Krasnaya Polyana, Russia • Eight years, two children and thousands of dollars later, Noelle Pikus-Pace finally won a medal at the Sochi Olympics.
It wasn’t gold, but that didn’t matter.
Pikus-Pace claimed the silver behind Great Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold in women’s skeleton Friday night, finishing a long and winding journey in her harrowing, head-first sliding sport that included a disastrous injury, a retirement and a comeback, and finally a redemptive final run down the track at the Sanki Sliding Center.
When it was over, and Pikus-Pace leaped off her sled to see the scoreboard confirm that she’d clinched a medal, she scrambled over a barrier and jumped a fence to hug her husband and kids in the bleachers, tears in her eyes.
"This is better than gold, for me," she said. "This whole moment, I’m trying to take it in, and I can’t. I can’t comprehend this moment."
Maybe that’s because she thought it would never come.
The 31-year-old Orem native and Eagle Mountain resident revealed that she missed training during the week leading up to the race because she suffered a concussion, but that was nothing. She missed a chance at a gold medal in 2006 when an injury kept her from competing at the Turin Games in Italy — a runaway bobsled broke her leg in a freak accident — when she was the overall World Cup champion and world silver medalist.
Four years later, she missed the medals by 0.1 seconds in Vancouver, then retired for 21/2 years until her husband persuaded her to take one last shot at the podium.
"He said, ‘I know you can be great,’ " she recalled.
Once she grudgingly agreed, they raised thousands of dollars, including a $30,000 donation from a single donor in Provo who barely knew them, and made it happen.
For five months out of the year, they traveled together from race to race, Pikus-Pace the only woman on the circuit with a family in tow and her husband, Janson Pace, in charge of minding the kids — Lacee is 6, and Traycen is 2 — and the logistics. He’s also an engineer at NuQuest in Salt Lake City who built his wife’s sled.
"It’s just been a fight and a struggle," he said, but "these last two years have been the opposite ... It’s just been pure enjoyment and a fantastic adventure for us."
Pikus-Pace achieved her dream despite a lingering back injury — three herniated discs, she said — and the concussion, which kept her from taking most of her training runs. Instead, she relaxed with her family and tried to rest — she had an MRI last Friday to assess her condition — and made no excuses for not challenging Yarnold.
"Lizzy just threw down," she said.
Yes, she did.
Yarnold won her nation’s first medal of the Olympics convincingly, racing to a big lead on the first of four runs and never looking back. Pikus-Pace was right behind her the whole way, never threatening but never threatened, either. She finished in a four-run combined time of 3 minutes and 53.86 seconds, 0.97 seconds behind Yarnold.
Russia’s Elena Nikitina was third, holding on after a bumpy final ride to edge American Katie Uhlaender by 0.04 seconds for the bronze medal. It was Uhlaender’s best finish in three Olympics but still a crushing disappointment.
"I put everything out there," she said, fighting back tears. "I thought I had it."
Alas, only Pikus-Pace had it, after all those years when she didn’t.
Nearly an hour after the competition, she was still hugging everybody in sight and gleefully recalling how she thought she had blown her chances in the middle of the run.
"My husband and I just kept saying, ‘We did it. We did it. We did it,’ " she said. "And that was all that matters, that we did it. I’m a silver medalist in the Olympics and it’s just so hard to comprehend that right now, but we did it.
"And not just me," she added, "not just my husband and I, but all those who have loved and supported us and cheered for us along the way. We’re so grateful."
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.