Last weekend Noelle Pikus-Pace signaled a new beginning from the same corner of North America that once marked the end of her career.
She was back in Whistler, British Columbia, revisiting the site of what was supposed to be her last skeleton race, at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
“After the Olympics, I officially retired,” said Pikus-Pace, who did so without regret, despite coming within a tenth of a second of medaling. “I had it in my mind that I was completely done. I saw a future without skeleton.”
What she foresaw in its stead — involving herself part time in a family business and full time in the business of family — came to fruition. Already the mother of daughter Lacee, Noelle and her husband, Janson Pace, had their second child, son, Traycen. She also launched a company called Snowfire Hats, which features logos from several Utah colleges.
Such was life without the sport she had dived into a decade earlier, as a former college track and field standout. It didn’t last long. Little more than two years later, Pikus-Pace has emerged from retirement to again navigate the ultra-fast, hairpin turns that wind toward an Olympic Winter Games. Only now she’s made room on her 16-inch-wide sled to bring her family along for the ride, hopefully, all the way to Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
When Pikus-Pace returned to Whistler for the Intercontinental Cup on Friday and Saturday, Janson and the kids helped her celebrate silver- and gold-medal showings. It was a genuine family affair, which is the only way Pikus-Pace envisions a future with skeleton.
“I decided in June to do this only if our whole family could be together,” Pikus-Pace said of her comeback, still lamenting a long separation from her daughter leading into the Vancouver Games. “After Lacee was born, I would have to leave home for months at a time.”
After Traycen was born in March 2011, she rarely left home.
“Maybe only a mom can know this, but that second pregnancy does you in,” Pikus-Pace explained with a laugh. “After the Olympics, I didn’t step foot in a gym or pick up a weight.”
Occasionally, however, Pikus-Pace slid on her sled, simply for fun. But Janson believed his wife had many more competitive runs in her. At his urging, she agreed to at least one more, at the Utah Olympic Park in the fall of 2011.
It wasn’t as if Pikus-Pace had an epiphany at the end of 1,300 meters. Still, her race against self-doubt was enough of a rush to contemplate a return.
“If I didn’t like it, I wasn’t going to think about competing any more. There would be no regrets,” Pikus-Pace said. “It actually took a few months to think about it.”
She had already proven herself remarkably resilient years before.
In October 2005, between training runs in Calgary, Alberta, Pikus-Pace was victimized by a fluky twist of fate far crueler than any experienced on a track. As the world’s top-ranked racer at the time, she was simply waiting at the bottom of the hill for a ride to the top, when a bobsled catapulted off course. It struck her, shattering the lower right leg.
As documented in the film, “114 Days: A Race To Save A Dream,” Pikus-Pace recovered in time to conclude the World Cup series of ’06. However, a technicality kept her out of the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games, where she would have been a gold-medal favorite.
Two years later, Pikus-Pace returned from maternity leave, as well as a back injury resulting from her pregnancy. Two years after that, she was Team USA’s top finisher in Vancouver.
Considering a comeback last summer at age 29, she knew from her own history that it was physically possible. Unknown was whether it was feasible.
“I decided that if we can’t do this as a family, then I’m done,” Pikus-Pace said in a telephone interview with TeamUSA.org.
On top of equipment costs, she and Janson needed upwards of six figures to pay everyone’s way across the international racing circuit — funds they didn’t have. Seeking support, they turned to social media. Cued by, among other things, a video starring Lacee and posted to Noelle’s website, donors responded.
“There’s been so much support, from friends or neighbors, through so many avenues,” Pikus-Pace said. “It’s not just me out there, but a lot of people behind me.
“There’s been miracle after miracle to help us get there.”
If not supernatural, then super-human forces were also at work, helping Pikus-Pace literally get to where she needed to go.
As a project manager for the steel fabrication company NuQuest, Janson designed and built Noelle’s sled. Meanwhile, Jason Hartman, former strength and conditioning coordinator for the U.S. Olympic Committee, contoured a program to fit within the framework of the day for a stay-at-home mom.
“My time isn’t my own unless the kids are down for a nap,” said Pikus-Pace, whose off-season workouts were often confined to her basement, when she wasn’t out pushing a double stroller up hills.
Her regimen also had to be inventive enough to develop power, despite an inability to perform certain plyometric exercises due to past injuries. Yet she’s never been better.
“I feel great,” Pikus-Pace said. “It’s crazy but I’m pushing faster than I ever have. It’s a little bit shocking, but I owe so much to the updates to my sled and my strength and conditioning.”
And to everyday emotional support, everywhere she goes.
“I don’t feel the (pressure) I used to feel,” said Pikus-Pace, who’s no longer stressed at the start, knowing her husband and children are waiting at the end of what are truly her final races. “These are my last days. I’m just trying to soak it all in, and enjoy the moment.”
Pikus-Pace lives through her family’s experiences, particularly an impressionable 4-year-old encountering new countries and cultures. Perhaps others will, too.
“It’s been an incredible experience already to this point, meeting friends in the different places we go, trying to see everything through (Lacee’s) eyes,” Pikus-Pace said. “We want to show the world that you can have good family values and achieve great things. Dreams are possible.”