Valentine’s Day is the last thing that Noelle Pikus-Pace is thinking about.
The holiday happens to fall on the second day of her Olympic competition in skeleton, a sliding sport similar to bobsled and luge. But Pikus-Pace, 31, and her husband of 11 years, Janson Pace, have bigger plans than a romantic dinner: winning a gold medal.
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More than anything, a win would be a true celebration of their partnership, which has endured both tragedy and triumph as Pikus-Pace pursued Olympic greatness over the past decade. Pace has been there at every turn, offering council and support. When Pikus-Pace kept struggling to get comfortable on her sled about five years ago, her husband even decided to use his engineering experience to brainstorm the “perfect piece of equipment.”
Hurtling downhill headfirst at over 80 miles per hour, she competed victoriously on that sled in recent races, and plans to use it again in Sochi.
Their path to the 2014 Olympics has been anything but conventional. Last year, Pace, 33, left his job at a steel fabrication company so the couple and their two young children could attend Olympic-qualifying competitions together. Lacee, 6, and Traycen, 2, posed many times with their mother on the award podium, where she has been decorated with World Cup gold and silver medals in skeleton.
Globetrotting with two small children in tow might look daunting to most families, but the Paces have embraced the challenge. “Teamwork is really what it’s all about,” Janson Pace told TODAY.com.
Now that Pikus-Pace’s goal of an Olympic medal is within reach, the Paces are hopeful their hard work and sacrifices will lead to victory — so their regular Valentine’s Day dinner will have to wait until the Paces return home to Eagle Mountain, Utah.
“After being with the kids non-stop for the past 3 months straight,” Pikus-Pace said via email, “I am pretty sure we'll be looking for the grandparents when we get home so we can make that date happen!”
Delayed date nights notwithstanding, this is exactly what the couple wanted: an once-in-a-lifetime experience as a family.
Just a few years ago, Pikus-Pace didn’t expect to compete in the 2014 Olympics. A decade ago, she was considered the best in her sport, having won the overall World Cup title in 2004-2005. But when a runaway bobsled struck her at a 2005 competition in Canada, her leg was badly broken, and the accident ended her chances of competing at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. A comeback was marked by disappointment when, at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Pikus-Pace placed fourth and didn’t medal.
She retired soon after, but returned to the sport after experiencing yet another tragedy — a miscarriage— in the spring of 2012.
“I really needed the distraction, turning my mind from loss and heartache to compete again,” she told TODAY.com. “I was looking forward to another goal, and it was chasing this Olympic dream together with my husband, something we felt strongly that was meant to be.”
Pace knew it would be easier for his wife to endure the grueling qualifying season with the children in tow; there would be no anxiety about being away from home. Yet, this was an expensive proposition. The U.S. covers some of Pikus-Pace’s competition costs, but the family had to spend a small fortune last year to fund both her race-related expenses and the family’s travel.
Luckily, they received support from unexpected places. Inspired by Pikus-Pace’s story, one woman handed her a check for $30,000. Friends and fans donated money, coordinated a bake sale, held a 5K race, and put on a golf tournament. Corporate sponsors, including Kellogg’s, have since eased the financial burden.
The family is grateful: “Our team is a lot bigger than just the four of us,” said Pace, who will also be watching his wife from the point of view of his role as "sled-builder."
“If she can compete on that sled and win a gold medal, I’m going to be ecstatic and it will be a story that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives,” he said.
For Pikus-Pace, the custom sled is a reminder of the couple’s enduring partnership. “It’s never been only me crossing finish line,” she said. “It’s always been us.”