By Jeanette Bennett
Although the official Team USA won’t be named until mid-January, three Utah Valley winter athletes are racing to represent their country — and our state — at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. For them, this isn’t an every-four-years event. This is an everyday-for-four-years event. And whether they hit a gold mine or not, they have plenty of reasons to cheer for Utah Valley as we cheer for them.
Steven Nyman, downhill skiing
Steven Nyman hauls his skis around the globe but believes nothing matches the beauty and terrain of Sundance.
“When I come home, I can’t get over the scenery at Sundance,” he says. “What a hidden gem.”
Of course, Sundance is home sweet home to this 27-year-old who grew up on the back of Timpanogos.
“Somehow as a family we created a situation where we could live at Sundance,” Steven says. “My parents were ski instructors in the winter. We operated a landscaping business during the summer. We were caretakers for houses — we did anything we needed to do for the chance to live there.”
The four Nyman brothers “terrorized the mountain” and built a fort near Stewart Falls during their younger years.
“We couldn’t fight with each other because we were all each other had,” Steven says.
The hillside was their home — and Steven’s wintry playland.
Even as a student at Orem High, Steven found ways to call the drifts his desk.
“I was fortunate to have teachers there who really worked with me and allowed me to continue my training,” he says.
The Nymans eventually moved to Orem, and Steven recently bought “a shack” in Heber City to be close to his Park City training facilities.
But he still enjoys being close to family.
“I couldn’t do what I do if it weren’t for my family,” Steven says. “I really enjoy being with them, and I love coming home and knowing they are here. It is a big reprieve in my life.”
Olympics — Take One
Steven’s association with the Olympics began in 2002 when he was a spectator in his home state.
“An incredible amount of volunteer work, time and energy go into this unbelievable event that almost stops time,” Steven says. “It was awesome to have a front row seat to what the Olympics are all about.”
Torino in 2006 was Steven’s introduction to the Games as an athlete, and it was an “eye-opener.”
Steven’s ski race was on Feb. 12, which happens to be his birthday.
“I thought, ‘This is destiny,’” he says. “But my philosophy at the time was to treat it like another race and just do the same thing I do every weekend.”
He soon learned the Olympics don’t work that way.
“All these weird thoughts went through my head, and I was bombarded by pressures and visions of success,” he says.
Still, in the training run his prospects looked promising as he finished third.
“And that’s when it hit me,” he says. “I realized I could win this thing!”
But Steven couldn’t overcome a pattern he had accidentally established in other races.
“In my first Junior Olympics, I did bad. The next time I was on the podium,” he says. “At my first Nationals, I barely made it in — but the next year I was on the podium. In my first Olympics, I came in 19th. Maybe this is just how I approach things. I’m a slow learner.”
Based on his pattern, Steven has high hopes for the 2010 Winter Games, which ironically, start on his birthday.
Let the Numbers Do the Talking
Steven’s confidence is padded with stats. He has been the World Junior Olympics champion, the national champion and a World Cup winner.
“I really think I can do this — I’ll be more prepared this time around,” he says. “The Olympics really are a big deal, and you’ve got to put on a show. And there’s also a mind game that I’d never really faced — the whole world is watching.”
No Four-leaf Clovers
Steven’s race routine doesn’t involve rabbit feet or four-leaf clovers. But it does involve a little prayer.
“Some guys have their things — their specific routines or stretches before a race,” he says. “I just feel my body out and that’s about it. I don’t have a routine I go through because if I did have a routine and something happened outside of that, I’d be off my game. I don’t want to put those barriers around me. I just say a little prayer and take off.”
When Steven flies down a mountain, his mind is focused on the task at hand.
“When you are on, you are on!” he says. “You see where you need to place your ski and how you need to move. You know how it’s all going to happen, and it’s an amazing feeling to set out to do something and accomplish it.”
Although every course is different, Steven knows when he’s headed to the podium.
“I have enough experience that I know what’s fast and what’s not,” he says.
Although many say they would trade lives with this Olympian, he’s not so sure people know what they’re saying.
“Being an Olympian isn’t just a once-in-four-years deal,” he says. “It’s four years, all year, all the time.”
Steven also says it’s a “tough gig” to try to have a normal social life alongside “the incredible worldwide life that has been given to me. It’s really hard to juggle. And it’s hard being in Utah Valley where everybody gets married so quickly and gets on with life. Outside of Utah Valley, I don’t feel like I’m behind. But when I come home I realize how different my life is.”
But Steven feels fortunate to get his paychecks from his hobby.
“It’s pretty cool to get paid to do what you love,” he says. “It’s so much fun to have people close down a resort for a bunch of crazy guys to go down as fast as possible. We are nuts.”
As part of the U.S. Ski Team, Steven is sponsored by Sprint.
