LDS Living sat down with Noelle to find out what ignites her champion’s spirit and drive to persevere. Read on to see why she wouldn’t trade her accident for anything, why she wears her Young Women medallion “at all times, and in all things, and in all places,” and why her beloved family is worth their weight in silver.
LDSL: So have you always been a sports superstar?
Noelle: I actually didn’t know I could play sports! My love of sports didn’t come until the spring of fifth grade, when one of my friends said I should come and try out for softball. I said to her, “Softball? Girls can do that?” I ended up making the team and practiced pitching in the backyard every day. And my mom was at every game. My parents are the best. They gave me every opportunity to try new things.
LDSL: So . . . skeleton. How does one pick up a sport like that?
Noelle: (laughs) I was just in the right place at the right time. I was going to Mountain View High School in Orem, Utah, and my high school track coach happened to be helping out with the bobsled program in Park City. My coach knew I was competitive and that I’d be willing to try anything. Of course I was game, even though the only thing I knew about the sport was from the movie Cool Runnings. I instantly fell in love with bobsled—and I started doing quite well at it. But the following year they lost their junior development funding and told me they were going to switch me to skeleton. I wasn’t happy at all. But that didn’t last. After a few months, I saw I had potential. I had a new love.
LDSL: Do you remember your very first skeleton run?
Noelle: Oh yeah. At that point, I didn’t even know it was called skeleton. I got on top of the track expecting to see a bobsled. The instructor said he needed a volunteer and called me out from everybody. He said we were going to try something new and that he wanted us to really see the ice. He gave me a helmet and lacrosse padding, and then he told me to lie down on this sled that looked like a cookie sheet. He told me to hold on tight, and then he kicked me off down the hill. I was screaming for my life. I was sure I was going to die. But then about halfway down I stopped screaming for a second and realized I was going to be okay. Actually, I realized it was amazing. I was instantly hooked on a sport I barely knew the name of.
LDSL: Let’s fast-forward to right before the 2006 games. You were being favored to take home the gold at Torino. What did that pressure feel like?
Noelle: It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Before that, there were no expectations on my shoulders. No one cared to interview me. But then I had this amazing season where I’m top ranked going into the games—and the pressure was insane. But out of this pressure also came something great—a confidence swelled within me. I wasn’t looking up to anyone anymore. I was an equal. And quite honestly, I knew I could beat them.
LDSL: And then the accident happened; you were hit by a bobsled that flew off the track. What were the days following the accident like emotionally?
Noelle: After I got out of surgery, I was wheeled into my room. My husband and parents were thousands of miles away in Utah, and I was there all by myself, sharing a room with a 90-year-old who was ripping out his IV and had his gown flap hanging open. That’s when it hit me that my Olympic dream was gone.
Right when a tear came down my cheek, my doctor walked in, looked at me and sternly said, “Why are you crying?” And my first reaction was to tell her, “You try being hit by a bobsled and tell me how you feel!” But pretty quickly I realized that was the moment I needed. As much as I wanted her to give me a hug, it was the best thing I could have heard.
LDSL: What did that moment teach you?
Noelle: When we have trials or setbacks, we have a choice to make. We can let them hold us back, or we can let them push us forward. The accident allowed me to see what I was made of physically, mentally, and spiritually. And it was a confirmation that agency is why we’re here. Regardless of our situation, there is always a different way to look at things. Dreams are shattered, huge opportunities are missed, but there will always be another door. Truly, one of the greatest moments of my life has been hitting rock bottom—and it’s because I chose to keep pushing forward. I wouldn’t change that moment for anything.
LDSL: So where did you go from there?
Noelle: I went right back to competing the following year, and I won the World Championships. I was so determined to prove I should have been on the Olympic team, and that if I had been there, I would have medaled. I ended up winning that championship by the largest margin in the history of the sport.
LDSL: Was winning that championship everything you hoped it would be?
Noelle: I was burned out and miserable. I was drained physically, mentally, and spiritually. I had given it every ounce, and quite honestly, I wanted to be done for good.
