In the Olympics, everything is measurable, and by now, Noelle Pikus-Pace doesn’t need any help running the numbers. The difference between medal and disappointment: exactly one-tenth of a second. The difference between retirement and being one of the world’s top-ranked skeleton racers: one harrowing tragedy. And the difference between the upcoming Sochi Games and her previous two Olympic tries: an unusual and unrelenting support system.
Pikus-Pace, 31, competes in a head-first sport — 80-plus mph, sliding down a sheet of ice — and as she was deciding whether to even take aim at another Olympics, she knew there was only one way to do it: She wanted her family traveling with her, a rarity on the globe-trotting World Cup circuit.
“Having them there, they’re my support system; they’re my everything,” said Pikus-Pace, a medal favorite next month in Sochi.
So much has changed for Pikus-Pace since the Vancouver Games four years ago. Then, she was just happy to make the Olympic team. She missed the 2006 Games after a runaway bobsled — nearly 1,400 pounds and traveling more than 60 mph — hit her during training. She went flying, about 30 feet, and when she looked down, she saw bone protruding from her right leg — an Olympic dream deferred.
Given the substantial recovery, just reaching Vancouver felt like an accomplishment. After four strong runs there, she was less than a second removed from the gold medal and all of 0.1 seconds away from bronze.
“I was happy,” she says now. “Not satisfied but happy with my fourth-place finish.”
She retired from the sport and set about growing her family, which already included a precocious young girl, Lacee, and boy, Traycen, who was born in 2011. She became pregnant again in 2012 and was 18 weeks in — she had just learned they’d be having another girl — when she suffered a miscarriage. The family was at a crossroads: try again, or was there something else calling? Was Pikus-Pace really content to simply make an Olympic team?
“There was always that little twinge of, ‘Oh man, there’s still a little bit more to give,’” she said.
Pikus-Pace and her husband, Janson, processed their loss, prayed a lot — the two are devout Mormons — and discussed their options.
“A part of me wanted to continue on with my family, get pregnant really quick again, have another baby,” she said. “But I knew emotionally I couldn’t take it.”
They decided to get back on the track — but this time, do it as a family. She told her coach she would compete only if her husband and two children could travel with her, which presented a big financial challenge.
She figured a full season would cost about $60,000 and was able to raise about $25,000 on her own. About a week before she needed to board a plane, a Provo, Utah, woman who had met Pikus-Pace and was touched by her story handed her a card with a $30,000 check inside.
They estimated the Olympic quest would cost about $70,000 for the family this season, and after a strong showing a year ago, corporate sponsors stepped up to help ensure the entire family would be able to travel together.
That means they’re on the road for five months out of the year. Janson took leave from his engineering job — he designed his wife’s sled — and runs his wife’s blog, where his profile lists him as “Mr. Travel Mom.” He does regular posts, files photos and videos both in and out of competition, many of them featuring the entire family.
They left the United States last month and are spending the World Cup season bouncing between Germany, Switzerland and Austria in the lead-up to the Olympics.
“You’re in one place for a week,” Janson said. “It’s kind of like your suitcases explode everywhere. Then you pack it all up and you’re off again.”
Lacee, 5, is a kindergartner, but her parents are keeping her well-stocked with books and activities. And 2-year old Traycen requires constant supervision.
“I had to make sure I could take any stresses or distractions off Noelle,” Janson said. “My role is ultimately taking care of kids, taking care of the sled and taking care of anything else she needs.”
Pikus-Pace said there’s only one other regular mom who competes at the sport’s elite level — British slider Shelley Rudman — but Rudman’s family doesn’t travel from stop to stop.
“This is definitely something that’s abnormal,” Pikus-Pace said.
A typical training day sounds like it takes place in a cyclone. They all wake up early, and the parents prepare a quick breakfast. “A bowl of cereal is going to spill on the floor,” Pikus-Pace said, “you can count on that.” She then hits the track for a couple of hours before returning home for diaper changes and lunch. She leaves again for a three-hour workout followed by a couple hours of video review before returning for dinner and bedtime.
“There aren’t many moments in my day spent just on Facebook for fun or watching TV,” she said. “I just don’t do those things. Every minute of the day I know is mine and I need to utilize to the best of my abilities.”
When the kids are asleep and life is momentarily quiet, Pikus-Pace preps her sled for the next morning, polishing the runners and setting her goals for the next day. “Then I wake up and do it again,” she said.
“It is trying; I’m not going to lie,” she said. “It has its stresses.”
But she certainly can’t argue with the results. With family in tow, she has reached the podium in her past six races, including three first-place finishes. And in last season’s final competition, an Olympic test event in Sochi, she won gold on the same track she’ll try to conquer next month.
Her latest win came last Saturday in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where she set a new track record. Pikus-Pace was mobbed by her family in a joyous celebration over the latest chunk of gold dangling from her neck. “A necklace,” as her 5-year old daughter calls it. Then they packed up and hit the road for the next race in Austria.