Christian Niccum was hoping the third time would be a charm. Twice before he’d participated in the Winter Games, via the luge competition.
He hadn’t yet won gold though, but was gunning for it now, one last time. So the 36-year-old Woodinville resident had trained harder than ever before. He overcame two back surgeries, a blown Achilles heel and money worries that stemmed from focusing more on the Olympics and less on the workaday world.
"Everyone can relate to the dream of winning that gold medal," Niccum said. "And standing on that podium and hearing that anthem play. Feeling that ultimate success. I felt that in my dreams so many times over the years."
Supposedly past his physical prime, Niccum took his fitness to another level. In fact, he felt better physically than ever before in his life. He subsequently made the Olympic team for a third time, in the team relay and doubles events.
Finally, in January 2014, he arrived in the Olympic Village in Sochi, Russia.
"It was awesome," he said. "I don’t know why other people were complaining about the amenities. They were pretty amazing facilities. High speed trains going from the coastal region to the mountains where there were gondolas and trams going all over the place. The facilities we stayed at in the village were great. Everything was great and normal from what you would see in Europe — and in some places across America too."
As Niccum pointed out, part of the Olympic appeal stems from seeing athletes from around the world come together and relate to each other via the love of sport. He felt this at the deepest levels when going to break bread with fellow Olympians.
"When you go to the cafeteria, you get your food and you look for someone to sit next to," he said. "You might see someone from your own country in a different sport. Or maybe you see someone from your own sport, but from a different country. Or maybe another person sits down next to you that you don’t know. It’s a pretty good time, a pretty neat experience. To meet Olympians from all over the world and find those commonalities. It’s special."
Niccum also enjoyed the hospitality of the host country.
"I grew up with the Cold War, and I loved the movie Red Dawn," he said. "In my own mind while growing up, I had the idea that the Russians are out to get you. But it’s not like that at all. The Russian people are very friendly and open, even though the English language is more difficult for Russians than typical Europeans.
"Russia is great," he said. "There were a lot of volunteers. They were very helpful and happy to be there. I didn’t see one sour face the entire time I was there."
When the time came to compete, Niccum and teammates headed to the Sliding Center Sanki near Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. Unfortunately, the third time wasn’t to be a charm. There would be no Cinderella story to take back home to Woodinville. Niccum’s squad finished 6th in the luge team relay, and 11th in the doubles event. After 24 years of competing in a sport he loves, Niccum came to terms with the fact he would never earn Olympic gold.
"The longer I’ve been involved in the sport, means the harder I’ve worked," he said. "It doesn’t mean you go on cruise control. I’ve worked harder and harder. More effort went into the sled, more effort went into the technology, more effort went into getting my body repaired from having two back surgeries and having my Achilles blow out, and all the effort it took to get back in shape from those.
"Unfortunately, the results didn’t show it," he said. "I just couldn’t get back to the success that I once had. The funny thing is that physically I’ve never been in better shape ever in my life. I’m stronger and faster than ever when I was younger. But things just didn’t click. Things didn’t come together the way I would have hoped. But that’s the way it sometimes goes in life, right? You go and give it your best effort and you don’t always succeed. But I feel successful because I gave it everything I had. I know that I did everything that I could. Blood, sweat and tears, you know?
"To be a part of the Olympic movement three different times is special," he said. "Being lucky enough to do this incredible sport of luge, not many people get the chance to do it. Where you go racing down the track at 90 miles an hour on your back, (taking) these corners at 7gs, it’s a thrill. And doing it in the name of your country at a high level of competition — it’s an awesome feeling."
But now that he’s returned home to American soil, he’s been greeted by his highly supportive wife and family that have been his bedrock all along.
"I couldn’t do it without my wife’s support — and my family is fully behind me," he said. "They don’t necessarily understand this thing, this passion for luge. And I’m not sure I understand my drive and passion for it either, and where it comes from. Why do I put all this effort into being the best luge athlete in the world? I don’t know other than it’s been a desire in my heart for such a long time. That thrill to compete has been there. My family has made a lot of sacrifices to make it happen. My wife has been great and my parents have helped us out during this time. And the community around us with church and neighbors. During the times that I’m away, they always give extra support to my wife and kids.
"In sports you have good days and bad days," he said. "Good weeks and bad weeks. And good years and bad years, I guess. I don’t know... But like I said, everyone can relate to the dream of winning that gold medal. And standing on that podium and hearing that anthem play."
Photos courtesy of Christian Niccum. (1)Christian Niccum having some fun at the Olympics (2) Woodinville resident Christian Niccum at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.