LDSL: You came in fourth in the Vancouver Olympics and missed the podium by a tenth of a second. Is that the longest, most painful tenth of a second in the history of your life?
Noelle: Finishing fourth is harder than finishing seventh. You analyze every little detail, every turn, every entrance. If I had only tucked in my shoelaces! I’ve thought about that for many years. I know exactly where I could have made up the time.
LDSL: So after Vancouver came retirement. Why did you decide to retire at 27?
Noelle: I had fulfilled my dream on a sled my husband built me. I was an Olympian. I was done. And I wanted more kids.
LDSL: You had your son, Traycen, in 2011. And then your husband brought you out of retirement in 2012.
Noelle: I actually had a miscarriage in April 2012. I was 18 weeks along, and it was devastating. My husband knew I needed a distraction, and he said to me, “I know you still love skeleton. What if you competed in Sochi and we were to travel around as a family?”
LDSL: And that’s exactly what you did. What did it mean to you?
Noelle: It was the highlight of my entire career. I loved competing, and then I got to go home and recharge with my family. There were definitely nights where I was up at two or four in the morning. The night before the world championship, I was up from one to four a.m. with sick kids. But my team still won the gold. During that time, I didn’t emphasize the things normal athletes emphasize. Hearing my kids and husband cheer me on was everything.
LDSL: So you get to Sochi. What’s your mindset?
Noelle: I was so calm compared to Vancouver. For the past two years, my sight, focus, and visualization were so clear. I knew what to expect. I felt like I had been there a thousand times before. For me, Sochi wasn’t about being an Olympian. This time it was about becoming a medalist. I didn’t care if it was gold, silver, or bronze. I just wanted to show everyone who supported us that they had done it for a reason.
LDSL: What do you remember about your silver medal–winning run?
Noelle: I remember standing at the top of the track and realizing all that stood between the medal and me was one run. My heart was pounding, but I knew what I was supposed to do. When I got down to the bottom, I saw my coach throw his hands in the air. I knew I had won a medal.
LDSL: You jumping into the stands has to be one of the most memorable moments from the 2014 Olympics!
Noelle: I knew I needed to be with the people I loved—the people who got me to that moment. So jumping over the wall and into the bleachers seemed like the only logical thing to do. (laughs)
LDSL: What does it mean to you to be an Olympian?
Noelle: That all the hard work paid off—that all the missed family gatherings, Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Valentine’s Days were worth it. I got to represent my country, my faith, my community, and my religion. This is who I am, and I got to show the world who we are as family—that we are stronger together.
LDSL: How has being a mother affected you as an athlete?
Noelle: I don’t take it so seriously anymore. I don’t worry so much about the result. I want to do my best, but at the end of the day, I get to go home to my family. It’s given me perspective. And it’s made me a better athlete.
LDSL: What do you want your kids to take away from your experience as an Olympian?
Noelle: There will always be hard times, but it’s up to them—and only them—to make that choice and move forward. I want them to be passionate about something. I want them to have a talent and strive to become great at it.
LDSL: Where can fans connect with Noelle and learn more about her inspiring story?
Noelle Pikus-Pace will be a featured speaker at several Time Out for Women events this year:
Preregistration for these events is available now through October 22, with discounts available for groups. Each event will have an amazing lineup of inspiring speakers and musicians--you won't want to miss them!
Read the full interview with Noelle Pikus-Pace in the July/August issue of LDS Living.
Find out more about the life lessons learned by Olympic athlete Noelle-Pikus Pace in her new book, Focused: Keeping Your Life on Track, One Choice at a Time, now available at Deseret Book and deseretbook.com. In her warm and relatable style, Noelle shares touching personal stories and teaches how these experiences can help us keep a healthy perspective on the things that matter most. She helps us to see that though all of our goals and trials are different, we each can choose to become the best versions of ourselves one day at a time.
Covering topics from letting go of expectations and pressures to finding a healthy life balance, from standing up for ourselves to standing for righteousness, world champion Noelle Pikus-Pace infuses readers with the enthusiasm and confidence to get a little closer to their goals each and every day.