US skeleton racers share journey
AP Sports Writer
WHISTLER, British Columbia – Side by side, just as they planned it.
Four years after their Olympic dreams were destroyed, Zach Lund’s by his own hand and Noelle Pikus-Pace’s by someone else’s, the U.S. skeleton racers and best friends on the World Cup tour, strolled into the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Games. Together.
They soaked in every second of the pageantry, almost afraid it wasn’t real.
“We kept reminding each other, ‘We’re here!'” Zach Lund recalled. “We were like slapping each other, ‘Are we awake?'”
They entered BC Place Stadium skipping like school kids. They took pictures and mugged for TV cameras, unable to contain their joy. When Canadian music star Sarah McLachlan sang “Ordinary Miracle,” Pikus-Pace cried. Lund stayed composed, barely.
“Zach can keep his emotions held in a little more,” Pikus-Pace said following a practice run on Blackcomb Mountain. “I just seem to let it out.”
She has every right to.
In 2005, Pikus-Pace was sliding as well as ever and was primed to win a medal, maybe even gold, months down the road at the Turin Games. Then an accident changed everything. She was standing past the finish line at a track in Calgary when she was hit by a speeding bobsled piloted by an inexperienced driver.
The gruesome collision sent her flying and shattered her right leg. Despite surgery, a frantic rehabilitation and valiant attempt to come back, she just missed making the U.S. team. But because her family had already bought plane tickets and rented a house in Italy, she went to the games anyway.
However, once she arrived, the emotional pain was too much. She was unable to go to the competition and even watching on TV proved impossible through her tears.
“My parents and sister and mother- and father-in-law, they all went to the race and watched and cheered. I could not,” she said. “I went and locked myself in the room. I did try, but I couldn’t.”
Lund was an Olympian in 2006. Almost.
Only a few hours before the Turin opening ceremony, the gold-medal favorite was banned after a masking agent for steroids was found in his system. He had been taking an anti-balding medication, and although he’d been open about using it, he was unaware it was on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances. He was thrown out of the Olympics.
He had to leave the athlete’s village. His credential was cut up and he went home labeled a cheat, a charge more embarrassing than his impending baldness.
But he rebounded, winning the World Cup title a year later and setting the track record in Cesana, Italy, where he may have won gold if not for his mistake. Now, he’s at his first official Olympics and having the time of his life. In a poetic, if not cruel twist, the incriminating substance in Turin – finsasteride – has since been proved in studies not to be a masking agent.
Lund doesn’t care. There’s nothing he can do about that now.
“I’ve really learned to just let go,” he said. “I’ve accepted what happened to me. Sometimes you look back on things in life and even though they weren’t easy, I’ve grown. I’ve become a better person. I’ve become a stronger person and I honestly feel like I’ve gained so much for what I’ve been through. I have more perspective on life and more perspective on sport. I’m happy as hell to be here right now.”
On Monday, he glowed and his radiance had nothing to do with the shine off his head. The 30-year-old, who recently signed an endorsement deal with a razor company called HeadBlade, is relaxed, confident and enjoying the ride.
He posted the second-fastest practice time in one run, tearing down the track with the abandon of an athlete knowing he has nothing to lose.
“People in the start house are all nervous and you can tell,” he said. “It’s the Olympics, and I’m so happy just to be here. Don’t get me wrong. But I don’t feel the pressure because I’m not expected to win. Just have fun. If I do my thing, good things are going to happen.”
They could for Pikus-Pace, too. In fact, they already have. Since her grisly accident she became a mom. Her daughter, Lacee, fills her world now and Pikus-Pace is looking forward to being a full-time, stay-at-home mom.
After her last heat on Friday, Pikus-Pace will hang up her sled.
“What have I got, four days left?” she asked after Monday’s practice.
It’s not as if she’s not enjoying them. The Olympics have completed her.
“It’s a sweet reward,” she said. “Looking back now, and I’ve talked about this with my family, remembering as to everything it took to get here, with getting hit by the bobsled, missing out in 2006, I was going to retire, I didn’t. I came back. Everything it took to get here, it’s worth it.
“It’s everything I imagined it’d be and more. Oh my gosh, it’s overwhelming. It’s just incredible. I know I’ll look back 20 years and be like, ‘Did that really happen? That is amazing.’ I’m trying to document it with video camera, camera, whatever I can just to remember it all.”
As the opening ceremony neared, Lund, soon to be a father for a second time, sought out Pikus-Pace. He had to make sure she would be his partner.
“I told her no matter what we were going in next to each other,” she said. “It felt good. We both went through a hard thing and we both understand what it felt like to be there. I didn’t want to be by anybody else. When I made the team, I told her, ‘I’m going to walk in next to you because you’ve been through the same journey and it would mean that much more to walk in together,’ and it was amazing.”
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