Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press
Noelle Pikus-Pace starts her skeleton run at the Utah Olympic Park in February.

Last weekend, Noelle Pikus-Pace had her own hotel room in Italy for a few days, a perk of being the top-ranked American woman so far this season on the World Cup skeleton circuit.

It helped make an emotionally tough time a little bit easier.

The World Cup tour its way to Cesana Pariol, Italy, site of the sliding events at the 2006 Torino Games. Pikus-Pace would have been the gold-medal favorite at those Olympics, but saw those hopes shattered when a bobsled smashed into her leg during a training run in Calgary, Alberta, and a valiant comeback bid wasn't enough to get her to Torino.

She was back at Cesana Pariol last weekend, though, and while looking ahead to Vancouver 2010, flashbacks of missing Torino 2006 were to be fully expected.

"It's a reminder of why I'm still doing this," Pikus-Pace said. "I've tried to map out my schedule this year and find reasons and find aspects of this sport that I want to take with me, because this is my last season, these are my final runs.

"And at every track, I have different goals," she added, noting she was "excited to get on that (Torino Games) track because it was the Olympic track."

Before last weekend, Pikus-Pace had been on the Torino track once since the 2006 Olympics, finishing third in a World Cup race there in 2007, just two weeks after winning that year's world championship.

She skipped the 2007-08 season to have her daughter Lacee, and the World Cup tour didn't race on the Cesana Pariol track last season after a huge snowstorm dumped more than 8 feet of snow on parts of the region. The resulting avalanche conditions forced a road closure that kept most international athletes from getting to the track.

There were blizzard conditions there last week, too, but the races were still staged.

"I'm really excited for this race," Pikus-Pace said before finishing sixth in last Friday's event, just behind U.S. teammate Katie Uhlaender, who finished fifth.

It was more than the memories of what might have been that were tugging at Pikus-Pace last weekend.

To use a word she herself offered, Pikus-Pace was "awful" at times when racing outside the United States last season. The new mother couldn't find the balance between the demands of the job and the demands of her new family, especially when special events were going on back home in Utah — milestone events like Lacee's first words, first steps and first birthday.

This year, it seems easier for Pikus-Pace, partially because her daughter is older, partially because this is her farewell season.

"I know it's going to keep getting easier as the weeks go on, simply because I prepared myself for it this summer," Pikus-Pace said. "I knew what to expect.

"Last year, going into it, I had no clue what to expect, so I was preparing myself for what I thought might take my mind off sliding. Now I feel like my heart is back into sliding. I know she's taken care of. So I'm excited and ready again."

Soon, she hopes that translates into results.

After three World Cup events — the first two were held on the U.S. tracks at Park City and Lake Placid — Pikus-Pace ranks tied for seventh with Uhlaender in World Cup points. Not bad, but nowhere near the level she wants to be at, both at this point and for the Vancouver Games that are now less than three months away.

Pikus-Pace was 13th in a snow-shortened event at Park City in the first World Cup stop of the season, then improved to fifth a week later in rainy Lake Placid as she continues adjusting to the sled her husband, Janson, built for her this past summer. The circuit then took a week off, giving bobsled and skeleton teams time to prepare and ship their equipment for a lengthy European swing.

"I know that I'm back to where I need to be," Pikus-Pace said. "I can be back on top in any race."

That means she's come full circle. The last time she truly felt that way was before those Torino Games four years ago.