PARK CITY — The only thing more disappointing than never winning a gold medal in the sport to which you've dedicated your life might be having one taken from you for an incomprehensible reason.
That’s what happened to Orem native Noelle Pikus-Pace nine days ago.
A nickel-sized piece of tape on the handle of her skeleton sled stole the gold medal she earned in the first World Cup race of the season two weekends ago in Calgary. The tape was there during the first equipment inspection of the event, and no one mentioned it was a problem.
But after she’d managed to navigate the track in the fastest two times of the day, officials informed her coach that she was being disqualified for the equipment violation.
One of her coaches called it “a travesty” and that is, understandably, how it felt to Pikus-Pace.
“I was obviously a train wreck,” she said Friday at the season's second World Cup competition held at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City. “I was an emotional wreck all week. I went from high to low, to high to low and just back and forth.”
Losing the medal was devastating, but having her integrity questioned was, well, what bothered Pikus-Pace most.
“I know that I have integrity,” she said when asked if she was looking for redemption on Friday. “And I know I would never do anything to jeopardize my reputation or that of those who support me. Integrity means everything to me, so I know when I compete, I compete fair and I compete clean.”
But if Pikus-Pace has shown herself to be anything — as an athlete and a human being — it’s resilient. In talking with reporters after racing the following weekend, she said she was grateful that she gets to choose whether life's experiences become what hold her back or what propels her to new heights.
She understands she is no different than anyone, whether they make a living selling cars, delivering pizzas or sliding down the world's most treacherous tracks. Life is full of pain, and at the same time, it's loaded with beauty. And much of the time, how one chooses to see an experience determines whether it blesses or destroys. So in the wake of another painful experience, she did what she's done time and time again — she moved forward with hope.
This is the woman who came back from being hit by a bobsled in 2005. When everyone else looked for someone to blame, she focused on trying to heal fast enough to make the 2006 Olympic team. She was back on ice competing by mid-December, even though she couldn’t walk with a limp and had to have help carrying her sled.
This is the woman who dealt with the disappointment of not making the 2006 Olympic Games by working harder to make the 2010 Olympic Games.
This is the woman who was nothing but grateful and gracious when she missed earning a bronze medal in the 2010 games by a tenth of a second. She lost an Olympic medal, literally, in the blink of an eye.
“That was so close," she told the Deseret News immediately after what she thought was her final competitive race back then. "I could never picture this moment any better than this.”
This is the woman who suffered a miscarriage in the spring of 2012, and instead of hiding from the pain, she decided to take care of unfinished business on the skeleton track. But this time, she said she would only do it if her husband and two children could be there every step of the way.
Her brother even had his doubts about her decision to retire after finishing fourth in Vancouver in 2010.
“It’s Noelle,” Rob Pikus told KSL on Friday. “She’s my sister. I grew up with her, spent my whole life in the same house. It’s just her spirit. She’s got a fun, happy spirit, but she’s also got the competitive side, and I knew taking fourth the last time just wasn’t good enough for her.”
So when she was denied a gold medal two weekends ago, those who love her most knew she would need support, maybe even a shoulder to cry on. But they also knew that she would show up to every training run with the kind of focus and determination that has sustained her through a career — and a life — full of incredible beauty and gut-wrenching heartache.
Her father Lee Pikus said it’s hard to believe that the beautiful little girl he once held in his arms is now a world-class athlete in one of the most dangerous sports.
“She took hold of it, worked hard, had setbacks, but she’s not one that gives up,” he said during Friday’s competition. “She’s a sweet girl; she’s better on the inside than she is on the outside.”
Maybe it’s her competitive nature. Maybe it’s her generous heart. But Pikus-Pace is determined in the most beautiful way. She doesn’t give up, but she doesn’t let the setbacks that every athlete, every person suffers make her bitter or resentful. She doesn't talk trash. She preaches gratitude.
The 31-year-old simply continues to embrace the possibilities of life.
And while losing out on that gold was a punch in the stomach, this past weekend, on the track where she first fell in love with the sport of skeleton, was filled with unbridled joy. She won gold, this time for keeps, by setting a track record on the ice where it all began.
“It was incredible,” she said with a grin. “It’s just been an incredible ride.”