in Austria on her birthday Dec. 8. Her goal is to be on the U.S. team when it's announced Jan. 16. Stay tuned.

SLEEP TIGHT: Can a restless night's sleep - even a little tossing and turning - seriously affect an Olympic athletes' performance? Big time, says a former NASA scientist who has teamed with Hilton hotels to modify 160 athlete dorm rooms at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Dr. Mark Rosekind, president of Alertness Solutions, says the new beds and room features will help improve athletes' reactions in competition.

"Sleep is so important and so basic that it could make the difference between winning the gold or the silver at the Olympic Games," said Rosekind, recipient of the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. "The proper amount of sleep can boost an athletes' performance as much as 30 percent."

The new rooms replace the standard twin beds with a bedding system that includes a plush-top mattress to cut down on discomfort and improve circulation. Another amenity: to reduce anxiety over waking up on time, each room features what the designers dub "the world's easiest to set" alarm clock (which prominently displays the wakeup time, and includes connections for MP3 and CD players).

Improvements also have been made for temperature and room lighting. But if you're thinking of trying this at home, well, some of this is top secret stuff. Specific details are being withheld at the request of the USOC's sport performance team to keep other countries from copying them.

The rooms will be complete by Tuesday and many will be replicated for the U.S. team in Turin. In fact, Rosekind asserts that an athlete who gets two hours less sleep than is required "is the same as having a blood alcohol level of 0.05 when it comes to the effect on the performance." (The limit at which states consider adults impaired is 0.08-0.10).

TEAMS ANNOUNCED: Circle these dates if you're waiting to learn who's on the teams: Dec. 27, luge; Jan. 8, ski jumping; Jan. 10, men's and women's hockey; Jan. 11, biathlon; Jan. 12, cross country; Jan. 15, figure skating; Jan. 16, bobsled/skeleton; Jan. 21, snowboarding; Jan. 25, Alpine ski.

TURIN VS. TORINO: You'll hear and read both names in the coming months. But the Americanized spelling is Turin, so get used to it (even though Torino is more fun to say).

Turin, by the way, is the largest city to host a Winter Games. Its metro area population of approximately 2.2-million surpasses Salt Lake City, which had been the largest host (1.6-million).

MISCELLANY: In key 2004-05 competitions, the United States kept pace in the medal count with traditional winter sports heavyweights. It won 25, trailing Norway (33), Germany (32) and Canada (27). In 2002, U.S. athletes nearly tripled their best total with 34 medals, finishing one behind overall champ Germany. ... The Olympic torch relay is scheduled to begin Dec. 8 in Rome and wind its way through Italy for two months, including every region and province. Impress your friends with these stats: More than 10,000 torch-bearers will carry it 6,835 miles.