Noelle Pikus-Pace finished her final run at the skeleton world championships on Friday, hopped off her sled and thrust her arms skyward.
She knew the title was out of her reach. But after sitting out for two years, trying to convince herself that she was retired, a silver medal was certainly worth savoring.
Pikus-Pace further established herself as an Olympic medal favorite — again — with a second-place finish at worlds, finishing only behind Britain's Shelley Rudman on the historic track in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Rudman finished the four-run, two-day competition in 4 minutes, 38.60 seconds, with Pikus-Pace winding up 0.57 seconds off that pace.
Canada's Sarah Reid won the bronze, another 0.84 seconds behind Pikus-Pace.
"What a great day," Pikus-Pace said. "I felt so much better today and I am excited to be on the medal stand. This has already been such an amazing year."
And now, it's off to Sochi, site of the 2014 Olympic Games. The World Cup season ends there in two weeks, but training days there will be more about sliders figuring out the fastest way down the new track and putting together tons of data to take into the Olympic season.
"I'm really pleased with my results and I know I can be competitive with the best in the world," Pikus-Pace said. "I've raised the bar for myself at this point and expect to be at the top."
Britain's Elizabeth Yarnold was fourth, 1.54 seconds behind Rudman. Canada's Mellisa Hollingsworth was fifth, Australia's Michelle Steele took sixth and 2012 world champion Katie Uhlaender of the U.S. was seventh in 4:40.56.
After that, no one else was within 3.39 seconds of the winning time.
Rudman entered the final two runs at St. Moritz on Friday morning with a lead of exactly one second over Pikus-Pace, a massive cushion in sliding. And while Pikus-Pace made a significant dent into that deficit, there really was no way that she would grab the lead unless the British star made a big mistake.
That simply didn't happen. Playing with a huge lead, Rudman was slightly cautious, but close to flawless in her final two runs.
"I was a bit more relaxed coming into today," Rudman said. "But I still didn't expect to win until it was over. Things went well, so I'm happy."
So was Pikus-Pace.
She felt confident entering the final day that she, at minimum, would hang on to the second spot. The resident of Eagle Mountain, Utah, said she had a bit of trouble at the top of the track, yet more than made up for that with steady acceleration as she got deeper into her runs.
"I felt I got in my own way yesterday," Pikus-Pace said. "And today I was able to come in with a clear mind. I felt great, laid down two good runs and it's been just a great race with these women."
Pikus-Pace now has a gold, two silver and two bronze medals from her last five starts on the top international circuit.
A year or so ago, she would have dismissed that as impossible.
She would have been the gold-medal favorite at the 2006 Turin Olympics, if a bobsled driver had not lost control of his sled and smashed into her at the end of a training run, shattering her right leg and nearly ending her career. A year later, at St. Moritz, she won the world championship, and eventually finished fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Games, a mere one-tenth of a second away from a bronze medal.
Pikus-Pace insisted to all her close friends and family at the time that she was retiring after those Olympics, saying time and again that she wasn't bothered by leaving the sport without an Olympic medal.
Many of those people didn't believe that she was done. They were right.
Pikus-Pace announced her return to the sport last August, doing so, perhaps not coincidentally, during the London Olympics. She's been on a quest to raise about $150,000 in sponsorship money to allow her family to travel with her on the international circuit, saying she would not compete if she couldn't have her husband and children along for the ride.
The sponsorship attempts continue, and will likely pick up some speed now that she's added a world championship silver medal to her collection.
"I know what I'm capable of now," Pikus-Pace said. "And it just makes me even hungrier to win next time."