Eagle Mountain, UT, August 2010
Noelle Pikus Pace is a world-champion skeleton athlete. In 2005, she was ranked number one in the world when she was injured during an accident at the Calgary Olympic Park. The story of her miraculous recovery is told in the documentary 114 Days. Eventually she was barred from competition at the Torino, Italy, Olympic Games in 2006 but she reclaimed her Olympic dreams when she came in fourth at the Vancouver Games this past winter.
How did you get started doing skeleton?
I ran track and field at Mountain View High School in Orem, Utah. When I was about sixteen years old, they were recruiting track and field athletes to try bobsledding in Park City. I went up during my junior year and fell in love with it. The following year I went back up to do it again, and they had taken away the junior bobsled program and told me that if I wanted to be a better bobsledder I should learn skeleton.
I saw this cookie-sheet-looking thing on the ice and the coach said, “Okay, come here, Noelle, you first.” I’m thinking, “This is crazy–I have no idea what I’m going to do.” He takes a helmet, he puts it on my head, he takes lacrosse padding and puts it on my shoulders, and he tells me to lie on my stomach, head first, and just hold on to these little railing things on the cookie sheet. So I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is the weirdest bobsled drill I’ve ever seen.” He kicked me off down the hill and I started screaming, “Oh my gosh!!! I’m gonna die!!! Holy cow, get me off this thing!” Then all of a sudden, I was like “Woo hoo! Woo hoo! This is awesome!!! Put me back up there, I want to go again!” From that time forward you couldn’t get me off of it. I was hooked. That was my introduction to the skeleton.
In college you were also an All-American track and field star. How did you decide where to place your emphasis as an athlete?
I loved track and field. I started competing in track and field when I was about twelve years old and I knew that that’s what I wanted to do when I was in college. When I was in high school I competed in basketball, softball, track and field, soccer, bobsledding, and skeleton. My mom often said, “You gotta pick and choose what you want to do, or else you won’t be great at anything–you’ll just be okay at everything. Decide where to put your focus.” I knew it was track and field. I got a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah for the heptathlon, which is seven events: high jump, long jump, shot put, javelin, hundred meter hurdles, the two hundred and the eight hundred. I also did discus.
Then after I was there for a year, I met my future husband. We were married in July 2002, after my freshman year at the University of Utah. At that time I transferred to what is now Utah Valley University and continued competing on a full track and field scholarship. I also kept doing skeleton. During the 2002 Olympics, I thought I had the potential to go to the Olympic Games in skeleton, and even though I loved track and field, I kept getting injured. I saw more potential for myself with skeleton at that time.
You said earlier that you did a little bit of everything when you were in high school, and it seems like the heptathlon really played to the breadth of your skills. Has that been a recurring theme in your life, to do a little bit of everything?
I just never wanted to be bored. I’m always taking on something. I was going to school full time, taking seventeen to nineteen credits, competing in Division I Track and Field, and competing on the World Cup tour, and trying to do it all at that time. I guess that’s always how I am.
What is daily life like for a skeleton athlete?
From October to March we travel. Most of the time it’s in Europe, anywhere from Japan to Norway to Canada, New York, Italy, Switzerland, Austria or Germany. We get a week off for Christmas, and then we’re back in Europe competing. During the travel season, we train all the time. We wake up at seven in the morning, we’re at the track at eight o’clock. We’re sliding from nine until eleven, watching other people slide from eleven to one. We go back, we eat, we work on our equipment from two until five, then we go to the gym and train for a couple of hours to get a workout in. During the evening we watch video from training that day, then we go to bed and do it all again.
So we’re gone quite a bit, and then during the off-season months, from March to October, we do some of our training on our own, and we have strength and conditioning coaches that plan our workouts. I do a lot of sprinting, lifting, and plyometrics. Training during the off-season usually takes about three to four hours a day. It’s a pretty full schedule. A lot of my teammates live at an Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY, and all of the athletes are welcome to live and train there, but I’m married and I have a little girl, so it’s just not practical for me. I live in Eagle Mountain. It’s about an hour drive to and from the track in Park City.
