Noelle Pikus-Pace prepares for another Olympic run
Noelle Pikus-Pace feels at peace.
Many might find that odd considering her job is to hurtle down icy chutes, face first, on her stomach, with her chin just inches from the ground, at speeds that top 70 mph. But Pikus-Pace knows she is right where she's meant to be.
She competes in skeleton, a winter sport many daredevils won't even consider. And she's good -- very good -- more than a decade after she first joined the elite ranks.
The Orem, Utah, resident has landed on the podium at her past four World Cup events, moving up to No. 6 in the world rankings. "It's all coming together," she said as she prepares for her next competition, the world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where the women's skeleton competition will take place Thursday and Friday.
"I feel really good," said Pikus-Pace, 30, from her hotel in Switzerland. "Usually, by this point in most seasons, I'm really burnt out and I'm just ready to go home. … This is the first year I've ever felt like I could just keep going. I'm actually not looking forward to having the summer off of racing because I just feel that good.
"I feel like I'm just here to compete and I'm excited to compete and I absolutely love sliding. [I haven't been this excited] since the 2004-05 season, which is the last time I was really winning. Just before the bobsled accident."
The 2004-05 winter season was remarkable. Pikus-Pace became the first U.S. woman to win skeleton's World Cup title and capped the year with silver at the 2005 worlds. With the 2006 Torino Olympics a year away, Pikus-Pace was the early gold-medal favorite. But on Oct. 19, 2005, Pikus-Pace was plowed over by an out-of-control 1,200-pound bobsled at the bottom of a track. Her right leg was broken, her Olympic dreams swept away.
Determined not to let that freak accident define her, Pikus-Pace stormed through the 2006-07 season, placing second in the overall standings and capturing gold at the 2007 worlds in St. Moritz -- the first U.S. woman to claim a skeleton world title.
Pikus-Pace took the next season off as she and her husband, Janson, welcomed their first child, Lacee, in January 2008. Motherhood fit her perfectly and she envisioned having more kids down the road. Yet she still felt deprived of her chance at competing in the Olympics. She returned to skeleton, turning in middling results over the next two seasons. She missed her daughter. She missed her husband. Still, she wanted her Olympic moment. Pikus-Pace received it at the 2010 Vancouver Games but finished in the most agonizing place for Olympians: fourth. She missed a medal by one-tenth of a second.
"She was happy and I was happy for her finish," Janson Pace said. "It wasn't really about getting the gold medal or even medaling. It was just doing her best and completing her journey, which was to make it to the Olympics."
But a funny thought came into Janson's mind in Vancouver. While his wife was declaring, "I'm done, I'm retiring," because she yearned to be a full-time mom, he thought, "What if we could make Noelle's skeleton season one big family adventure?"
Pikus-Pace became pregnant again soon after the 2010 Games and gave birth to son Traycen in February 2011. Yet despite having two kids now in tow, Noelle and Janson occasionally discussed her returning to skeleton. They quickly agreed on one important rule: do it as a family or not at all.
Janson urged his wife to return because he believed the circumstances leading up to the previous Olympics kept her from reaching her potential. First, it was the bobsled accident; then, it was trying to compete overseas without her family. They both knew she was capable of winning an Olympic medal.
"Let's just have no regrets," Janson said.
So, in the fall of 2011, they drove from Orem an hour north to the track in Park City, and she gave the sport one more try. Wide-eyed after the first run, Pikus-Pace was hooked all over again.
"I was like, 'Wow. I really do love this sport,'" she said.
Upon returning home, calls were made, ideas were tossed around. But the biggest obstacle was immediately apparent: How could they afford it? Janson enjoyed his job as a project manager for NuQuest, a steel-fabrication company which actually built the sled on which Pikus-Pace competes, but the household budget wouldn't allow the whole family to trek through Europe for four months.
Then, Pikus-Pace became pregnant again.
"So then we were like, 'All right, it's not meant to be. We're not supposed to [make the comeback]. It's all right,'" Pikus-Pace recalled. "But we were excited, obviously. We wanted more kids and that's the direction that I thought we were supposed to be going. ... We found out we were going to have a little girl and she had a healthy heartbeat and everything was going really well."
Pikus-Pace's life has a way of quickly changing course, though. At 18 weeks, she had a miscarriage. The family was devastated. Pikus-Pace received the news in April, and she said it took her a month to even ponder her next move. She just needed time, emotionally and physically.
"I feel for any family, any woman, any couple, anybody that has to go through something like that," she said. "It was really, really difficult. It was a less-than-1-percent chance of it happening at the point that it did ... and they couldn't tell me why. They just said, 'Her heartbeat stopped.'"
Devout Mormons, Noelle and Janson turned to their faith. And, through prayer, they were led back to the skeleton track.
"We just felt like this is the direction that we were supposed to go in, to do [skeleton] again. Whether it was to touch other people's lives or for whatever reason, but we just felt like we were supposed to do it," Pikus-Pace said. "...So just this past summer, we said, 'All right, if we could raise enough money for the whole family to go, then we'll do it.' And it happened."
Friends and family began chipping in money. Others donated through noellepikuspace.com or the family's campaign page on indiegogo.com, a fundraising website. They had acquired about a third of what they needed as the start of the season approached in November.
A couple of days before their departure, a woman who wished to remain anonymous called to offer a check. She wrote it for $30,000, exactly what they needed. Pikus-Pace said it was one of many miracles they've witnessed, and she has faith more will come next season, when the family needs to raise even more money. She estimates it took $50,000 to get her family through the 2012-13 season, but the foursome will need nearly $70,000 for the Olympic year.
"I think we just go until we run out of money," Pikus-Pace said. "I mean, if we only raise half the money, then I get halfway through the season. At that point, we're going to have to just try to kick it into the next gear and try to earn more. We just have faith that it's going to work out."
Which is why Pikus-Pace believes she is right where she is meant to be.