SOCHI, Russia — It wasn’t vanity.
It wasn’t her competitive nature.
It wasn’t the desire to have something that everybody else would respect to show for her time in a sport that most people don’t even understand.
Noelle Pikus-Pace returned to the skeleton at 29 years old, taking along her husband and two young children, because she felt it was the path God wanted her to walk.
“I was happy, but not satisfied with my fourth-place finish (in the 2010 Olympics),” the Orem native, now 31, said Friday night, repeating a sentiment she’s expressed since she returned to the sport in June 2012 after two years away. “I retired. We were expanding our family and I was happy about it.”
She often spoke to young people about how to achieve their dreams. When she did, she showed a video of her final skeleton run in Vancouver. She talked about missing the medals podium by one-tenth of a second and how to find joy in the journey because whatever happens, there is purpose and love in it.
But when she watched the video with them, she also saw small mistakes that cost her a medal.
“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,” Pikus-Pace said. “They can work in your benefit or to the negative.”
It was another heartache that pushed her to really question whether she was ready to leave the sport when she did. Pikus-Pace suffered a miscarriage in April 2012. She felt a kind of sadness that threatened to be consuming.
“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.”
It was Janson Pace who built his wife a custom sled to help her come back from a horrific accident in 2006 when a bobsled left the track and hit her, shattering her leg.
And it was Janson who prayed with her and for her as the couple tried to decide if they should return to the sport — and more importantly, why.
“Before we came back into this whole adventure, we fasted, we prayed, we’d go to the (LDS) temple to try and figure out where we were supposed to go,” said Pikus-Pace after attending a Mormon worship service in Sochi two days after winning the Olympic silver medal. “Then we know we have agency to choose and in making that decision to move forward, have (God's) help all along the way.”
They didn’t have all of the answers in that moment. And the fact that Pikus-Pace felt purpose in her athletic endeavors didn’t mean she was without adversity. In fact, there were even times she wondered if she’d misunderstood what God wanted from her.
“There were a handful of times when I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ ” she said. “But I was immediately comforted by that peace of the Spirit, just knowing there is a greater plan out there. As I went into my Olympic race even, and I wasn’t feeling well (prior) to it, I thought, ‘Wow, what if I finish fourth again? What if I finish fourth again? What’s the purpose here? What am I supposed to be doing?' And there was that doubt that came into my head, and then there was just that reassurance that I’m here for a reason and Heavenly Father has been by my side. It was just this thought of all of these miracles that have happened all along the way to lead us to this point, and I’ve finished fourth in this past Olympics.”
One of those miracles included recovering from what she suspected might be a concussion. Pikus-Pace blacked out while training a week and a half before her Olympic competition. She didn’t feel well so she had an MRI, which was clear of any problems. She only took two of her allowed eight training runs, and she admits she struggled with doubt in that moment. Had she come this far to miss the competition for which her family, friends and community had helped her prepare?
So she did what she has done every time life has tried to break her heart or shake her faith. She went to her knees with her husband and asked for support and guidance.
“Any time I’ve had an injury or doubts or fears, that’s something we’ve really had strength in is our testimony of the priesthood power,” Pikus-Pace said. “Not just that (blessings from priesthood holders) should be given at the beginning of a school year or maybe necessarily when something traumatic comes up.”
It's an LDS doctrine that Pikus-Pace believes has sustained her throughout her tumultuous journey to the medal stand in Sochi, Russia.
“That’s something so sacred and so special that we have here on earth,” she said. “Heavenly Father’s power within the priesthood power to bless our lives any time that we feel Satan’s power over us, we can use in our lives and that’s something that we’ve really strengthened our faith in, is the power of the priesthood. It’s one of God’s greatest tools that we can use on earth today, to help us in this battle that really is going on.”
It’s prayer that brought her comfort when she faced disappointment — on or off the track. It is prayer that helped her make decisions when she questioned whether she was doing what she wanted or following God’s directives.
Her faith has also helped her keep any competitive desires in perspective.
