Noelle Pikus-Pace knows a thing or two about the power of hard work, dedication and humility. After sustaining a knockout succession of blows that included a shattered leg, a disappointing fourth place finish at the 2010 Vancouver Games and the crushing loss of her third child, the talented 31-year old skeleton athlete staged an unlikely and inspirational comeback and enters the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi favored to win gold. Examiner communicated exclusively with Pikus-Pace in a recent interview, focusing first on her role with TD Ameritrade's innovative #itaddsup social media campaign.
When asked about her involvement with the TD Ameritrade campaign, which pairs 2014 Olympians with 2018 prospects and helps to fund the up-and-comers' athletic journeys whenever the tag #ItAddsUp is used via Twitter, Pikus-Pace responded with enthusiasm, calling the program "absolutely incredible." She serves as a mentor to rising skeleton star Gracie Clapp-Taylor, who she called "one of the best athletes I've seen in our sport."
Clapp-Taylor, a 21-year old Jacksonville, Fla. native who first discovered skeleton when it aired on TV following a figure skating competition at the 2010 Olympics, echoed Pikus-Pace's glowing remarks about the program in a Jan. 24 exclusive interview. After calling her participation "the coolest thing that's ever happened to me," Clapp-Taylor explained that she first became involved with the campaign when Pikus-Pace and a camera crew surprised her at the Olympic Training Center in December and revealed that she'd be heading to Sochi to experience the 2014 Games in person. She hopes to parlay her talent into a spot on the 2018 Olympic team, an outcome which Clapp-Taylor said would validate "every step and sacrifice" she's made for the sport.
Pikus-Pace expressed confidence in Clapp-Taylor's chances, and opined that the trip to Sochi would be beneficial, since "the experience of attending the Olympic Games is not comparable with anything else within our sport."
The conversation meandered from there, touching on subjects including the pluses and minuses of being a gold medal favorite, the positive power of humility, and her role as a super mom to daughter Lacee and son Traycen.
Did you have a mentor when you were first starting in skeleton? What do you think are the two main benefits of having a mentor in your sport?
Pikus-Pace: My mentor was Lincoln DeWitt. He was always there and willing to offer any help that he could and it was really nice to have somebody who I could look up to, someone who knew the sport. In skeleton, that's something very critical to have, especially since there aren't too many people who know the ins and outs of the sport. I didn't even have a speed suit to start out with, so he gave me his old torn-up one. It had holes in it but I was so grateful for it because when you're starting out the sport and you don't have much money, every little bit counts.
There are two main benefits of having a mentor in my sport. First of all, you get to learn from
the experience that they've already gained, which is huge. They've been down the track so many times, they know how the sport goes, and they know what works and what doesn't, so to be able to learn from their mistakes and learn from their successes is something that's very helpful. Another benefit of having a mentor in this sport is learning that every athlete is different, that there isn't just one way to succeed-- there is always another way. Maybe one way that you feel confident in sliding isn't always going to be the way that everybody else slides. There is more than one way to get the job done and more than one way to achieve that goal.
Who do you most admire in the world of sports? Why?
Pikus-Pace: This might sound a little odd because it's actually one of my competitors --I guess maybe you don’t find that too many times, admiring your competitor-- but someone I really admire is Anja Huber, a skeleton athlete from Germany. Aside from her athletic accomplishments and her skill, the thing that I admire most about her is that her sportsmanship is incredible. She will go up to anybody and give them a hug and congratulate them. Despite her finish or where she's at, she's always there to tell her competitors "great job" and "well done" with sincerity. I think that's what the purpose of sport really comes down to. You want to see what your best is and develop your talents and reach your potential, and you obviously want to beat everybody else on the track. But, in the end, it really is about the lessons that you learn and what life skills you can take from it. Being a good sport is far more important than any kind of success, if you can't be humble or if you're full of pride.
What was your first thought when you found out you'd secured a spot on the 2014 Olympic team? Did it feel different than it did in 2010?
Pikus-Pace: My first thought when I found out I'd secured a spot on the 2014 Olympic team was much different than in 2010. In 2006, I worked really, really hard and I felt like I had to fight so hard to make the Olympic team, and then I missed out because of an injury. In 2010, it was a little bit of a fight and finally I was just full of relief and just saying, "Wow, I finally made it, I’m finally an Olympian." In 2014, from the beginning of the season, I came out so strong and started competing very well, so I just never had a question in my mind that I would be here. It's been a little different because I've been able to have my sights set on the track and the competition, rather than actually making it. So I'm hoping that is a huge benefit as I go into the competition because I haven't been struggling to get there-- I have actually been looking forward to competing and being on the ice. So I guess my first thought when I found out was, "All right, this is it, this is my chance, it's go time."
Psychologically, does it help or hurt to know that you enter Sochi as a medal favorite?
Pikus-Pace: Honestly, I think it helps, but obviously it can hurt if you let it get to your head. For me, I've been so focused on the process of it all and what I need to do to get down the track, and I haven't really lost sight of that. If I allow myself to keep thinking about the podium and the medal stand, then I lose sight of what I actually have to do, which is get down the track quickly and know how to drive down the track and have my rhythm and my timing where it needs to be. I have worked really hard to actually try and push those thoughts out of my head and it's been working for me. So, right now, I just want to focus on getting down the track and setting those goals and knowing it’s the baby steps and those small simple things that will help me get on the podium, if it's meant to be.
If you had to pick three words to define how it feels to hurtle down an icy track at breakneck speed, what would they be?
Pikus-Pace: Chaos, rhythm, solitude.
Do you follow any other winter sports? Which other athletes (if any) would you like to meet while in Sochi?
Pikus-Pace: The only other winter sport that I have had time to follow-- between having a family and doing my own thing and sliding-- is actually bobsledding. We travel together, so I've met all those athletes and they’re all incredible.
You have two young children at home. What kind of routine did you follow to get back into amazing shape after childbirth?
Pikus-Pace: Being a mom definitely takes its toll on your exercise routine. I've been on Jason Hartman's strength and conditioning program and he’s absolutely incredible. Right when I decided to come back, I said, "I'm a mom, my time is limited, I have three herniated discs in my back, I have a hurt leg, I have injuries," and he built a program specifically for me, which has been absolutely incredible. I would work out over the summer on three days a week, for about two to three hours a day. I would try to do it before the kids would wake up. I'd usually start around 6 AM and be done by 8:30 or 9 so I could get them up, get them ready, get them breakfast and get Lacee off to school and be with Traycen all day.
What are the first two songs on your iPod (or music player) play list?
Pikus-Pace: "Royals" by Lorde and "All This Time" by OneRepublic.
And finally, my kids (ages 3, 5 and 9) want to ask one question: What is your favorite cartoon?
Pikus-Pace: I can only pick one? We love cartoons at my house. For my kids, it would be "Jake and the Never Land Pirates." For myself, I've gotta say I'm definitely a Kuzco fan, so "The Emperor's New Groove."
The women's skeleton event at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, featuring gold medal favorite Pikus-Pace, is scheduled to begin on Feb. 12 at 11:30 PM Pacific time.