SOCHI, Russia — Three-time Olympian Christian Niccum didn’t drift from his Mormon roots because he’d lost his faith.
The father of three said that when he was a teen competing on luge tracks around the world, he simply stopped doing the things that would build his faith because he felt inadequate.
“I said to myself, ‘It was too hard,’ ” said Niccum, who at 36 — and as the oldest member of the U.S. luge team — competed in his third and likely final Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, this week. He and Jayson Terdiman took 11th in the men's double luge on Wednesday and were scheduled to race in Thursday's team relay. “I felt like I couldn’t live up the values of being a Mormon. I believed; I believed 100 percent in God; I believed in all of the values. I just didn’t think I could do it.”
Slowly, over time, he drifted away from the habits that affirmed his upbringing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I guess I was inactive,” he said. "I was born Mormon, but we all have to convert.”
Niccum eventually felt the need to return to church and, by putting in the spiritual "work" he had neglected, found the peace and direction he had been missing.
A luger at heart
The youngest of five children, Niccum grew up chasing his older brothers around.
When they made bike ramps, he made them bigger.
“I remember I always had that daredevil instinct,” he said. “I would always go for it. I just had that inside me, that thrill-seeker, daredevil, show-off.”
The first time his dad took him skiing, Niccum “went straight down the mountain.”
So when some friends in their Woodinville, Wash., ward told him about a luge camp they’d attended, of course he was interested.
“When I found the sport of luge, it was just natural to absolutely fall in love,” he said. “They call it the fastest sport on ice; it’s faster than bobsled and skeleton. If you’re someone who wants to go fast, and you can’t afford a jet plane, this is your sport. You’re pulling up to seven Gs. It’s an incredible feeling to have.”
Starting at age 16, he won four straight World Junior Championships. He transitioned to the World Cup circuit and won six international medals. In 1998, he narrowly missed the Olympic team. He took some time off, but watching his friends compete in the Salt Lake Games lured him back.
“I had a lot of success when I was young in the sport,” he said. “I think I’ve been working hard to try to get back to that same success I had.”
It has not only taken a toll on him physically, but also it caused him some spiritual issues.
“There is no question that hitting the road at such a young age was hard,” he said. “I would say at 14 or 15 years old, I was gone probably nine months out of the year traveling and competing.”
From the start, his sport presented challenges to his faith, including a schedule that had him competing on Sundays.
“If you’re going to do competitive sports at the Olympic, pro or college level, and unless you’re at BYU, you’re going to be competing on Sunday,” he said. He looked around and took some comfort in high-profile Mormon athletes who had success, despite competing on Sunday.
But more difficult was the isolation he felt trying to live the standards alone.
“As members of the LDS Church, we make covenants, we make promises with God,” he said. “That’s what we do at baptism, marriage, we’re making promises. A lot of people believe in being good, whatever religion they are. They want to help people and they love God. But in the LDS Church, we’re not just saying that’s what we want to do, we’re kind of signing a contract with God that we will do that. It can be challenging when you’re the only one who’s made this promise.”
Most critical in his inactivity was probably his decision to simply avoid church meetings. He likens it to being an athlete avoiding a workout.
“As an athlete, I don’t just go to one workout and then I’m good,” he said. “I have to work out every single day. It’s a constant process working toward it. That’s the way it is with the gospel — constant work every day.”
But just like his athletic endeavors, doing the small things his commitment to God required of him would eventually pay dividends.
“As you put in that work, it’s a lot easier to make progress and to see the spiritual progress of your life,” he said. “If you stop doing your workouts, you’re going to get fatigued. We believe in daily prayer and daily scripture study. If you stop doing those, things probably aren’t going to work well.”
“At some point, I just decided, ‘I’m going to go to church,’ ” Niccum said. “I thought, ‘I don’t have to participate and be in all the way.’ But I felt a need to go.”
Finding his way back wasn’t quick — or easy — but he said he’s felt the difference in every aspect of his life.
“One way to judge this is that I feel so much better, so much more peace, than when I was in my 20s, as I wasn’t living what I believed, what I felt,” he said. “I didn’t feel anywhere near the peace that I feel now and the direction I have now.”
When asked what he thinks made the difference for him, he chokes back emotion.
“With me, I’m a big believer in prayer,” he said. “I believe it’s real, and not just for members of the LDS Church. It’s for everybody. Anybody can talk to God, even if you don’t believe in God. You can still pray. Your feelings, your thoughts — they matter and they mean something.”
