Meet three American athletes—a sledding Utah mother making her Olympic debut, a freestyle skiing daredevil and returning Olympian seeking her first medal, and a speed skating triple medalist pursuing gold again—as they compete in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.
World champion skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace, 27, describes herself as a normal wife, mother and small business owner from a large, loving family that plays softball together on Friday nights in the summers.
She likes to bake, decorate her home and make crafts, and she laughs while recounting how she discovered muscles she didn't know she had while re-sodding her yard last year in Eagle Mountain, Utah (pop. 2,157). To help fund her Olympic hopes, she sells winter hats and beanies through her website, www.snowfirehats.com.
"And I have a garden and I love being a mom," she adds.
Except that Pikus-Pace also likes to hurtle face-first at 80 mph down icy tracks on a tiny steel sled resembling a cookie sheet, with her chin a mere inch off the ice.
In a few weeks, she will compete in her first Winter Olympics, capping a remarkable comeback from a freak accident in 2005 that left her right leg broken when she was poised to compete in the 2006 Games.
Going to the Olympics after that setback is a dream come true for Pikus-Pace. "And being on the podium wouldn't be a bad thing," she says with a smile.
The youngest of eight children, Pikus-Pace took up skeleton as a teenager in Orem, Utah (pop. 84,324), in between playing high school basketball, soccer and softball, and running track and field.
She was a gold-medal favorite heading into the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, until a runaway bobsled at the Olympic trials in Calgary, Alberta, slammed into her. Doctors didn't expect Pikus-Pace to walk for months, but she was running with her sled in six weeksa titanium rod reinforcing her legracing to make the Games. It was a blow when she failed to make the team.
Within a year, however, Pikus-Pace was back on track, winning the 2007 World Championship by the largest margin in women's skeleton history. Afterward, she took a year off to start a family with her husband, Janson Pace. The couple now has 2-year-old Lacee, making this Olympics doubly special for Pikus-Pace. She wants to honor her family's support over the years while also setting an example for her daughter.
"I want Lacee to know that she can do anything and never to give up on her dreams, no matter what they are," Pikus-Pace says. "It definitely doesn't have to be sports. Whatever her talents and goals are, wherever they lead her, I just want her to know that she can do it."
When aerial skier Emily Cook, 30, describes how she coaches kids to zoom down a ramp, grab some serious air, then twist and turn in dizzying tricks, she's really channeling her daredevil self.
"The kids you get in aerials have to love to flip," says Cook, preparing for her second trip to the Winter Olympics. "They have to be the kids who were doing back flips off the swing."
She remembers well her own thrill-seeking days growing up in Belmont, Mass. (pop. 24,194). Cook was a skier at age 4, then a diver and a gymnast and, by age 14, latched onto freestyle skiing.
"I did some silly, silly stuff," she remembers with a laugh. "I was just that kind of kid who loved to be upside down. I loved skiing. It was the perfect combination."
When she hits the ski jump in Vancouver, Cook expects to be at the top of her game. While competing in the 2006 Olympics, she was recovering from a heartbreaking crash landing that shattered both feet and knocked her out of the 2002 Games. The injury kept her out of competition during three years of grueling physical rehabilitation, and gave her a healthy respect for her sport's inherent dangers.
"If I was standing on the top of the hill for a new trick and I wasn't a little bit nervous, I'd be kind of concerned," Cook says. "But you take that little bit of anxiety and use it to focus as much as possible on doing that trick as well as you possibly can and trust in the training you've done."
During her rehabilitation, Cook kept her feet on the groundand her mind on sports. In Park City, Utah (pop. 7,371), where she lives and trains, she started a mentoring program called Visa Champions Creating Champions, corralling Olympians who train and live in the area to work with budding athletes. She also works with Right to Play, an organization that brings sports to disadvantaged kids across the globe.
Now that she's back in the air, watch for Cook's new aerial trick at Vancouvera "double full-full"which basically is a triple-twisting double back flip.
But Cook warns other young hotdoggers: Don't try this off the swing.
On the fast track
Some Texans might think that the only place for ice in their Southern state is in a glass of sweet tea, but native son and Olympic triple-medal speedskater Chad Hedrick begs to differ.
Hedrick, 32, likes his ice on a fast track, though his introduction to skating was at his father's roller rink in Spring, Texas (pop. 36,385). "My dad threw skates on my feet with the wheels locked up shortly after I learned to walk," he says with a drawl. "My late stages of walking were on roller skates."
He now trains in Salt Lake City, but plans to return to Texas after chasing at least one more gold medal in Vancouver. He won a gold, a silver and a bronze in 2006, joining speed skating greats Eric Heiden and Sheila Young as the only Americans to win three medals in a single Winter Olympics.
Growing up, Hedrick proved to be a prodigy on roller skates and turned pro at 16. With 50 world titles and 93 national championships, he is inline skating's most decorated and dominating master.
In 2002, however, he switched surfaces after watching on television as fellow inline competitor Derek Parra won a gold medal racing on ice in the Winter Games in Salt Lake Cityan accomplishment that Hedrick said he also "needed to go do."
With three Olympic medals among his trophies, Hedrick believes he has more to accomplish in Vancouver. "I know it's not over," he says. "I want to feel that magical feeling, walking into the opening ceremonies that I did before. It's the most incredible thing I've experienced in my life."
And while he exudes a Texas-size confidence accompanied by an edgy outspokenness, Hedrick has new motivations to win gold.
"I'm a new husband and a new father," he says, speaking of his wife, Lynsey, and their 10-month-old daughter, Hadley. "I've got a lot more to skate for. I've got two people who are relying on me to show them the way."