“Skiing is not a huge sport like baseball or basketball,” he says. “Being an Olympic athlete takes extreme dedication, and there isn’t much money or fame behind it unless you are at the top.”
No ‘I’ in Team
Although at 6-foot-4 he looks like a basketball player, Steven isn’t much for team sports.
“I have more of an individual approach,” he says. “I like kiteboarding and other obscure sports where it’s all about you vs. nature.”
In fact, Steven says being the lone man on the mountain mirrors the way he approaches life.
“I have a free spirit and I like utilizing my own power to accomplish something,” he says. “Of course, team sports would have taught me better communication skills — which I need, no doubt!”
One ski lesson was given to Steven not on a cold hillside but in humid Haiti where he visited on a humanitarian mission with Orem-based A Child’s Hope Foundation.
“Even though these people are scratching out their existence, they are happy,” Steven says. “I came away realizing I have no excuses in life. I have no complaints. And this has transferred into my skiing — I can’t complain about my situation or think something was unfair. I just have to suck it up.”
Steven gave away everything on his back as he left Haiti.
“I had just enough to be decent in the airport,” he says. “We live in such abundance. It was mind-boggling for me to see that part of the world and help improve their lives in some small way.”
The generosity has gone the other direction, too, as Utah County is home to many who have helped Steven.
“Ski racing is expensive, but there are people in this community who believe I have a talent and have supported me,” he says. “Without naming names, I want to tell them thanks — and to ‘Believe in Steven.’”
All the World’s a Stage
Steven has one of the most popular Web sites and blogs in the industry — nymansworld.com.
“My English teachers would be shocked,” he says.
He’s also active on Twitter.
“Now that’s fun,” he says. “It’s a nice to way to keep friends and family updated.”
As he approaches the 2010 Olympics in February, he hopes fans in Utah County and beyond will follow his updates — and that he can tweet from atop the medal stand.
Noelle Pikus-Pace, skeleton
Noelle Pikus-Pace keeps a brisk pace.
Not only does this 27-year-old Eagle Mountain homeowner barrel down the skeleton track at 87 miles per hour but she also chases around her 2-year-old daughter, Lacee.
“As an athlete, I try and focus on what I can control and let go of things I can’t,” Noelle says. “This rolls over into being a mom as well. If Lacee has on new shoes and we are at a softball game, I just shrug my shoulders and think, ‘Well, her shoes will get dirty eventually so she may as well have fun playing in the dirt with her cousins today.’”
Part of Noelle’s clear perspective comes from what was clearly a tragedy. Less than four months before the 2006 Winter Games, she was hit by a runaway bobsled in a freak accident in Canada. A documentary appropriately titled “114 Days” details Noelle’s fight back, which didn’t result in an Olympic appearance that year but did earn her the respect of doctors, trainers and athletes alike.
The day she was hit, Noelle told herself she had one of two options: feel sorry for herself or accept what happened and figure out how to get where she wanted to be.
“It’s good to learn from the past, but you can’t keep wondering what might have been,” she says.
Noelle’s situation introduced her to pain, sorrow and devastation — but it also introduced her to the kindness of Utah County.
“The greatest lesson I learned through all of this came from the example of those around me,” she says. “There are so many wonderful people in this world — and more specifically in Utah County. My orthopedic surgeon (Dr. Kirt Kimball) and my physical therapist (Brent Butler) worked with me non-stop to get me back into competition in six weeks — which is unheard of — so I could have a shot at making the 2006 Olympics.”
Along with her body, her sled was damaged in the accident. She and her husband, Janson, couldn’t afford a new sled and word spread in the community. George Durrant, a popular author and speaker who lives in Cedar Hills, purchased a new sled for Noelle even though he didn’t know her personally.
“I am so grateful for the kindness of his family,” Noelle says. “The support I received from family, friends, neighbors and strangers was incredible. I have not made this journey alone.”
With support from the community, Noelle didn’t let her broken leg change her goals.
“It just put me on a different path to reach that goal,” she says. “I am still looking ahead to reach that destination.”
Noelle returned to skeleton and had the best season of her career in 2006-2007, claiming the World Championship title in Switzerland and finishing second overall in World Cup standings. In the 2009 World Championships, she placed eighth.
Now her sights are set on Vancouver for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, although the official skeleton team won’t be named until Jan. 20.
If Noelle ever forgets her uphill battle to get atop the skeleton track again, she can pop in a DVD documentary titled “114 Days” and relive it in all its audiovisual glory.
“Matthew Fults did an amazing job filming my journey to make it back to compete in 2006,” Noelle says. “He was there during my daily rehab visits and documented the struggle that comes with recovery and the triumph that results from dedication. And he captured the joy and the pain of being the highest ranked U.S. athlete and yet being unable to qualify for the Olympic Games.”
