Go For The Gold: Noelle Pikus-Pace

Go For The Gold

BY KAREN ROSEN I DEC. 24, 2013

Noelle Pikus-Pace poses at the Team USA Media Summit on
Sept. 29, 2013 in Park City, Utah.

Once Noelle Pikus-Pace chose her own version of the Mommy track, it’s been full speed ahead ever since.

The skeleton slider from Orem, Utah, has been traveling the world with her husband Janson, daughter Lacee, 5, and son Traycen, 2, on the way to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Pikus-Pace is again a medal favorite after barely missing the podium with a fourth-place place finish nearly four years ago in Vancouver.

Pikus-Pace, 31, who has adopted the nickname “fastest mom on ice,” would have hung up her sled for good if her family had not been able to accompany her on the circuit.

“This is definitely something that’s abnormal,” said Pikus-Pace. “Other athletes come up to me and say, ‘It’s so chaotic. It’s so crazy. How do you do it? How do you make this work?’ Honestly, it’s controlled chaos. It’s time management. It’s priorities. We work very well together as a family.”

And she added, “When my results come, they must think there’s something to it.”

Last season, Pikus-Pace was second at the world championships, won the final world cup race of the season at the Olympic venue in Sochi and ranked No. 3 in the world. The family joined her on the road for five months and she credits them for the “best season I’ve ever had.”

Not only do Pikus-Pace and her husband balance and bring out the best in each other, but also he designs the sleds that carry her at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour. The kids do their part, too. They are with Pikus-Pace at the top of the twisting track before the competition begins and she knows they will be there at the bottom to give her a hug.

As this season began, Pikus-Pace swept the four U.S. team selection races with an average victory margin of almost half a second. 

“I’m faster than I’ve ever been,” she said.

At the first world cup in November in Calgary, Alberta, Pikus-Pace posted the fastest combined time, but was disqualified when she failed a post-race sled inspection.

“My heart is broken,” Pikus-Pace tweeted. She said her sled had been cleared by the international federation. Then following a protest by the British team, she was disqualified for having three pieces of tape on the handle to help her push, “which many athletes do,” she said. “So sad and disappointed that thousands of hours of training come down to a protest and decision for 3 pieces of non-performance enhancing tape. I would have obviously removed it if they had told me in my sled inspection that it was wrong in any way.”

Tuffy Latour, the U.S. skeleton head coach, said Pikus-Pace didn’t violate the spirit of the rule. 

“This has released the lioness in her,” he said. “She is going to be on a tear, and I have no doubt she'll back on the medal stand next week in Park City, Utah."

She was. On her home track, Pikus-Pace shattered the 12-year-old track record by .11 seconds despite starting last in the first run, the least optimal position. She said she’d been chasing that record for 15 years. On her second run, she lowered it again by .06 to win her first world cup in Park City.

Packing up the family and trekking to Lake Placid, N.Y., she won her second consecutive gold medal and her first at that venue. Two days later, she took the bronze in a world cup race shortened to one heat because of a problem with the start groove.

Making up for her zero points in Calgary, she is now ranked fourth in the overall standings.

Noelle Pikus-Pace starts her first run in the women's skeleton
event during the Viessmann IBSF Bobsled & Skeleton World Cup
event at Utah Olympic Park Dec. 6, 2013 in Park City, Utah.

The season’s second half begins Jan. 4 in Winterberg, Germany, where Pikus-Pace won her first career world cup race. In 2005, Pikus-Pace was the first U.S. female skeleton athlete to win the overall world cup title.

She was the Olympic gold-medal favorite going into the 2006 U.S. Olympic Trials, where she was hit by a runaway bobsled in a freak accident. Pikus-Pace and some teammates were waiting at the bottom of the track for a truck to take them back to the start when they heard a loud noise coming from the finish line.

“I remember turning and looking over my shoulder and I saw a four-man bobsled coming towards us,” she said. “They were going 60-70 miles an hour and the brakeman never pulled the brakes. He had never been in a bobsled before, so he didn’t know he was supposed to pull the brakes.”

