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U.S. Olympic Athletes Begin Arriving In Vancouver

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RICHMOND, British Columbia — Noelle Pikus-Pace gasped as she glanced around the hotel ballroom to see the mountains of boxes piled around and overflowing with red-white-and-blue U.S. Olympic gear.

"This is amazing," the skeleton racer said Monday, when she joined dozens of teammates in suburban Vancouver for team processing by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"I just can't get the smile off my face," Pikus-Pace said, in between trying on different sweaters. "And I feel like I'm going to have it on for another 22 days."

The prospect of sorting through all the free clothes – sneakers and boots with red laces, T-shirts and turtlenecks – provided by sponsors wasn't the incentive Pikus-Pace used to come back from a shattered leg that prevented her from competing at the 2006 Turin Games. But it was a pleasant reward.

"It's been a long time. To get to this point is pretty incredible, and it's a little surreal still," she said, showing off the red and blue streaks she had colored into her blond hair. "But I think little by little it's starting to kind of set in."

She's not the only one, who was a bit overwhelmed.

From the hulking members of U.S. men's bobsledding team to tiny pairs figure skater Amanda Evora, there's nothing like a free shopping spree to get into the Olympic mood.

"Oh my gosh!" shrieked Evora, when asked about her new red running shoes. "I've never had red shoes, not even red high heels. And I'm not one who likes to buy too much for myself, but today, it's all about me."

This is the first Olympic Games for the 25-year-old Evora, who will be competing with Mark Ladwig.

Veteran U.S. team members had told Evora about everything sponsors make available to athletes, but she had to see it to believe it.

"I came off the plane, and it's just been present after present," she said. "It's really exciting. You can't hide it inside."

Pushing around an oversized cart, athletes made their way around the room, stopping at several stations to sort through the clothes, including the Ralph Lauren-designed uniforms for Friday's opening ceremony.

They feature off-white cotton pants, which can be matched with an assortment of tops ranging from a heavy blue jacket trimmed with red along the pockets and around the collar to dark blue heavy sweaters. Underneath, athletes will wear turtlenecks.

The uniforms were inspired by the ones worn by U.S. athletes at the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Games.

And that's not all. Athletes also were sized for an Olympic ring, a watch and a leather jacket.

The Vancouver Games are the third Olympics for luge team member Tony Benshoof, and he described the assortment of items – and their quality – the best of the three.

"I went to 2002 and 2006, and it was all great, but this Ralph stuff is really nice," Benshoof said. "I'm only halfway through, and I can't believe it. It's like Christmas in February."

Benshoof will compete in the men's single luge in what he expects will be his final Olympics. Benshoof is competing despite having three herniated discs in his back.

Pikus-Pace's Olympic journey has proven to be an uplifting and resilient one.

She was the world's top-ranked skeleton racer on Oct. 19, 2005, when her right leg was broken in a horrific crash during a training session in Calgary, Alberta. She was standing near the end of the track when a bobsled with an inexperienced driver at the controls couldn't stop in time and smashed into Pikus-Pace, sending her flying.

The injury not only dashed her chances of competing at Turin, but also nearly ended her career.

Pikus-Pace skipped the 2007-08 season to have her daughter Lacee, before returning to competition in 2008 in a bid to qualify for Vancouver.

The injury, the time off and her new role as a mother have all contributed to provide Pikus-Pace with a new perspective as she prepares for the competition to open at the Whistler Sliding Center on Feb. 15.

"Going into 2006, I think I just viewed the Olympics a little bit different than I do now," she said. "Back then, it was more of just something that fell into place. I was first in the world, and it was expected of me to go the Olympics and to win a medal."

And now?

"I feel lucky to be here," she said.

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