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U.S. skeleton athlete Noelle Pikus-Pace finds joy and growth in facing challenges

PARK CITY — Noelle Pikus-Pace has faced some dark moments in her young life.

But instead of being swallowed by the inevitable sadness or crippled by the questions, the top U.S. skeleton athlete has made those painful situations the places she shines brightest.

Like when a runaway bobsled smashed into her during Olympic trials in 2005. The accident left her with a rod in her leg that repaired a compound fracture and a shattered Olympic dream.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity, she took a year off to start a family and then returned to one of the world’s most dangerous sports with the kind of zeal and commitment that helped her earn a place on the 2010 Olympic team.

In Vancouver she earned a fourth-place finish — just a 10th of a second away from a bronze medal.

“I was happy, but not satisfied with my fourth-place finish,” said Pikus-Pace, who won her third straight skeleton race of team selections Monday morning at the Utah Olympic Park. “I retired, and thought, ‘This is great, I can relax.’ ”

The Mountain View High alum gave birth to her second child and began speaking to young people about the kind of commitment it takes to make a dream reality. In those speeches, she showed her final run in Vancouver, where she saw the small mistakes that added up to that fourth-place finish.

“I’ve thought about that quite a bit, and it just goes to show that it’s the small things that make a big difference,” the Orem native said. “They can work in your benefit or to the negative.”

Pikus-Pace being who she is, she’s now making that knowledge, that nagging feeling that she’s capable of better, work in her favor. But she might not be among the favorites for a gold medal in skeleton if it weren’t for another heartbreak.

In the spring of 2012, Pikus-Pace had a miscarriage at 18 weeks.

“We were planning on growing our family, having more kids, and after that happened, I was mentally gone,” she said. “I was physically, spiritually, in all aspects, I was drained. It was actually my husband who, again, brought back the point of no regrets.”

Just as he did when he built her a specially designed sled for her 2010 comeback, he asked her if she was really finished with the sport that sends athletes down an icy track at 90 miles an hour.

“A part of me wanted to continue on with my family and get pregnant really quick, have another baby,” she said. “But I knew that emotionally, I couldn’t take it. And physically I needed a break. We’d just found out it was a little girl, and we had all of these plans.” Her voice trails off momentarily contemplating what if, and then the smile slides across her face and the spark returns to her eye.

“That was in April of 2012,” she said. “June 1, 2012, that’s when we decided, let’s do this, but we’re doing it as a family.”

Pikus-Pace travels a lot competing in what is mostly a European sport. She knew she couldn’t revive her dream of earning an Olympic medal in the sport she loves without the people she loves most by her side. So they fundraise, work with sponsors and they’re frugal.

At every race, wherever it happens, her husband and two children are in the crowd.

“Some probably think it’s a little bit crazy, but when my results come, they must think there is something to it,” she said laughing.

Her results are no joke. Not only has she cemented herself as the best U.S. female skeleton athlete, she won gold on the Sochi track in last year’s World Cup, in addition to earning silver at World Championships.

She said the track suits her because it isn’t the fastest track in the world, like Vancouver’s, or the easiest, like Park City’s.

“Sochi is a very technical track, so you’re going to see some separation in times, which is a great thing,” Pikus-Pace said. “I like that there are areas where people can mess up. I like to know that if I get this right, I can give myself a little bit of distance between myself and other athletes.” Despite her victory on the Olympic track, she said the most encouraging thing is that she won with an imperfect run.

“I still have things I can fix,” she said.

Which is typical Pikus-Pace, where perfect might be the goal, but imperfect may be even better. That means there is more to learn, more to experience and somewhere even better to go.

She battles aching pain in her leg, which is still held together by a metal rod. She can’t do all of the strength and conditioning other athletes do. And she deals with the kind of guilt other world-class athletes know very little about but moms battle on a daily basis.

“Number one, have a great support system,” she said of how she juggles all the demands of her life. “Number two, I’ve really learned to manage my time. I make a list every night, and … every minute of my day, I know is going to be filled, and I need to utilize it to the best of my abilities.”

She’s faster and stronger than ever thanks to a great strength and conditioning coach who has adapted her workouts to deal with the fact that she can’t do any one-legged isolation exercises.

“There are a lot of things I can’t do, like jumping or bounding or single leg movements, which is really inhibiting for a sprinter,” she said. “But I’m faster than I’ve ever been, and most of my strength comes from squats and sprinting.”

Just like her success comes from finding a way to bring joy and light to whatever situation she faces. She said being back on the track has been even more enjoyable, even with the new challenges.

“I am competitive by nature,” said the former UVU track athlete. “There is just a thrill about being able to stand at the line, being able to control your nerves and turning it on. There is something about putting yourself in tough positions, facing that kind of pressure, seeing yourself overcome it and pushing forward. It’s just incredible. It’s unlike anything else.”

And when she says it, she smiles because she knows that it’s true in sports, as well as in life.

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