Noelle Pikus-Pace of the U.S. starts her third heat in the women’s skeleton event at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics four years ago. Pikus-Pace is trying to win an Olympic gold medal after coming up short in 2006 and 2010. (Reuters)
LONDON — Noelle Pikus-Pace is on a mission to win Olympic gold, and the American skeleton racer — dubbed the “fastest mom on ice” — will not let anything distract her from making the third time lucky.
The 30-year-old had her 2006 Olympic hopes dashed by a pre-Games freak accident in which she suffered a broken leg when a bobsleigh crashed into her after failing to brake at the finish line.
Four years later, she finished fourth, a tenth of a second outside the medals.
Done with skeleton and happy in retirement, a personal tragedy in which she suffered a miscarriage with her third child prompted a life re-evaluation and a return to a sport in which she has unfinished business.
“I feel unstoppable — so confident in my own abilities,” she said.
“It’s a drive and a passion inside me that I can’t explain. You either have it or you don’t and I’ve felt it this season.
“It’s a rhythm, it’s a feel, it’s a flow, it’s a dance. I grew up dancing when I was younger — it reminds me of the dance; being able to feel it and get the timing perfect. I have to be able to see it. I see every entrance and every exit.
“When I get to the line I’m laughing, I’m smiling, I’m waving and when that green light goes off, I’m 100 percent focused and I can see every curve down the track, I’m not distracted by anything.”
Pikus-Pace has become accustomed to overcoming adversity.
In the first World Cup race of this season, she was the fastest over two runs in Calgary, only to be disqualified after her sled failed a post-race inspection following a complaint that extra tape was wrapped around the handle.
Tearful and frustrated, Pikus-Pace channelled her anger into positive thoughts, and came out a week later on her home track in Park City, Utah, to again blitz the field.
“Sometimes I might feel like fate has dealt me some off hands but I’m happy and life is great,” she said.
“I’ve been through a lot in my career and life and I know there is no point in looking backwards — you learn from your experiences and don’t let the world get you down.
“We have a choice, we can look back and be upset or choose to learn from it, see what we can take out of it and just choose to be stronger and better people.”
Pikus-Pace won the test event in Sochi earlier this year and liked the feel of a track she said suited her style.
“I do much better on longer tracks. My start isn’t the top of the world — it’s in the mix, but I’m one of the slower athletes at the start. I have to earn that speed down the track,” she added.
“When I was competing at 21, I felt at my peak. Then when I went to the Vancouver Games, I felt I was at my peak. But now, honestly, I’m pushing faster than I’ve ever pushed before.
“I don’t get distracted by other athletes and other issues I used to get distracted by and that comes with experience and wisdom.”
A world champion in 2007, this year’s silver medal at the worlds in St Moritz — behind Briton Shelley Rudman, who is also one of the favorites for gold in Sochi — confirmed that her old form had returned.
While many athletes struggle to replicate the form from early in their career, Pikus-Pace credits her support system for helping ease her return to the sport.
Helped by a substantial donation from a well-wisher, Pikus-Pace is able to have her family with her full-time on the competition circuit.
“I have a different training program, strength and conditioning coach — he’s worked with me and my mum schedule,” she said.
“I’m stronger and faster than I’ve been before.”