Olympic luger Christian Niccum shares drift from, return to LDS Church

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 12 2014 2:30 p.m. MST

Christian Niccum, right, and Jayson Terdiman, left, of the U.S. celebrate their 3rd place after the doubles at the luge World Cup in Winterberg, Germany, on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010.

JENS MEYER, AP

SOCHI, Russia — Three-time Olympian Christian Niccum didn’t drift from his Mormon roots because he’d lost his faith.

The father of three said that when he was a teen competing on luge tracks around the world, he simply stopped doing the things that would build his faith because he felt inadequate.

“I said to myself, ‘It was too hard,’ ” said Niccum, who at 36 — and as the oldest member of the U.S. luge team — competed in his third and likely final Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, this week. He and Jayson Terdiman took 11th in the men's double luge on Wednesday and were scheduled to race in Thursday's team relay. “I felt like I couldn’t live up the values of being a Mormon. I believed; I believed 100 percent in God; I believed in all of the values. I just didn’t think I could do it.”

Slowly, over time, he drifted away from the habits that affirmed his upbringing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I guess I was inactive,” he said. "I was born Mormon, but we all have to convert.”

Niccum eventually felt the need to return to church and, by putting in the spiritual "work" he had neglected, found the peace and direction he had been missing.

A luger at heart

The youngest of five children, Niccum grew up chasing his older brothers around.

When they made bike ramps, he made them bigger.

“I remember I always had that daredevil instinct,” he said. “I would always go for it. I just had that inside me, that thrill-seeker, daredevil, show-off.”

The first time his dad took him skiing, Niccum “went straight down the mountain.”

So when some friends in their Woodinville, Wash., ward told him about a luge camp they’d attended, of course he was interested.

“When I found the sport of luge, it was just natural to absolutely fall in love,” he said. “They call it the fastest sport on ice; it’s faster than bobsled and skeleton. If you’re someone who wants to go fast, and you can’t afford a jet plane, this is your sport. You’re pulling up to seven Gs. It’s an incredible feeling to have.”

Starting at age 16, he won four straight World Junior Championships. He transitioned to the World Cup circuit and won six international medals. In 1998, he narrowly missed the Olympic team. He took some time off, but watching his friends compete in the Salt Lake Games lured him back.

“I had a lot of success when I was young in the sport,” he said. “I think I’ve been working hard to try to get back to that same success I had.”

It has not only taken a toll on him physically, but also it caused him some spiritual issues.

“There is no question that hitting the road at such a young age was hard,” he said. “I would say at 14 or 15 years old, I was gone probably nine months out of the year traveling and competing.”

From the start, his sport presented challenges to his faith, including a schedule that had him competing on Sundays.

“If you’re going to do competitive sports at the Olympic, pro or college level, and unless you’re at BYU, you’re going to be competing on Sunday,” he said. He looked around and took some comfort in high-profile Mormon athletes who had success, despite competing on Sunday.

But more difficult was the isolation he felt trying to live the standards alone.

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