Pikus-Pace rides positivity to silver medal, dream ending to career
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – A few hours before Noelle Pikus-Pace went on her final skeleton run she sat down with her six-year-old daughter Lacee.
“Today is a big day for Mommy,” Noelle told her daughter. “Today is the Olympics. Try to remember what you can because you will be asked about this day for the rest of your life.”
Lacee looked up into her mother’s eyes. And she said: “What can I have for lunch? I want chicken nuggets for lunch.”
And Noelle Pikus-Pace clicked a camera in her mind so she would remember this.
Embedded video_content_type: Noelle Pikus-Pace speaks after silver medal performance
In the moments before that last run Pikus-Pace – who has come back from a freak injury, a hard comeback, a near miss, despondency, retirement, motherhood, another hard comeback and, why not?, a last-second concussion – she concentrated on the single thought that she had written down for herself.
There’s only room for a single thought for a skeleton athlete. The skeleton is like luge, only face first. It’s a one-minute thrill-ride with danger along every single inch of the course. So there’s no room in the brain for a hundred thoughts to bounce around. One thought. That’s it.
But that one thought could capture the crazy journey of her life. She fell in love with this skeleton sport, the feeling of speed and being on the very edge, when she was young. She played lots of sports, but this was the one that spoke loudest to her. She became the best woman skeleton athlete in the world when she was 22 years old.
And then … she was hit by a bobsled at the end of a run. That was the freak injury. She assumed – not unreasonably – that the bobsled would stop. Bobsleds are supposed to stop. Instead, it plowed into her and broke her leg in several places. She missed the 2006 Olympics in Torino. Well, she went to Italy as an alternate, but she couldn’t even bear to attend. She watched on television and in tears.
RELATED: Pikus-Pace wins silver medal; Great Britain's Yarnold wins
Then, the hard comeback. She was on a sled six weeks after her injury. Though she missed Torino, she made it back to No. 1 in the world the very next year. She went to Vancouver as a serious medal contender. She had the scenario in mind – she would win a medal, retire, go home and raise her family. Instead, she finished fourth. She missed a medal by one-tenth of a second. One-tenth. Don’t you wonder what it is to come that close to your dream? Pikus-Pace smiled for cameras and said all the right things and handled it with class because that’s the kind of person Pikus-Pace is.
Then she went back to the hotel, got in bed, stared at the ceiling and cried. In her mind, over and over, she kept thinking: So close … So close … So close.
Then: Retirement. Motherhood. Lacee was her first. She and her husband Jansen had a son, Traycen. She was thrilled with this life. She wanted to be supermom. And then, when pregnant with their third child, she had a miscarriage. It was devastating. And somewhere in the pain, Jansen came up to her and said, “I think we should give the skeleton one more shot. And we should do it as a family.”
So, he made the sled. She went back to training. The kids stayed in hotel rooms. And at age 31, Noelle Pikus-Pace made it to the top of the mountain Saturday for that final run. She knew that if she had a clear run, she would win a medal. She just needed one thought.
One thought. After all that, how can you come up with one thought?
She wrote down: “This is it. Don’t get scared now.”
And below it she drew a smiley face.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Through the lens: Noelle Pikus-Pace wins skeleton silver, Yarnold takes gold
In the moments after Noelle Pikus-Pace had crossed the finish line, a silver-medalist, she could not contain her joy. Happiness poured out of her like sweat. She had to find her husband. She had to find her children. She had to find her friends. She had to … heck, she had to be in so many places and think so many thoughts that it was overload. Happiness overload.
Stunning? Yes, it was stunning. Even after all the challenges she had overcome, the last week gave her one more: The concussion. She suffered it last Friday. She doesn’t know how. She doesn’t know when, exactly. It was during a run, and she blacked out, and when she got to the finish she couldn’t hear, and she couldn’t talk. The doctors grounded her for a few days. There was real concern for a while that she would not be ready.
“I know, like I needed one more challenge after everything,” she would say. Her whole journey was so bumpy, so frustrating, so discouraging. Nothing came easy. But at the same time, the journey was so fun and so inspiring and it brought so many wonderful people into her life. Nothing came easy! See, she says, you have to stay positive. You have to see the good things. That’s how you keep coming back, and that’s how you get to the finish line.
“I hope there’s a girl out there,” she said, “let’s say a 15-year-old girl, who watched and thought, ‘that skeleton looks cool. I want to do that. I want to win a gold medal.’ I want her to believe she can do it.”
And Pikus-Pace was happy. So happy. Happier, perhaps, than I’ve ever seen anyone up close. As happy as Roberto Benigni when he climbed the chairs after winning the Oscar. As happy as Gene Kelly when he was singin’ in the rain. As happy as Katrina and the Waves song, “Walking on Sunshine.”
Happier even. When I asked her about winning the medal, she stopped me and asked me to repeat the question just so she could hear the part again about her winning the medal. When she saw some of the hometown reporters who followed her on her journey from the start, she insisted on hugging them. When she finished her press conference, she posed for pictures with the letter that medalists get.
“Look what it says,” she said as she pointed at the top. “It says, ‘Dear Medalist!’”
Embedded owg_slideshow: Growing up: Noelle Pikus-Pace, skeleton
Pikus-Pace said she imagined this day many times through the years. And she said the day turned out way better than she imagined it. She didn’t win the gold – that went to Great Britain’s Elizabeth Yarnold – but that didn’t matter. Pikus-Pace was THRILLED for Yarnold. She won’t race again, but that didn’t matter either.
“I want to be a mom!” she all but shouted. “I want to be on the PTA! I want to bake cookies! I want to have a garden!”
She was so blindingly happy that it was impossible to be around her without being happy yourself. Which I think is the whole point of the Noelle Pikus-Pace story.
“I’ve wanted to keep taking mental pictures of everything,” she says. “I want to remember it all.”
How did she do it? Think again about that note she wrote to herself, the one that gave her a thought to take with her down her final skeleton run. I’m thinking now the most important part of that note is not the words. It’s not the sentiment. It’s not the warning to not get scared.
No. The most important part is the smiley face.
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski
Best of Sochi