Racer Noelle Pikus-Pace plots skeleton comeback
By Michael C. Lewis
Special to The TribuneFirst published Nov 13 2012 03:09PM
Noelle Pikus-Pace won’t be competing at the annual bobsled and skeleton World Cup event Friday and Saturday at the Utah Olympic Park.
But not because she’s, you know … not competing.
Nearly three years after retiring from one of the most harrowing sports in the world, the almost 30-year-old Orem native is making a surprise comeback in skeleton — with her eyes on the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia following the birth of two children and the agonizing miscarriage of a third.
"I feel like this is what we’re supposed to do," she said.
While defending world and Olympic champion bobsled pilot Steve Holcomb of Park City and other top athletes from around the world are racing near Kimball Junction, though, Pikus-Pace will be competing at a lower-level America’s Cup competition in Calgary in order to qualify for a return to the World Cup tour.
When she does, Pikus-Pace almost certainly will rejoin the list of top contenders for gold in Sochi, after finishing fourth at the Vancouver Olympics and retiring to raise her family in Eagle Mountain.
"When I retired, I was serious about retiring," she said. "I saw our future without skeleton, and I made plans for my future without skeleton." That included selling almost all of her equipment, except what she used in Vancouver, which she kept for nostalgia’s sake.
But her husband sensed she might not really be finished.
Janson Pace kept urging his wife to try the sport again, after their second child — son Traycen — was born in March 2011. Pikus-Pace resisted, even as friends, relatives and neighbors began to join in the nagging, pushing her to take just one more crack at speeding head-first and on her belly down an icy culvert, her chin just inches from the rock-hard track.
She was just 0.1 seconds away from a medal in Vancouver, after all.
Finally, several months later, Pikus-Pace agreed to take a single run down the track at the UOP, just to "humor" her husband.
"If you don’t like it, great," he said. "We’ll be done."
Of course, she arrived at the finish line with a huge smile on her face.
"Oh, great," she said, jokingly.
Even then, though, she wasn’t committed to returning. Pikus-Pace was committed to her family. She had envisioned her future in her head, and being a wife and mother — not a world-class athlete, traveling the world — was what she saw. That feeling only intensified when she learned almost a year ago that she was pregnant with a third child.
"That was direction we were planning on going," she said.
But Pikus-Pace miscarried last April, 18 weeks along. The baby’s heart just stopped, she said.
"That was really when we started reassessing what direction we wanted to take our lives," Pikus-Pace said. "Where we needed to be in life. … It just came down to prayer. That was the only thing that got us through that. It was really difficult."
"We just felt really at peace when we thought about going on for skeleton," she added.
By June, the former multisport star at Mountain View High School and Utah Valley University committed to returning to her sport, and began getting back into shape and raising money to finance the operation.
It costs a lot to race all over the world, and even more when your husband and two kids are tagging along.
"My one stipulation was we would do it as a family," Pikus-Pace said. "I said, ‘There’s no way I’m leaving you guys for long periods of time anymore. I’m done.’ I never stopped loving the sport of skeleton, I just couldn’t be away from my family anymore."
So it really has become a family thing for the Paces.
Janson Pace built and maintains the sled that Pikus-Pace uses in competition. Noelle does the training and the racing. And soon-to-be-5-year-old Lacee Lynn plays a starring role in a video on Pikus-Pace’s website, urging fans to donate money to help them all travel the world and make it to Sochi.
"I really want my mommy to go to the Olympics," Lacee says. "But she needs your help."
Pikus-Pace figures she needs at least $130,000 to go the distance, and won’t continue if the money runs out.
Barring that, however, she plans to compete in a handful of World Cup races this season in Canada, Germany, France and Austria — the family won’t be home until almost March — and hopefully reach the world championships in Switzerland before really gearing up for the Olympic season.
"She really wants a gold medal," Lacee whispers theatrically into the camera during the video.
Of course, that’s nothing Pikus-Pace will talk about directly, just yet.
She knows better than that, having missed the 2006 Turin Olympics in Italy after a runaway bobsled shattered her leg, ruining her shot at gold as the reigning world silver medalist. She did win all four national trials races last month, though, as well as her first two America’s Cup races last weekend in Park City.
She’s in tremendous shape, too. Best of her career, she said.
"I will be competing to win" if she reaches the Olympics again, Pikus-Pace acknowledged. "At the same time, though, you have to get there."
For Pikus-Pace and her family, that could really be the fun part.