If there were a Comeback Player of the Year award at the Olympics, U.S. skeleton star Noelle Pikus-Pace would surely be a shoo-in.
After the first two of four runs in the skeleton finals, she is in second place. Friday, she'll ride the sled twice more—flat on her stomach, inches above the ice—looking to finally win the Olympic medal that has eluded her in a world-class career.
There are numerous stories about Olympians who have had to fight back from injury or personal tragedy in order to compete in their chosen sport. That sort of grit, in fact, may be a key element to becoming an Olympian.
In Pikus-Pace’s case, she had all but retired after the 2010 Olympics, but like that famous line spoken by Al Pacino as Don Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, “Every time I get out, they keep on bringing me back in!”
Her return to the Olympics in Sochi actually marks her second time on the comeback trail.
She had been favored to win the gold medal at the 2006 Olympics after becoming the first U.S. woman to win the overall World Cup title in skeleton in 2004-05. Then, while watching a bobsled competition, she was struck by a sled with failed brakes. The freak accident resulted in a titanium rod being inserted in her leg.
Anyone else might have quit the sport. But the then-22-year-old Pikus-Pace was back competing within seven weeks, finishing 20th in her first event. So compelling was her comeback that it was chronicled in a documentary, 114 Days: The Race to Save a Dream. She went on to win the World Championships by the largest margin in the history of the sport the following year.
Pikus-Pace is your classic overachiever for whom there are just not enough hours in the day.
In addition to her world-renowned accomplishments in skeleton, she is a mother of two, holds a master’s in business administration and runs her own hat company, SnowFireHats.com. While in college at Utah Valley University, she was a track and field All-American who broke the UVU high-jump record and became the NJCAA national discus champion.
At the 2010 Olympics, while riding a sled designed by her husband, Janson Pace, Pikus-Pace missed out on a medal by a mere one-tenth of second. After nine years of competing, she was through, announcing her retirement in favor of spending time with her family—or so she thought.
The memory of being so close to winning a medal drove her back to the sport, and she began training again.
“I absolutely would not be here if I had medaled in Vancouver,” Pikus-Pace told The Associated Press (via The Washington Post).
I was done. More than done. And my husband and two kids are back here and it’s fun to see them here as well. I know that everything happens for a reason, whether it’s getting hit by a bobsled going into the 2006 season, missing out on an Olympic medal by a tenth of a second or anything else life brings you, it all happens for a reason.
Now ranked second in the world, she faces a packed field of female skeleton racers of the highest order, including her archrival, Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold. Both women won four times this past season, and Yarnold may be all that stands in her way for a gold medal.
You may have seen a recent AT&T television ad featuring Pikus-Pace and her family. The online description of the ad reads like her personal mission: “Dreams come in all forms, shapes and sizes. Wake up with your dream still fresh in your mind. Follow your kids’ dreams onto the playing field. Go to bed knowing you kept the dream alive.”
Her story may sound just too good to be true, but it is a real-life depiction of the drive, the passion and the persistence it takes to succeed on the Olympic level. Should she grab the gold, stand on the podium and flash her effervescent smile reflective of the joy such a comeback produces, it will be a fitting end to her truly Olympian accomplishment.