“There’s a lot of times when you start looking at one person, and thinking, ‘I just want to beat them,’ ” she said. “You start getting these negative thoughts about a person, a team or a country, and it’s really hard. When you start to feel those things, you have to think, ‘OK, is this leading me toward Christ? Or away from him?’ There is always this black and white area, where you can say, 'Am I getting closer to my Savoir? Or is this pulling me farther away?’ ”
And then, if she decides those feelings are taking her away from God, she has a unique solution for an elite athlete.
“You really have to find a way to show love,” Pikus-Pace said. “And one of the best ways is to serve or compliment or just get outside that mentality that Satan wants us to be in and stop comparing ourselves to each other and really focus on being our best.”
After the Sunday worship service, while her husband shepherded her children from a chapel that's little more than a barren room on the third floor of a strip mall, Pikus-Pace talked with members of her faith who speak English. They asked about her medal and within seconds, she produced it. They took pictures, told her how her story inspires them and wished her well.
They went off to Sunday School in a place that looks more like abandoned office space than an LDS church facility. The only indication that this is a house of worship is the recognizable Mormon music and a placard that says “Sacrament Hall” above a glass door.
Still, Pikus-Pace, who was joined at church services by LDS luge athlete Kate Hansen, said this is where her heart and purpose are. It is the reason she can find peace, regardless of the expectations of others. Gold may have been her goal, but silver is her reward, and she knows that’s what was meant to be.
“My faith in what we’re doing and our purpose isn’t surrounded by a color of a medal,” she said. “That isn’t what it’s about. The journey that we’ve had, the people we’ve been able to share this experience with, and the smiles and lives we’ve been able to touch made it all worth it.”
Part of her message is that life is inevitably difficult and disappointing, and that with God’s help, it’s possible not just to endure but to be truly happy.
And part of her message is that life is about paying attention to and appreciating the smallest details. Pikus-Pace does ask herself why God chose her to send some of the messages that she feels compelled to share. She said she believes her preparation for this journey began long before she even knew what skeleton was.
Her advice to young people is to be aware that every choice has life-long consequences.
“It all comes down to all the little choices you make, all throughout your life,” she said. “It’s not just one day you decide, ‘OK, I’m going to follow the path of the Lord. I’m going to have a testimony. I’m going to have faith in this.’ It’s a daily decision. It starts when you are young — you make decisions every day. ‘Yes, I will go to seminary. Yes, I will go to Young Womens. Yes, I will graduate from high school. Yes, I will put my faith in the Lord, and I want to get married in the temple.’ It’s all of these little steps along the way that set you up for other paths and open up other doors.”
That’s not to say it’s too late if a person hasn’t made those choices or has made choices that prevent them from those blessings, she said.
“That’s why we have the belief in repentance as well, and that’s one of the key aspects of the gospel is the Atonement of Christ,” she said. “We believe the Savior atoned for our sins and so if we repent of those things, we can get back on a path that is clear.”
That doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing, something Pikus-Pace acknowledges with a smile.
“It doesn’t mean that things are always positive or that they’ll go our way,” she said. “It just means that we’ll have the peace and understanding to understand our trials when they come and that our lives will be blessed.”
Pikus-Pace doesn’t shy away from her belief that she’s been blessed with success and a platform, and she plans to continue sharing her message with those who will listen.
Her favorite scripture comes from the Book of Mormon, and addresses why she saw athletics as an opportunity to send messages of hope and encouragement — especially to young people.
Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever. (Alma 26:12)
She felt purpose most keenly when she stood on the podium in front of thousands of Olympic fans, wearing, for the first time, a physical reward for her heartache, sacrifice and hard work.
“Where much is given, much is required,” she said. “I know I have a big responsibility. I hope the young women and the young men can see that it really is important, more than ever, to stand for something today, and to stand up for your values and beliefs. Even if you’re the only one having to stand alone. … There are always others who can help support you, and Heavenly Father is always right there by your side.”