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U.S. Skeleton Sliders Move Beyond Drama

January 12, 2006

The coach she wanted with her in Germany is 4,000 miles away, accused of sexual harassment. Her close friend and teammate was suspended for a positive drug test. These are uncertain times for Noelle Pikus-Pace and her U.S. skeleton teammates, with World Cup races awaiting this weekend and the Olympics less than a month away.

``We’ve had our ups and downs,″ she said. ``That’s for sure.″

As the sliders resume World Cup racing, coach Tim Nardiello’s quest to rejoin the team remains on hold while sexual harassment claims against him are investigated. And the squad is still reeling from Tuesday’s announcement that World Cup men’s overall leader and Olympic gold-medal favorite Zach Lund has been temporarily barred from racing over a drug test that showed a masking agent in Calgary earlier this season.

``The dynamics of our team is pretty shook up,″ Pikus-Pace said in an e-mail interview with The Associated Press from Germany, where a World Cup competition opens Thursday. ``It is very hard to focus on a competition when our team is struggling to be a team.″

On Tuesday, a New York Supreme Court Justice refused to reinstate Nardiello, whom the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation placed on paid administrative leave Dec. 31 because of the harassment allegations. Meanwhile, Lund received a letter from the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation provisionally suspending him until a hearing _ and leaving his Olympic hopes in jeopardy.

Pikus-Pace said Lund’s situation is nothing more than an ``unfortunate misunderstanding.″

``I have all the hope in the world,″ Lund said. ``Until they tell me I’m not going, I’m going to believe I’m going to the Olympics. I know I’m an Olympian.″

Both Lund and U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation president Jim Shea Sr. said the positive test was triggered by usage of the hair restoration drug Finasteride. Lund has taken hair-restoration products since 1999 and has always declared them on his medical forms. Plus, the USBSF granted him a Therapeutic Use Exemption, which provides a way for athletes to use some medications prohibited under anti-doping laws.

Finasteride has been known to mask certain performance-enhancing drugs.

``Zach Lund has never taken any of these other substances, so there was nothing for him to mask,″ read a statement distributed Wednesday by the USBSF. ``He has never taken any substance that would give him an unfair advantage over his competitors.″

Lund strongly denies that he was doping, saying that he doesn’t even ingest protein shakes or other over-the-counter supplements in an effort to avoid any accidental positive tests.

``For anyone to think he’s using this to mask anything is ridiculous,″ Nardiello told the AP. ``Zach is the best skeleton slider in the world right now and it would be a crime for anyone to think this of him. He’s produced blood tests, the whole nine yards _ and he’s tested negative since that positive in Calgary.″

On Wednesday, Lund said his attorney, Howard Jacobs, was encouraged after meeting with officials from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. A hearing on the matter is tentatively scheduled for either Jan. 20 or Jan. 23.

``I really think they’ll see this for what this is,″ Lund said.

In skeleton, athletes slide headfirst on a sled at more than 70 mph on the same track used for bobsled and luge. The sport was added to the Olympics in 2002, and Americans won gold medals in the men’s and women’s events.

And this weekend’s World Cup in Konigssee, Germany, has high stakes for the Americans.

It’s the last race before the USBSF nominates its Olympic team. And for the women’s team, this weekend will determine if the U.S. gets one or two sleds in Turin. Katie Uhlaender seems locked into one spot; if the U.S. gets another women’s sled in the Olympics, it’ll likely be driven by either Pikus-Pace or Courtney Yamada.

It’ll be only the third race back for Pikus-Pace, who fractured her leg while training for the season-opening competition in Calgary less than three months ago.

``I am going to race the best that I can this weekend, stay positive, and have the hope that our team will earn enough points to allow for two spots to go to the Olympics,″ Pikus-Pace said. ``That would be a dream come true.″

Pikus-Pace said she’s feeling better physically now than at any time since the accident. The more difficult challenge, she acknowledged, is handling the off-ice distraction.

``I suppose our training on the ice is our physical training and the rest of it is our mental training,″ she said. ``We’ll find out how mentally tough we really are. ... We have to have the race of our lives this weekend.″

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