The DVD won an award at the Calgary Film Festival and highlights many Utah Valley locales, including doctors’ offices and an underwater treadmill at BYU that was instrumental in Noelle’s recovery.
Noelle hopes the next footage shot of her will be celebrating a victory at the 2010 Winter Games.
Noelle believes the skeleton track in Vancouver is the fastest in the world.
“When we went there for our international training week in October, I went 87 miles per hour and all I could think about was, ‘Faster! Faster!’ I guess we are all a little crazy to be doing a sport where our chins are less than an inch off the ice at those speeds and yet we want to go faster.”
The skeleton track is in Whistler, an hour and a half north of Vancouver.
“It is so beautiful!” she says. “It is just off the coast so you have the ocean to the west and the magnificent mountains to the east. Another perk of Vancouver is there isn’t a language barrier, so it’s easier for spectators to get around. I’ll have family and friends there with me.”
Family (Feet) First
Noelle became a daredevil long before she saw her first skeleton sled. She is the youngest of eight. Enough said?
Her older siblings would dare her to do things like jump off the roof with an umbrella or go down a black diamond run without the skills to match.
“My heart would be racing on the inside and yet I would calmly say, ‘Is that all you want me to do?’” she says. “And I’ve had my fair share of concussions and X-rays because of it.”
Another childhood memory is watching Olympic figure skating at age 6.
“I was sitting three feet from the TV with my sister Amanda,” she says. “I remember being so nervous for all of the skaters and hoping they would land their jumps. Anytime an athlete from the U.S. would compete, we would cheer for them because they represented our country. That was good enough for us.”
In addition to representing the US of A, Noelle proudly bleeds Wolverine green. She attended UVU as a track and field athlete and raves about her campus experience.
“In competing on the World Cup circuit, it wasn’t always possible for me to have a typical student schedule,” she says. “My professors helped me obtain my bachelor’s degree in four years.”
Noelle took her final for her biomechanics class the night before a World Cup race in Latvia.
“I passed my final and won the race!” she says.
Noelle is proud of her alma mater — and her hometown.
“I want to represent Utah County well because I couldn’t have done this without them,” she says.
Shauna Rohbock, bobsled
Shauna has more than her eye on the gold — she’s got her shoulders, thighs, feet and mind focused on upgrading her silver Olympic medal to the top prize for women’s bobsled.
“I wouldn’t be going if I wasn’t planning on winning the gold,” she says.
An athletic standout at both Mountain View High School and BYU, Shauna’s career didn’t start on a cold bobsled track. She played collegiate soccer and track.
“Soccer is a team sport, and track is more on the individual side of things,” she says. “They both prepared me for bobsled because this sport is a bit of both. The breakman and the driver are a team, but once you are on the track you are an individual doing your job.”
Her “job” as driver is one of the only ones she has known.
“I’m 32 and I’ve never had a real job,” Shauna says. “How crazy is that?”
Her non-traditional career on the USA team began in 2006 when she and Valerie Fleming won the silver in Torino.
When Shauna was little, she thought “Olympian” and “millionaire” were synonymous, but her bank balance tells a different story.
“After the Olympics, I was often told, ‘You were the first loser and nobody cares,’” Shauna says. “A very small percentage of Olympians actually get endorsements. The rest of us are out there for the love of the sport and to represent our country.”
Shauna also proudly represents her state of Utah, which is “definitely still home” to this proud MVHS Bruin and BYU Cougar, although she only spends about 2 1/2 months per year near the Greatest Snow On Earth.
When Shauna slides into town, she’s amazed at the changes.
“Orem has grown so much,” Shauna says. “I don’t know how you could get anything more packed within a 10-mile radius. Everything is right here!”
Not that Shauna is a shopper. Living out of suitcase causes a wrinkle in her fashion.
“Sometimes it gets pretty bad wearing the same T-shirts and sweatshirts over and over,” Shauna says.
Her limited wardrobe is a small price to pay to barrel around the globe pursuing podium appearances, but she feels like she’s moving slowly when it comes to the traditional Utah timeline.
“All of my friends got married early and have kids,” she says. “I’ve been able to travel the world, but I certainly haven’t started my own family.”
Luckily, she comes from a large family where she has five sisters and one brother. The Rohbocks rally around Shauna because they know she’s in her element when she’s out in the elements.
“My parents never wanted to be home in the summer, so we were always camping and hiking and exploring,” she says. “I grew up on a farm and around big orchards. Utah is the year-round recreation mecca with the lakes and rivers and mountains. It’s been an amazing place to grow up — especially since I decided to pursue winter athletics.”
Although Shauna doesn’t know what track her life will take post-Olympics, she does feel her career is near the end of the race.
“I’m not sure what’s around the corner,” she says. “Right now I’m focused clearly on the Olympics.”