When skeleton athlete Noelle Pikus-Pace looks at videos right after a slide, reviewing with coach Zach Lund what went right or wrong, she’s apt to be holding her daughter, Lacee, in her arms. When the cameras catch them, her cheek is close to Lacee’s as the 5-year-old peers with the same intent look at the little screen.
Pikus-Pace has melded two Olympic-sized tasks. The Orem native is a top contender in skeleton, in which she’ll compete in two weeks in Sochi, Russia, for Team USA as part of the 2014 Winter Olympics. At the same time, she is a very hands-on, full-time mom to Lacee and her little brother, Traycen, 2.
When she slides down that bobsled track in Sochi, her kids will be watching and playing in the snow just a few feet away under the watchful eye of her husband, Janson Pace.
They travel as a team, and her tweets and blog posts contain a happy mix of sports news and mom pride. “My 2 yr old ate fish and broccoli today on his own Huge #MilestoneMoments! Ok & I just finished sliding on my sled & crossed 1” she tweeted a week ago.
She captured her dreams in another post: “Potty training, riding a bike... and winning an Olympic medal :)”
“It’s really crazy. I have had to figure out how to be a mom and an Olympic athlete,” she said with a laugh during a recent phone interview.
She and her husband have to manage their time in sync, so he covers parenting while she’s training. But the most intensely physical, competitive day still begins and ends with hugs from little arms, bookending a day that also contains a bit of snuggling, diaper changing and other typical parenting tasks.
They’ve been all over the world as a quartet for her competitions. She’s not the only Olympic parent, but she is the only one who travels to every competition and training with her entire family.
Parenthood among Olympic athletes is not common, either. In fact, of the 230 athletes who will represent Team USA in Sochi, just 22 have children. Of those, only three are mothers.
Touring and parenting
David Wise, a member of the first-ever U.S. Olympic ski halfpipe team, refers to himself as a “rad dad,” a nod to his standing as the only member of the U.S. freeski team with a child. It is not uncommon to see his wife, Alexandra, and 2-year-old, Nayeli, in the finish area of competitions.
“It wasn’t something I was necessarily looking for,” said the Reno, Nev., native. “I always thought I would get married when I was older. ... But I found a girl I really enjoyed being with, and I realized I better lock it down while I could. I never had any doubts that I found the right person.”
Those with children said that becoming parents actually improves their time-management skills. Nordic Combined skier Billy Demong is married and has a 2-year-old.
“My wife is definitely a saint,” said the four-time Olympian, who lives and trains in Utah. “When you’re home, it’s like you’re a part-time athlete, full-time parent. It has been very focusing, and I think I’m in better shape this year. ... I have to be much more disciplined than I’ve ever been. And it ups the enjoyment level to have a child who can experience what you do.”
Logistics are sometimes challenging, Pikus-Pace said.
“We’re on airplanes and in airports for hours at a time,” she said. “The things parents dread, we do so much of. I have just learned to be patient. And we want to show that family is strong. Together we are better. I need my family by my side to achieve what I can.”
Traveling with her husband and children helps her remember her priorities, she said. And it turns something that’s extremely important to her — just as her kids and husband are — into a family affair.
Besides that, the kids get the chance to travel. A lot.
“We will not be home until after the Olympics at the end of February,” Pikus-Pace said. “We’ve been out since the first of October.”
They’ve had plenty of time to master the art of flying and driving 10 hours at a time, of naps and diapering and squeezing in a moment to read a book.
“We roll with the punches,” she said.
As for hotels, it’s not a problem, she added, because “our home is anywhere we’re all together.”
While most of the parenting challenges come from the demands of travel and the pain of separation, some athletes also deal with the worries of those who love them most.
Wise said his wife was a bit worried about the safety of his sport, which requires him to do dangerous tricks in a halfpipe on skis. But he said her understanding of the sport and her faith in his abilities have eased some of those concerns.
“She’s known me for a long time, and I’ve always been a skier,” he said. “I’m not the kind of person who will change for what people want.”
Freeskiers may look like they do crazy tricks on skis, but there is actually a slow, steady build-up to the toughest tricks with which these athletes compete.
For Pikus-Pace’s family, the risk is not hypothetical. In a freak accident during the Olympic trials in 2005, a runaway bobsled smashed into her, shattering her leg and her Olympic dream. She took a year off and started a family, then came back to compete in the 2010 Vancouver Games, where she came in fourth. She retired that year. After she suffered a miscarriage, she revisited and reversed her decision to retire, returning to the sport in 2012. It was her husband’s suggestion that she reconsider retirement.
The plan is not, however, to forever raise the children on the side of the runs where Mommy competes.
“We do not plan to do this far into the future. We are doing it now,” she said. “Our plan is to raise a strong family.”
Despite deep dedication to their respective sports, these athletes acknowledge family comes first.
Wise said having a family hasn’t changed his professional goals at all, but it has redefined him.
“Really, for me, it’s sort of taken the pressure off,” he said. “I don’t have to define myself by winning or losing. I’m a father and a husband first and foremost.”
The knowledge that, win or lose, his family supports him brings him a lot of peace, he said.
“I think I’ve been more innovative since she was born than I did before. It’s just another aspect of life. I’m not the kind of person to live in fear, to worry about crashing or falling. I try to control the things I can control, and I let God control the rest.”
He’s been “blessed and cursed” with a one-track mind, he added.
“My brain only has space for one thing at a time,” Wise said. “When I’m in the pipe, I’m focused on laying down my best. When I’m being a dad and a husband, I’m equally devoted to that. ... I don’t let things distract me easily.”