For once, the Olympic gods might be smiling on Christian Niccum.
Since appearing in the 2010 Games, Niccum has undergone one back surgery; ruptured his Achilles in December 2012; suffered multiple illnesses, including chronic sinus infections; and scariest of all, endured the premature birth of his third child, EmmaJo, born six weeks early with respiratory and intestinal troubles.
For anyone else, a once-in-a-lifetime bad patch. For Niccum, it’s just another Olympic quadrennial in a career of struggles, physical and financial, to keep alive a longshot dream of an Olympic medal.
Now comes a promising turn: luge team relay, one of 12 new medal events making their debut in Sochi. For Niccum, it might be just what the doctor ordered.
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In his first two Olympics, Niccum, from Woodinville, placed 23rd in men’s singles in the 2006 Turin Games and sixth in doubles, with Dan Joye, in Vancouver.
Now he and partner Jayson Terdiman, in their fourth season, will try for a doubles medal in Sochi. If they beat out the other U.S. doubles duo, Matt Mortensen and Preston Griffall, they’ll qualify to also race in the relay — another medal chance.
U.S. lugers have not won an Olympic medal of any kind since 2002, when doubles teams won silver and bronze on their home track in Park City, Utah.
Relay’s unpredictability is welcome news to medal-starved nations like the U.S. in a sport dominated by German doubles teams, who are 1-2 in the World Cup overall standings.
It’s a welcome addition for Niccum, too. Off the track, few know how to navigate life’s unplanned moments like Niccum. Luge’s poster child for perseverance, he holds the world record for years spent (12) between World Cup luge medals, ending the drought in 2010.
The oldest on the team at age 36, Niccum has been a model for Terdiman, 25, on how to handle luge’s — and life’s — twists and turns.
“He has kept me focused when he has been rehabbing,” Terdiman said. “Keeping my eye on the prize is something I’ve learned from Christian.”
Luge team relay brings together each nation’s singles men and women sliders, along with one doubles team. Racing in succession, the fastest three-sled combined time wins. As each sled finishes, its driver reaches up to slap a panel suspended over the track, triggering the next sled to start. With races decided by fractions of a second, it’s critical to correctly time the start and finish.
Niccum and Terdiman helped the U.S. win World Cup silver in the event in November, and the U.S. was fourth at last year’s World Championships.
With three sleds, Niccum said, “There’s a lot more room for mistakes to happen. It’s a real exciting format.”
Take what happened in their medal-winning World Cup. The U.S. team finished their run, figuring they’d be out of the medals with faster sleds following. Then they watched as Canada’s doubles team false-started and were DQ’d. Powerhouse Germany crashed. Before that, the Austrians’ awkward start doomed them. Slovakia’s woman crashed. Hello, podium.
Niccum has wanted to be an Olympian, in something, since age 6. He discovered luge during a summer recruitment camp, where he took a wheeled sled down an old soapbox derby hill near the Woodland Park Zoo.
Why is he still sliding?
“It really comes down to the same dream and fire that was lit inside me when I first learned about the Olympics,” he said. “The first time on ice, it was such a blast. It was like a roller coaster, but you’re in control of it. It was just a thrill ride.”
His back, which has delivered aching nerve pain his entire adult life, stopped hurting after the surgery.
“I’m in the best shape of my life,” he said.
Family has been his touchstone. His wife, Bobbie Jo, texted video of EmmaJo’s first steps during Niccum and Terdiman’s successful race-off to claim the luge team’s final Olympic spot in December.
Most Olympians pay a financial price putting regular careers on hold. Niccum has never lived in a home of his own, bouncing among relatives between Games. Currently, Niccum, Bobbie Jo and their three kids — daughter Hayden, 5; Harley, 2 and EmmaJo, 18 months — live on the upstairs floor of his parents’ house in Woodinville, where Christian and his four siblings grew up.
Christian and Bobbie Jo both thought his Olympic career was over after Vancouver. Most of his early teammates have moved on with their lives. Still, Bobbie Jo couldn’t pull the plug.
“I would never say don’t go,” she said. “I know it’s his dream. … I don’t feel like he needs to get on with his life. I’m glad he’s not doing some 9-to-5 job and being miserable. … I’m glad he can do something he’s passionate about and be happy.”
They are on their second straight Honda Odyssey (1996) that has topped 200,000 miles.
“We’ve driven all over the place,” said Bobbie Jo, who won’t go to Sochi due to the expense and logistics. “We’ve had a great time. We’ve done all of Route 66.”
While her husband dreams of an Olympic medal, she dreams of a someday 2010 Odyssey, with automatic locks and sliding doors.
The next Odyssey will have to wait. Niccum is ready for this one last Olympic shot. Off the track, Niccum is close to finishing a college degree, through Olympic sponsor DeVry University, in business. He is training to work for AFLAC, the supplemental insurance company.
The telltale sign he’s ready to move on? The bittersweet feeling upon making this Olympic team, because it means February away from family.
“It has maxed out, how difficult it is,” he said.
He and Terdiman skipped a race this season to work out equipment issues with their sled, which is responding to the changes. But they’ll need some luck.
“When your best result of a season is a ninth place, you know that you still need some miracles to work your way,” Niccum said. “Who knows? If everything comes together and the stars align just right … we’ll be like Cinderella.”