Would you give me a bit of background about how your career progressed up until the Olympic trials in Calgary?
My first time down from the top on a skeleton sled was in January 2001. In 2002-2003, I ended up making it onto the World Cup team, that’s the team that everybody wants to be on, the Olympic team. I was only on the team for half of the season and finished nineteenth in the world. 2003-2004 I was on for the full season and I finished fourteenth in the world. Going into 2004-2005 I was the third girl on the team, competing with a gold medalist and a silver medalist. There were some people who were disappointed that I had finished fourteenth the previous season, and at the same time some of my coaches didn’t expect that much because a lot of eyes were on my teammates, the gold medalist and the silver medalist.
After the 2003-2004 season, I didn’t know if I wanted to keep competing. My husband and I had talked about it and competing entailed a lot of time away, a lot of stress, and it’s not the lifestyle that I necessarily wanted to be around. First of all, I was the only married one on the team, the only LDS one on the team, so the standards just weren’t how I had hoped they would be.
That summer, two weeks from the start of the season, my husband and I knew it was time to fast and pray about it. We went to the temple and felt very strongly that I should continue to compete. During that season I won a gold medal on the World Cup circuit for the first time. I continued to do well and win medals, and actually ended up first in the world in overall rankings and second at World Championships.
Going into the 2006 Olympics, I was ranked first in the world and expected to win. My husband and I knew that continuing to compete was the right choice. Every year we try to make sure that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing and we’re in the place that we’re supposed to be in. Just before our Olympic team trials, I was praying and fasting and going to the temple and just feeling like it was right, feeling like I was where I was supposed to be. In October of 2005, I was in Calgary for the trials, waiting for one of my teammates to come down the track. I had just finished a training run, and was sitting there with four of my teammates talking. All of a sudden we heard a loud noise coming, and we turned and looked at the finish line, and we saw a 1,400 pound four-man bobsled just screaming towards us, going 60 or 70 miles an hour. I tried to take a step to jump out of the way but it hit me from behind, and I flew 25 or 30 feet. I did full flip in the air and landed on the asphalt. I immediately tried to jump to my feet, but I couldn’t. I tried to jump to my feet again, and I couldn’t. I looked down and that’s when I saw bones sticking out of my leg.
Even from the beginning I don’t think I ever thought, “How could this be?” or “Why me?” I immediately had comfort, because I knew beforehand that I was in the place where I was supposed to be and I knew that everything was going to be okay. The doctor said that I wouldn’t be able to walk for two or three months and I was walking in two weeks. They said I wouldn’t be able to run or compete for a year, and six weeks later I was back competing on the World Cup circuit in Austria. I know it came down to the faith and the prayers and the blessings I received. It’s interesting because everyone was telling me, “You’re recovering so quickly, you have to be able to go to the Olympics, that must mean that you’re supposed to be there.” In my heart I always knew I wouldn’t make it to the Olympics that year. I was trying to be as optimistic as possible, but I felt comforted knowing it was going to be okay, that maybe there was a bigger story to tell in the perseverance of things rather than the end goal.
I was planning on retiring after 2006, but after I missed the Olympic Games, my husband and I both knew it wasn’t enough, so I went back to compete the following year and ended up winning the World Championships by the largest margin in the history of our sport, which was awesome. Going back that year to compete for World Championships was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do. I was so drained–mentally, physically, spiritually. I was just shot. I didn’t want to compete, but I knew if I didn’t I probably never would go back. That’s the year I ended up winning. After I won that race, I needed a break. My husband and I wanted to start a family so I took the 2007-2008 season off and we had a little girl, Lacee.
Were people surprised by your decision to start your family when you were at the very top of your career?
Some people completely understood, and some thought it was crazy, but for us it was the only option. If I chose not to go back to competing after having a child, I had to know I was ready to be done with the sport if it was taking away too much from my family. I had to know I was ready to give it up, and that it was going to be okay.
