KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Eight years after she was a top-ranked medal favorite in skeleton, Noelle Pikus-Pace finally earned her spot on an Olympic podium.
“I never thought this could be real,” the Eagle Mountain mother of two said after winning a silver medal in Friday’s skeleton final at the Sanki Sliding Center. “I just put it behind me. … And now it’s just all come together into this moment. This is better than gold for me. I’m trying to take it in. I can’t. I can’t comprehend this moment.”
Her reward for a decade of resilience and perseverance was not gold. But somehow silver seemed the perfect color of medal for the athlete who’s always preached the beauty of searching for a silver lining regardless of the heartbreak.
“I know what trials are,” she said after finishing second (3:53.86) to Great Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold (3:52.89). “And I know we can overcome them. As hard as things are, we just always have to find that sunny side, we just always have to stay on the positive side and we’ll find ways to make it through.”
From a compound fracture suffered when a bobsled left the track and hit her during Olympic trials for the 2006 games to missing out on a medal in Vancouver by one-tenth of a second, Pikus-Pace has proved that finding a way over, around or just straight through adversity is simply what she does best.
In fact, she had a significant scare just a week before she stood on that podium, flower in hand blowing a kiss to the man who has loved her, encouraged her, even designed her sled.
“On Wednesday, I had a concussion and on Friday I was getting MRIs,” Pikus-Pace said at a post-competition press conference. “I was pretty out of it. I couldn’t see clearly, my vision was blurred. So for medical reasons I didn’t take those (six) runs.”
The concussion was apparently caused by the G-forces athletes endure as they navigate the twists and turns of the tracks. She said she blacked out and didn’t know what happened. After medical tests Friday and a few days off, Pikus-Pace said she returned to the track a week later feeling “confident.”
“I felt very good today, and I felt like I could do my best,” she said. “I just have a little bit of vertigo.”
Her husband, Janson, said they both wondered why this would happen to her now.
“It was just another thing,” he said, as his children played in the press room. “How can we get this far and have something else? Why something else? What’s the purpose? We thought it was gold. Could it have been, it’s possible. But we’re happy.”
Finally, after all of the twists and turns, near-misses and heartbreaks, Pikus-Pace had her moment.
When she crossed the finish line, she saw the scoring screen that announced she was in first place with only Yarnold’s final run remaining.
She jumped from the sled and into the stands.
“I didn’t know I had that high of a vertical,” she said laughing. “I didn’t know that’s what was coming. I just completely lost it once I saw that number one by my name. … My heart just filled up and the emotions overwhelmed me. I leaped over because the first people I wanted to see were my husband and kids.”
Pikus-Pace may not have enjoyed her unique journey that ended with Friday's silver medal were it not for another agonizing event in April 2012. Enjoying retirement, she had a miscarriage at 18 weeks. It was during that painful time that her husband asked if she thought she might have unfinished business on the skeleton track.
When Pikus-Pace decided to revive her Olympic dream, she did so with one condition: Her family would travel to every World Cup race with her.
It was the generosity of friends, family and sponsors that helped them fund their unique experience.
“Over these past two years, I truly could not ask for more,” she said. “It’s been a dream come true.”
While she described the balancing act that is her life, a reporter asked her what her Olympic journey would be like without her family along for the ride.
“It’s not the dream without them,” she said. “I can’t say it any other way. It’s not perfect without them.”
And she plans to repay their patience and kindness with the kind of commitment only supermom can offer.
“I absolutely, first and foremost, love being a mom,” she said beaming, “100 percent — I love being a mom, and that will always be my priority. I want to make sure my kids can do anything, that they can be anything, and that they can have dreams that I will be right there, by their sides cheering them along the way. I want to join PTA; I want to bake cookies; I want to plant a big garden. I want to be at home doing the things I love doing.”