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Thursday, February 18, 2010
Lund, Pikus-Pace overcome odds

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Life, Zach Lund tells himself, is not about what happens to you, but how you handle the experiences that come, what you let them do to you. For a time, he let what happened to him soak into his skin and his psyche. He let it nearly destroy him.

Zach Lund
Zach Lund rebounded from the disappointment of 2006 to compete for gold in these Games.

Picture the heartbreaking visual: In 2006, Lund is the top-ranked skeleton athlete in the world. He has qualified for his first Olympics. He is in his room in Turin, Italy, an hour before the opening ceremonies, his Team USA outfit laid out on the bed, like a kid getting ready for the first day of school. One of his managers knocks on the door to speak to him.

They go outside. Two team members looking sharp in full Team USA gear pass by him. The coach tells him he's been removed from the U.S. Olympic team for testing positive for a banned substance. He is now a drug cheat. He is instructed to leave the Olympic village immediately. He is no longer an Olympian. The outfit never gets worn.

The banned substance was not human growth hormone or stanozolol or some other muscle-building performance-enhancer, but Propecia, the hair restoration drug. Zach Lund, always self-conscious about his hair since he was a teenager, was essentially kicked off the Olympic team for trying to cover a bald spot.

"It's something you're never over. It sucked. You're thinking 'Why me?' At the same time, I put it in perspective in life. Yes, the Olympics were big. Yes, I worked my butt off to get there, so that was hard," he said. "But at the same time, I think about the battle my mom fought with cancer. She fought harder than I ever did to get to the Olympics and she lost that battle. She lost her life. For me, it was just an opportunity to go down a track.

"In the big scheme of things, I keep it in perspective," Lund said. "But at the same time this was my lifelong dream and I'd be lying if I said it didn't suck."

Weeks earlier, during the Olympic trials in Calgary, Alberta, Noelle Pikus-Pace, the best female skeleton athlete in the world at that time, was struck by a runaway bobsled that slid full-speed off course, breaking her leg in two places and knocking her out of the Turin Games.

"Going into Olympic trials going right before 2006, I was first in the world. In the second portion of our Olympic trials in Calgary, a bobsled flew out of the track. The brakes were never pulled," she said. "It came off the track, even onto the asphalt and it hit me from behind. I tried to take a step out of the way but it was coming so fast. I looked over my shoulder, saw the bobsled coming and tried to take a step away and I had a compound tibia-fibula fracture."

Noelle Pikus-Pace
Noelle Pikus-Pace isn't 100 percent healed, but her recovery thus far has been incredible.

One was robbed by bureaucracy, the other by fate, but both are in Vancouver today as Olympians, competing in the skeleton competition as very different people than they were in 2006, with different perspectives on life and the Games than in 2006.

Life has taken something precious from both. Pikus-Pace is no longer the best in the world. The leg never healed to perfection. She is an underdog to medal here and has said she will retire immediately following the Games. Lund, now 30 years old, went through a dark period where he quit on himself, consumed by the unfairness of his situation.

Yet while both have yet to begin their events, Lund and Pikus-Pace, in their own words, feel they have already won. The victory started when they walked in the opening ceremonies, the moment denied both four years ago. Symbolically, they chose to walk into the ceremonies together.

During the week, no athletes have soaked up the experience, been more affable and enthusiastic, than Pikus-Pace, who sports colored highlights in her long hair muted only by a 1,000-watt smile, and Lund, who seems to wear his full-length Team USA parka as a second skin.

"For me, opening ceremonies was the moment I was looking forward to for four years. The competition obviously is there, too, but opening ceremonies to me was officially when you become an Olympian," Pikus-Pace said. "And for me it's been such a fight, such a struggle to get to this point. My family was there watching and so it just made it all come together.

"Before we walked in, Zach was like, 'Will you walk with me for opening ceremonies?' and for me, I couldn't really think of anyone better to walk in with. We've been through it all. Our stories are kind of parallel. We fought so hard and were on top in 2006, on top of the world and then we had that Olympic dream taken from us. So it really means a lot to both of us."

A foundation of Buddhist theory suggests that all life experiences are neutral. There is no good. There is no bad. There is no indifferent. Each experience is part of the suffering that is the human condition.

For a time, Lund did not reach that place. He felt robbed. Over a 10-year period, he lost his mother, Penny, to skin cancer. He suffered a debilitating car accident after being rear-ended, and then was removed from the Olympics.

He responded in 2007 by having a tremendous year, competing with, in his words, "a huge chip on my shoulder." The following year, when the International Olympic Committee removed Propecia from the banned substance list, Lund fell deeply into himself. He had made an honest mistake. He had lost his Olympic opportunity and now, by removing Propecia from the list, the IOC was indirectly admitting that keeping him out of the Olympics was a mistake, that his ordeal was all for nothing.

Noelle Pikus-Pace
Pikus-Pace is sharing the Olympic experience with her 2-year-old daughter.

"It happened when Propecia was taken off of the banned list, and people said, 'You're vindicated. You were right all along.' And I said, 'Yeah, I know I was right. I know I wasn't a cheater. I knew that. I knew it was an honest mistake. I knew I was a victim of the system," Lund said. "So, poor me. Everyone says, 'Poor you.' The media says, 'Poor you,' and yeah, poor me, but I needed to get away from that. I couldn't use it as a hitching post. I had to use it as a guidepost. That was where I had to let go. Stuff happens in life. If you hang on to that, you'll never move forward."

But before Lund let go, he hit rock bottom. He felt that no level of the sports bureaucracy -- the IOC, the World Anti-Doping Agency or its former director, Canadian Dick Pound -- even thought to offer an apology. Lund lost himself, falling to 13th in the world at the end of the 2008-09 season.

"I stopped working as hard. It took me years to realize that my work ethic had dropped. My passion for the sport had fallen away. It affected me more than I realized at the moment," he said. "I was getting my butt kicked and I was 13th in the world, the worst year of my career and I realized, wow, I lost a lot because of this. It took away a lot of me. I still had the momentum going but it was slowly slipping and it all came crashing down.

"It was all my fault. What happened to me sucked, but me losing my motivation, my passion and my work ethic is my own fault. But at the same time I saw that season as a blessing because I did get my butt kicked. Because then you realized how far you fell."

Pikus-Pace and Lund are both sliding well entering Thursday's first of two runs to determine an Olympic champion. In the end, both confronted depression and disappointment, were for a time consumed by it before emerging better on the other side.

"I really relied upon my faith in God in knowing that he has a plan for me and that everything happens for a reason," Pikus-Pace said. "Me dwelling on it is not going to change the fact that I have a rod in my leg and the fact that my leg is going to be at 80 percent or 90 percent. For me all I can do is take what I have and move forward. I have to put it in perspective. I mean, I got hit by a four-man bobsled and I'm still alive.

"And looking back now it is so clear to me. At the moment it was very, very difficult, especially emotionally, but I would never be here. I was planning on retiring after 2006 and I would never be here with my daughter. I have a 2-year-old daughter and she wouldn't be here to see the dream come true."

Pikus-Pace is smiling these days, a genuine smile. She seems at peace. Lund is closer to his enlightenment than perhaps he's ever been, but he still has some unfinished business.

"Why didn't I quit? I didn't quit because I didn't want them to win," Lund said. "I didn't want Dick Pound and what he did to end my career. And I would love more than anything else to come back in Canada and get that gold medal that I should have had in that last Olympics."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.