WHISTLER, British Columbia — At first blush, it might seem like fate doesn't favor Noelle Pikus-Pace.
"That was so close," the Orem native said after a fourth-place finish in Friday night's skeleton competition at the Whistler Olympic Park. "I could never picture this moment any better than it is."
Then she took a few steps away from reporters, turned back toward the track and, just as the sun was setting, took a long look at her competitors. She watched them basking in the glory of winning medals, waving to a screaming crowd, and she smiled to herself.
This is what she came here to do. She came to represent her country. She came to compete. She came to cherish every single moment of an experience some people aren't lucky enough to even dream of having.
"I really do believe everything happens for a reason," said Pikus-Pace, who was grinning and laughing and hugging everyone as though she'd just won the competition herself. "This has been the best race of my life, really. It's just been incredible."
She didn't win anything, the way we measure success in sports. Great Britain's Amy Williams won with a time of 3:35.64. Germany's Kerstin Szymkowiak won silver with a combined time of 3:36.2, and her teammate Anja Huber over took Pikus-Pace on the final run to earn bronze with a time of 3:36.36.
It is difficult to understand the ease with which she accepts her situation, her fate.
She did not, after all, want to finish in the most heartbreaking position possible.
"I was fourth going into that last and final run, and I didn't want to finish there," Pikus-Pace said. "I knew I had to lay it all on the line. I let my sled fly a little bit more than I did, and I took a little bit of a risk trying to get there. But it was a risk worth taking. Unfortunately, it put me a tenth (of a second with a time of 3:36.46) out of the medals. But I'll take it."
She'll take this disappointment because, she, more than anyone, knows there are worst places to be.
A former softball player and track athlete, Pikus-Pace is at peace with the painful parts of sports. She credits her family, her friends and her faith as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with her ability to embrace whatever comes her way.
"My faith had everything to do with my recovery, with coming back to compete," said Pikus-Pace. "The prayers of everybody else around me, my family, friends. ... I really believe it helped me to recover so quickly.
"Doctors were in awe, they still are as to how quickly I recovered. I was walking within three weeks of having a compound fracture to my lower right leg, which is unheard of. I was competing on the World Cup circuit in six weeks, sprinting with my sled and everything. I really believe it came down to the prayers of my family and also just having faith that if it were supposed to work out then it would."
The 27-year-old Orem native was one of the world's best skeleton athletes in 2005 when an out-of-control bobsled hit her, breaking her leg. She battled back, not just from the horrific injury, but from the disappointment of missing out on what many thought was her best chance to win an Olympic medal, to earn the World Championship in 2007.
She started a family, gained some perspective in taking a year off and started a business with her sister. In the end, unfinished business lured her back to the track.
Despite the difficulty of leaving her family five months of the year — missing holidays, birthdays and those special, first baby moments — she felt she was meant to return to the sport. It had, after all, been her lifelong dream to represent her country in an Olympic Games.
"This was so worth the four-year wait," she said as tears brimmed her eyes and her smile widened. "The anticipation of it was like a kid waiting for Disneyland or Christmas. It's been so worth it, I can't even explain."
Before her final run, she took pictures, listened to the Judds and felt none of the butterflies that usually fill her stomach before a race.
"I was just in the moment, taking those pictures, trying to cherish the moment," said Pikus-Pace, who plans to spend the rest of the Games in the stands with her family cheering on the other U.S. athletes. "And I really felt like I was 100 percent focused the whole way down the track.
"It is a little bit disappointing being fourth, but I feel like it was all I had. I laid it out on the line. I took some risks that I felt were necessary, and that's actually my best finish of the year."11 comments on this story
To be the fourth-best skeleton athlete in the world isn't all that bad when you consider what she's overcome to accomplish that.
In fact, watching her work her way though the crowd to her family, it's obvious that this is a very lucky woman.
"Everything happens for a reason, and I know that being here with my daughter and seeing her blow kisses to me between runs, that just made all the difference for me," she said. "I just feel so blessed to be able to represent the United states and to give all that I had."