Pikus-Pace took a step to jump out of the way, which may have saved her life. Still, the bobsled hit her and threw her 30 feet. Pikus-Pace’s lower right leg was fractured and the rod inside it is now a source of arthritis and prevents her from doing certain exercises.

Although she returned later that season, Pikus-Pace did not qualify to compete at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games. She rebounded, however, to win the 2007 world championships. After taking time off to have Lacee in January 2008, five weeks later she was back on the ice.

She was again the gold-medal favorite going into Vancouver, though her heart was at home with her young daughter. Pikus-Pace was happy she gave it her best shot, but dissatisfied with her fourth-place finish.

She retired from the sport and in March 2011 gave birth to Traycen. In April 2012, Pikus-Pace was 18 weeks pregnant when she miscarried.

“That was actually the turning point to make me come back to compete in these Olympics,” she said. “After the miscarriage, I was mentally gone, I was physically, spiritually drained.”

A part of her wanted to quickly get pregnant again, but she knew she needed a break. Her husband suggested she get back on the sled.

“Do it one more time, no regrets,” she said he told her. She insisted it be a family adventure, and they set out to raise $60,000. The final $30,000 came from one donor in the week before they were due to leave.

Being away from the sport for 2½ years, she had doubts. “Am I fast enough? Am I competitive? Do I remember how to do it?” she said. “The second I got on my sled, it was like riding a bicycle. I didn’t forget anything, I didn’t miss a beat, and I just got right back into it.”

It is, however, a little different this time around.

Pikus-Pace describes a typical day on the road: “Wake up, get breakfast — a bowl of cereal is going to spill on the floor, you just count on that. And then there’s the poopy diaper. You get your clothes on, go to the track and I fly for two hours.

Pikus-Pace (right) poses with husband, Janson (left), and
children Lacee (front) and Traycen after winning the world cup
in Park City, Utah.

“I come back, eat lunch and change another poopy diaper. Then I go and get my workout in for 2-3 hours. I come back, watch video of myself sliding for a couple of hours, and then I eat dinner, change another poopy diaper and give baths. Janson is usually working with Lacee on schoolwork, and then I do some sled work, polish my runners and get my sled ready for the next day.

“I set some goals for the next day and the kids are running around. There’s something spilled, some messes to clean up and it’s time to go to bed. And then I wake up, and I do it again.”

Each day, she is more focused than ever to achieve the ultimate goal of winning an Olympic medal. 

She is determined not to make the same mistake that cost her a medal in Vancouver by one-tenth of a second. She knows that her downfall was Curve 2 on her fourth and final run.

“I got in by two inches to the right and it made me fishtail out,” Pikus-Pace said, figuring she lost two-tenths on the maneuver.

She has pinpointed a similar spot on the Sochi track where she can make up time, and has visualized her run thousands of times.

Sochi organizers made changes to slow down their track after the tragic death of luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili, of Georgia, during training in Vancouver.

“It has sections in it where you’re actually going uphill and downhill within a curve, and that’s unlike anything in the world that we’ve ever seen,” Pikus-Pace said. “So the speed isn’t there, but the technicality is definitely there.”

She said the nature of the track will allow for some separation in the times. “I like areas that people can mess up on. I like to know that if I can get this right, I know that I’ll give myself a little bit of distance between myself and other athletes.”

Away from the track, however, she is closer than ever to her competitors, thanks to an enthusiastic icebreaker named Lacee.

“She will just go up to anybody and say, ‘Hi, what’s your name? What do you do?’ And they’ll be, ‘I bobsled for Canada.’ And she’s says, ‘Can I sit by you and eat dinner with you?’ And they’re like, ‘Uhhh, sure.’ So she pulls up a chair and before we know it, we have to meet other people, other nations, other teams.

“And we’re soon friends, and so it really is the epitome of the Olympic Movement to be able to travel with our kids because they open up doors that we would never open up on our own.”

Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 13 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.