Talk a little bit about how your family continues to support your career, especially now that you have Lacee.
My husband has been an amazing support from the beginning. Anytime when I would be down on myself and say I probably shouldn’t keep going, he’d be right there saying. “You can do it– this is a dream that we’ve got to go for.” My mom was always the one to drive me back and forth from Park City when I was in high school. We have a big family, and she was working full time, and she’d just take days off of work for me. Both my parents were amazing. My sister Amanda and her husband were the ones to watch Lacee for the past two years, almost every single day that I was gone, nearly every single day that I had to travel or compete. My sister took her in like one of her own.
Your husband also made your sled. How did he get involved in the technical side of your training?
People don’t just up and build a sled. It’s really complicated, and this isn’t his profession. I was having troubles with my old sled a year ago at World Championships in New York. When I shipped it to Lake Placid, it broke and I couldn’t ride it. World Championships is like the Olympics; it’s a race where you want everything to be perfect, and I had to borrow one of my teammates’ sleds. It didn’t fit right, and you want your own equipment and you need it to be a certain way. My husband said, “That’s it. I’m going to build you a sled. We’re going to make this thing work perfectly for you, and I’ll know how to fix it when problems come up.” Last summer, every spare minute of every day he was studying the rule book and learning how to build it and designing it. I’m not going to lie, the first time I took it down I was a little bit nervous, but it was perfect. It fit like a glove and did everything I wanted it to. That’s the one I ended up competing on in the Olympics, and Lacee helped me decorate it, so it was a family affair, I guess.
Will you talk a bit about what your experience was like at the Olympics this year?
Oh, it was so amazing. I guess you dream of what a day might be like, or what it might be like to obtain your dream, and you have this picture in your mind. I did; I had this picture in my mind, especially of Opening Ceremonies, and my competition day. It was much more than I ever could have dreamed. It was an incredible experience to be able to represent the United States and also to have all my family there cheering for me in the stands.
How do you think your faith and your cultural and spiritual upbringing have brought you to the place you are today?
I couldn’t have done anything that I’ve done without it. Having faith in things greater than ourselves, knowing things happen for a reason, and that we’re not alone, plays a huge part in my life daily, and I hope that I can do my part.
What are some of your future goals, and how do you see yourself continuing to balance having a family and being a world-champion athlete?
I retired from skeleton after the Vancouver Olympics and I’m working now on a company called Snowfire Hats that I started with my husband and sister and her husband. The company and my family are really what I want to focus on now. We’re licensed through the NCAA, so we’re making hats for BYU, Utah, Utah State, UVU, and pretty much all the schools throughout Utah. They’re kind of crazy hats, knit hats with hair on top of them. They are fun for fans, fun if you’re going skiing or anything like that. We made them for the Olympics with USA written across the front, and it was a lot of fun to see everybody in the stands wearing them, and my family raved about how it made them feel united. We’d see people walking down the street we didn’t even know and they’d be wearing one of these hats.
Going to the Olympics was my dream and I’ve been the overall World Cup Champion. I’ve been the World Champion. Obviously, I thoroughly missed out on a medal in the Olympics and so for that reason a lot of people think I should try to go back for another four years, but I have so many other goals and dreams to obtain, too. I gave it my best, and I’m happy with my result. So I think it’s time to close this chapter in my life and begin a new one.
At A Glance
Noelle Pikus Pace
Location: Eagle Mountain, UT
Marital status: Married
Children: One (Lacee Lynne)
Occupation: Owner of SnowFire Hats
Schools Attended: Mountain View High School, Utah Valley University (B.A. Community Health), Colorado Technical University (MBA)
Languages Spoken at Home: English and Lacee has her own language
Favorite Hymn: “How Great Thou Art” “There Is Sunshine In My Soul Today”
Current Church Calling: Youth Sunday School Teacher Ages 14-18
On The Web: www.snowfirehats.com, www.noellepikuspace.com
Interview by Shelah Miner. Photos used with permission, Noelle’s portrait by Jac Scott.