Pikus-Pace winning again with family by her side

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SOCHI, Russia – American skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace gave new meaning to “Mother Russia” with her win Saturday at the Sochi World Cup, held on the future Olympic track at Sanki Sliding Center. The Utah native has had a blazing comeback season — she retired after finishing fourth at the 2010 Olympics — but she says her success wouldn’t be possible without the support of her family.

With the exception of her trip to Russia, Pikus-Pace has traveled everywhere this season with her husband, Janson, and their two children, daughter Lacee (5) and son Traycen (turns 2 next month), in tow. The 30-year-old reached the podium at five straight World Cups this season, and also won silver at the World Championships last month in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

“Having my family with me has honestly made all the difference in the world,” she says. “I’m happy and just enjoying it. That’s what I attribute [my success] to.”

Pikus-Pace’s triumphant return to skeleton – in which racers slide headfirst down the bobsled track at more that 80 mph – was prompted by an emotional loss: She began to reevaluate her retirement after suffering a miscarriage last April.

“I didn’t feel emotionally or physically ready to get pregnant again,” she says. “It was actually June of last year when [Janson and I] said, ‘Why don’t we try to go for the Olympics one last time? Let’s make this a family affair.’ The only way we’d do this is if our whole family could go with us, because that’s my top priority. I just can’t leave them for months at a time.”

Pikus-Pace admits that balancing everything can take its toll, but she has the support of her coaches and team, as well as the help of her husband, who she says has taken on the role of “Mr. Mom.” The couple makes an effort to document everything, taking photos and videos so that the kids will remember their adventure, which Pikus-Pace says is already making its mark on their daughter.

“Sometimes when I come home from sliding, [Lacee] puts on my speed suit, my helmet, my gloves, and my spikes, and she pretends to run and jump on my sled,” Pikus-Pace says. “Then she just lays there like she’s going down the track and moves her body like I do.”

While Pikus-Pace says that she will support her daughter no matter what, she admits that she would prefer it if Lacee picked up a sport like tennis or softball.

“Something summer-related, so I can cheer her on in the sunshine.”

Female runners with high testosterone face new restriction

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Female runners with high testosterone must reduce those levels or will not be allowed in international races between 400m and the mile, according to an IAAF rule starting Nov. 1.

Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya, who was gender tested in 2009, is expected to be affected, according to South Africa’s Olympic Committee.

“Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes,” IAAF president Seb Coe said in a press release. “The revised rules are not about cheating, no athlete with a DSD [difference of sexual development] has cheated, they are about leveling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition.”

The IAAF, after funding a study along with the World Anti-Doping Agency, said research showed the following natural testosterone levels:

Most women: .12-1.79 nanomoles per liter in blood
Normal men after puberty: 7.7-29.4 nmol/L

The IAAF rule forces all women who race the 400m through mile and who are androgen-sensitive to restrict their ratio to below five. It said women who have “a difference of sexual development” can have natural testosterone levels beyond the normal male range.

The IAAF and WADA-funded study found that women with high testosterone have up to a 4.5 percent advantage over their competition on the track.

Research showed 7.1 of every 1,000 elite female track and field athletes have elevated testosterone, most of which were runners in events between 400m and the mile.

“The treatment to reduce testosterone levels is a hormone supplement similar to the contraceptive pill taken by millions of women around the world,” an IAAF doctor said in the release. “No athlete will be forced to undergo surgery.”

The IAAF had gender-verification testing in place until 2011, when it was replaced with a test for abnormally high levels of natural testosterone. Under that rule, female athletes with a ratio of 10 nmol/L or higher could only compete against women if they had an operation or took hormones to reduce their testosterone level.

In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) suspended the IAAF’s regulation, ruling that it lacked sufficient scientific backing and was therefore unjustifiably discriminatory.

The gender-testing issue was raised in 2009, when Semenya won the world 800m title by nearly 2.5 seconds at age 18. Word leaked that track officials mandated she undergo sex testing.

Semenya was not cleared to run for 11 months and came back to earn silver at the 2011 Worlds and 2012 Olympics, while the testosterone-limiting rule was in effect, behind Russian Maria Savinova, who has since been stripped of her golds for doping.

Semenya then had a lull in performance after the London Games while the testosterone-limiting rule was still in effect. After CAS suspended the rule in 2015, Semenya peaked again in 2016, going undefeated in 800m races, twice breaking the national record and comfortably winning Olympic gold.

Semenya has never spoken publicly in detail about her situation. It has never been publicly verified that Semenya’s body naturally produces abnormally high levels of testosterone or that she ever took hormone suppressants.

An image with the sentence, “How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be enraged,” was posted on Semenya’s social media Wednesday after reports were first published about the new rule.

Her default position is generally to talk only about her running, but she spoke out against her critics in a speech after accepting South Africa’s Sportswoman of the Year in November 2016.

“They say she talks like a man, she walks like a man, she runs like a man,” Semenya said, before finishing off the series with an Afrikaans word that loosely translates to “Get lost.”

South Africa’s Olympic Committee president Gideon Sam said Thursday his organization was “disappointed by the IAAF ruling.”

“Especially given that Caster’s name is again being dragged through the publicity mill,” he said in a press release. “We are concerned that the decisions have been approved without taking into account all factors into consideration, as these factors have not been properly nor fully ventilated. We wish to place on record that Caster Semenya has never engaged in any performance-enhancing activities and any enhanced testosterone levels are due solely to her genetic make-up.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Olympic pairs champions take indefinite break

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Aljona Savchenko, the Olympic pairs champion with Bruno Massot, said they are taking an indefinite break from competition, according to German press agency DPA.

Savchenko and Massot will perform in ice shows next fall and winter, which could preclude them from competing in major events like the Grand Prix season (late October to early December) and the European Championships in January.

The German pair followed their title in PyeongChang with a world title last month, breaking a four-year-old world-record score and winning by the largest margin (20.31 points) in pairs at an Olympics or worlds since the 6.0 system was replaced 14 years ago.

Savchenko, 34 and a five-time Olympian, became the oldest Olympic pairs gold medalist. She then claimed her 11th world medal — tying the female record held by Norwegian singles legend Sonja Henie — and sixth world title — tying Soviet Alexander Zaitsev for second on the all-time pairs list, four behind Irina Rodnina.

The French-born Massot, 29, competed in his first Olympics in PyeongChang and earned his first world title. Savchenko’s previous five world titles came with now-retired Robin Szolkowy.

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