And while Niccum may not have been asking God to help him find direction and peace, he said others were seeking on his behalf.
“I believe strongly that we come from a Heavenly Father, who loves us and cares about our well-being,” he said. “I know that my family, well, I know a lot of prayers have been said for me to find my way through the mist.”
It is easy to lose yourself in life’s confusion, but it is also easy to find your way back, he said.
“I’ve always believed there is something more than just this existence here,” he said.
Luge highs and lows
That early athletic success, Niccum learned, would be difficult to sustain.
He went 12 years without a World Cup podium. He went so long between World Cup podiums that the International Luge Federation created a record for the 12-year drought. He made two Olympic teams and struggled through back pain and disappointment.
He was 23rd in the 2006 Games in Italy. In 2010, he competed in the doubles luge and placed sixth with Dan Joye.
One of the things he resents is that people often see his career in luge as something fun and easy.
“People think, ‘Oh you’re traveling to Europe, so luxurious, so exciting, but we’re inside a hotel room, a weight room, at a luge track,” he said. “It’s not a vacation. It’s hard. We love what we’re doing, but it’s a job. It’s not a hobby, and we really don’t get paid.”
Niccum has made massive financial sacrifices to pursue his luge dreams through three Olympic cycles. Through most of his adult life, he has relied on the kindness and generosity of other people — most of the time, his parents and extended family.
Right now, his family of five lives in the home where he grew up with his parents. They drive a very used car, and his wife and children did not make the trip to Sochi to see him compete because they can’t afford their own apartment, let alone air, hotel and travel expenses.
In just the past four years, Niccum has had back surgery, a ruptured Achilles tendon (suffered while playing in a church basketball league) and the premature birth of his youngest daughter, EmmaJo. Through it all, he said, it’s his love of the gospel and his family that have sustained him.
In fact, he was ready to retire, but his wife encouraged him to give his dream one more shot.
“I wasn’t going to continue, because I love my family,” he said. “After the 2010 Olympics, I met a volunteer doctor who happened to be a surgeon in L.A. I’ve had struggles with my back since I was 17 years old.”
The doctor felt strongly that Niccum shouldn’t “leave the sport crippled.”
Niccum had the surgery and said his back has never felt better.
The final leg of his Olympic journey
Just earning a trip to Russia was challenging. Niccum had to race against his teammates for the final spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team in Park City in December. Just before his final run, he watched a video his wife sent him. It was EmmaJo taking her first steps.
The love of his family, as well as their sacrifices on his behalf, inspired him. He and his partner, Jayson Terdiman, went to the track and won their spot on the 2014 team.
A family man first
Niccum met his wife when he was working in a nursing home in Texas. Their first date was a blind date, but the two ended up getting married in 2008.
When they met, Niccum had returned to church, and Bobbi Jo joined him. A native Texan, Bobbi Jo grew up Baptist but had spent her adult life worshiping as a Pentecostal.
She didn’t balk at going to Niccum’s Mormon ward when they started dating, and in fact, he said people often said they had no idea she wasn’t LDS.
“She liked it,” he said, indicating this part of the story is probably better told by her. “She was in a Sunday School class, and they were talking about what happens after this life, where we go.”
One aspect of the lesson intrigued her most. Bobbi Jo grew up with a cousin, who was more like her brother. He committed suicide, and she was always haunted by what happened to his soul after death.
The teacher taught a lesson on the plan of salvation, and in that lesson said there was always the chance to gain forgiveness and redemption.
“We believe that there is hope,” Christian Niccum said, adding that was key in her conversion. “There is always hope.”
The couple was sealed in the LDS temple to their two oldest children two years ago.
Niccum isn't sure he’d want any of his children to follow in his footsteps, but if they do, he said the entire clan will go on the road again.
“We’d be climbing in a Winnebago and going for it,” he said. “I loved the sport, and how could my parents take me away from it? I couldn’t do that to my own child.” What he does know is that he’s grateful for a sport that has given him the kind of breathtaking ride some only dream about. He’s grateful for a family that loves and supports him and even has faith in him when he falters.
And he’s grateful for the ability to choose, and the principles of his faith that support that.
“My faith is a choice,” he said. “I don’t know how I’m being interviewed just because I decided to go sledding. I’m not a perfect super star. I’m the guy winning the record that they had to (create) for the largest time in between world cup podiums. I’m definitely far from perfect. But I just keep trying.”
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