Pikus-Pace slides into retirement
Sitting in second after three runs, Noelle Pikus-Pace was full of nervous energy as she waited to throw down her final Olympic run at the Sanki Sliding Center in Sochi. One of the best skeleton sliders in the world, she normally writes down three goals for herself before every competition, but this run was different.
"I knew this would be my last run, not just of the Olympics, but of my career," said the 31-year-old. "I really just wanted to enjoy the moment and get after it."
When she got the green light, she took off down the hill. Riding a custom-made sled designed by her husband, Janson, she rocketed face first down the icy track at speeds nearing 90 miles per hour. When she saw the numbers on the clock at the bottom of the run -- 3:53.86 for her four runs -- her coach's arms went up in victory. That's when she knew she clinched the silver medal.
In a show of raw emotion, Pikus-Pace leapt from the ice up into the stands, embracing her husband and two kids, Lacee and Traycen, crying, "we did it!"
Indeed, earning that medal was truly a family affair, as are her post-Olympic ambitions.
A few years ago, no one would have expected Pikus-Pace would be competing at the 2014 Winter Olympics, much less be in contention for a medal. First there was the freak accident in 2005, when she was hit by a bobsled that failed to break and careened off the track. It left her with a titanium rod in her right leg and was forced to miss the 2006 Games, for which she had been a favorite. She recovered and redoubled her training, winning the 2007 world championships by the biggest margin ever seen in the sport and becoming a regular threat on the international circuit. But she finished a disappointing fourth at the 2010 Games, missing the medal stand by just one-tenth of a second.
Her hopes for an Olympic medal dissolve once again, she decided to step away from the sport. "Honestly I just wanted to be with my family and have more kids," she said. "I was sick of traveling around the world by myself 5-6 months of the year."
Committed to making family her priority, there were few scenarios that would allow Pikus-Pace to compete at a high level and still be with her family. After a devastating miscarriage in 2012, however, she and her husband came up with one.
"I was having a really hard time after the miscarriage so my husband talked me into coming back to the sport," she said. "He said, 'What if we travel the world together as a family?'"
Together they worked to raise enough money to travel the World Cup circuit for two years, with a goal of earning a medal in Sochi. Considering Lacee was 4 years old and Trayson just a little over a year, this was no easy feat.
"I had sponsors like AT&T that helped us stay connected and made the whole thing possible," she said. "These are memories we will all have for a lifetime."
When Pikus-Pace won that silver medal in Sochi, she was fulfilling a dream her entire family had adopted. "I truly believe everything happens for a reason," she said. "This was definitely a group effort; I couldn't have done any of this on my own."
Since returning to Salt Lake City, Pikus-Pace has hung up her sled for good this time. While this year will be marked by transition, she says staying put will be a welcome adjustment.
"I grew up here, so it'll be nice to be home with family and not living out of suitcases half the year," she said.
Already she has managed to fill her calendar with motivational speaking engagements and writing a book, which is set to be published this fall. There are also prospects of a movie being made.
On the training front, Pikus-Pace is looking forward to switching gears toward more endurance-focused endeavors.
"I'm planning on setting some new fitness goals and am looking into doing a triathlon," she said. "I'm looking forward to doing something totally different as I still have a lot of goals in the sports world."
Unsurprisingly, at the top of her priority list is spending more time with family.
"Now I get to be home to watch soccer, gymnastics, and everything else," she said.
And as for prospects of Lacee or Trayson ever taking that sled out of storage to give skeleton a try, she said, "If they are interested, we will totally support them. Our focus is to cheer them on no matter what."