Noelle Pikus-Pace had a plan. In 2005, she became the first American woman ever to win the World Cup title in skeleton. In 2006, she was going to make her Olympic debut in Torino, where - if all went well - she would win a medal. Maybe even a gold. Then she would retire from the sport to start a family.
Nearly four years later, Pikus-Pace, now the mother of a toddler, is still racing face-first down icy tracks around the globe. And she's still waiting to make her Olympic debut.
"I was in a very good position mentally, like I just had so much confidence going into it," she says of the lead-up to the Torino Games. "Now I just feel like I'm trying to get back to that point, and trying to have that confidence again going into 2010."
That's because on October 19, 2005, Pikus-Pace was struck by an errant four-man bobsled in a freak accident while training in Calgary. The collision resulted in a compound fracture of her lower right leg, breaking both her tibia and fibula.
After emergency surgery and intensive rehabilitation, Pikus-Pace returned to the World Cup circuit just six weeks after her accident, racing against time. But her extraordinary comeback effort fell just short when she was unable to accumulate enough ranking points - both for the U.S. team and herself - to claim an Olympic spot.
"That was the most devastating time of my life," Pikus-Pace says. " I didn't know that my heart was that set on going until after it was taken from me." She still made the trip to Italy, but could only manage to watch the event from her hotel room - on television. "I couldn't even get myself to go," she says. "I was such a mess."
Though she was tempted, Pikus-Pace didn't allow herself to take a break after Torino. She returned to the World Cup that fall with something to prove, to herself most of all. "Even though leading into the Olympics I didn't have a doubt that I could be on that podium, after I broke my leg it was like, ‘Could I have made it? Could I have done well, had this not happened?"
Pikus-Pace silenced any enduring doubts by winning the 2007 world title - again a first for an American woman. And then she took a year off for another goal, to start a family. On January 18, 2008, Pikus-Pace gave birth to a daughter, Lacee.
Later that year she was back on the World Cup, but often found she had trouble concentrating. "I didn't realize how much focus it would take out of me," Pikus-Pace says of motherhood. "I realized last season that a lot of my heart was still at home."
This Olympic season, she's prepared to shift her priorities to her sport. "Knowing that this is my last season to compete, knowing that I am giving up a lot to be here - I'm giving up all that time, all those moments with Lacee - it better be worth it. I've gotta make it worth it."
The Vancouver Games will be a family affair in more ways than one. When her sled broke on its way to last season's World Championships, Pikus-Pace was left to compete in Lake Placid on a borrowed one. But from another detour, opportunity again arose.
This season she's racing on a sled custom-built by her husband. Though he had no experience in sled design, Janson Pace successfully combined some knowledge of steel with a lot of hard work.
"He studied more than I've seen him study for anything," Pikus-Pace says of her husband's efforts. "He put in hours and hours, and just all these ideas as to what could make a sled go faster and make it better."
Janson's labor - and Noelle's faith in her husband - paid off in October when, riding his sled, she won all four heats at the U.S. team trials. "It's unlike any other sled out there and it's working," she said afterwards. "It fits me perfectly."
Pikus-Pace is finally set to make her Olympic debut in Vancouver. And four years later, her dreams adjusted, she has found new meaning in the pursuit.
"It is a different mindset. As much as I wish I could go back to the moment that all that happened, that it changed for me, everything happens for a reason," she says. "It's more about becoming an Olympian and chasing after the dream of becoming an Olympian. And being there for my daughter - to just show her that you never give up on your dreams. You just go after it and you can do anything."