BY JAMIE MACDONALD I APRIL 2, 2013
|Katie Uhlaender launches herself down the track during the
women's skeleton Viessman FIBT World Cup at the Sanki Sliding
Center in Krasnya Polyana, Russia, on Feb. 16, 2013.
Olympic stories come in all shapes and sizes, fueled by all manner of inspiration and talent, but few come at you from as many angles and speeds or can be viewed through so many prisms as that of Katie Uhlaender.
She is a world champion skeleton racer.
She is a world-class weightlifter.
She is a cattle rancher.
She has dealt with injuries that have left her broken and grief that left her bitter.
Only recently has Uhlaender rediscovered the self that has the potential to propel her, headfirst at something approximating terminal velocity, to the title of world's fastest woman in skeleton.
As of early April, Uhlaender is spending her days working on both her Olympic dream and on her family's 800-acre ranch in Kansas. The ranch sets up as her retirement plan, of sorts, as her father's dream has become her own since he passed away in 2009. Retirement will have to wait, though. There are still races and medals to win, and Uhlaender intends to chase them with a healthy body and a healing soul.
Until arriving home in late-March, she had been living out of a suitcase since October 2012, for a racing season that was itself only a few months removed from her attempt to qualify for the London 2012 Olympic Games in weightlifting.
|Favorite track: Right now, Sochi
Motto: Stay in the moment
Favorite city in Europe: Depends on my mood
Favorite athlete: Steven Holcomb
Best sports memory: Winning the 2012 World Championships
If I weren’t training for
the Olympic Games, I would be: Chasing cows
And while the Olympic Winter Games hardly stray from her mind, Uhlaender's official training for Sochi began April 1. Her days start at 5:30 a.m. with workouts until 7:30, and then she becomes a rancher for what might be as much as the next 12 hours, followed by more working out – unless she can sneak in a lunchtime workout, which might give her some time to hang out with her good friends and neighbors in the ranch business. Later this month, she’ll train in Arizona for six weeks before returning to the ranch for the rest of the summer.
How often does she think about Sochi?
"Every day," Uhlaender said. "Multiple times a day. [I'm] very goal-oriented, and I'm thinking about it when I wake up. When I go to sleep. When I eat. Anything I do, it's on my mind. Even when I'm not checking cows, I'm taking extra caution not to get run over by one of them because I'm not letting anything stop me."
Uhlaender knows all too well the pain that comes from being jolted and knocked off her tracks. The momentum she enjoyed from the time she picked up the sport in 2003 had been somewhat remarkable. Eight weeks after her first time on a sled, something that admittedly scared and also thrilled her almost immediately, she was a national champion. She made her first Olympic team in 2006 and placed sixth in Torino, followed by back-to-back World Cup titles in 2006-07 and 2007-08.
Quite clearly, Uhlaender was primed for Vancouver in 2010. The plan was to medal and for her father, her "foundation," to be there.
Instead, Ted Uhlaender, the former Major League outfielder who had led Katie into sports and stoked her competitive fires, passed away at the age of 68, exactly a year before Vancouver's Opening Ceremony. Six weeks later, Uhlaender shattered her knee while snowmobiling.
The loss of her father hit Uhlaender, who had until that point been winning about half of the races she'd entered, particularly hard. Her father never missed a significant race, and the Olympic Games loomed without his counsel while she nursed a major injury along with the doubts that can creep into even the most steady athletes. Her dad had always talked her out of those doubts.
“He would remind me of how he had done things in his career and how proud he was,” Uhlaender said. “Just the way he spoke to me gave me reassurance that I was on the right path and that I was doing the right thing.”
In Vancouver, Uhlaender finished a disappointing 11th, and she remains quite candid about how affecting it was to lose her father.
"For the first year-and-a-half, two years, I was just really bitter," she said. "And I was so angry in Vancouver that he wasn't there. My kneecap was broken, I was scared of breaking it on the track and my father wasn't there. So I was at my lowest low going into Vancouver."
And, of course, the grief extended well beyond losing out on a medal. It was about loss.
“I just didn't know what to do,” she said. “I was so mad in Vancouver, and that he wouldn't be there to walk me down the aisle. I kept calling him and forgetting. And, baseball, I used to go to games all the time with him. I can't do that anymore. It was like everything was just building up and I just got so angry at the world. I just thought everything was so unfair.”
Uhlaender credits a conversation with Olympic champion Carl Lewis for helping bring her around.
“He went through the same thing,” she said. “He was, like, ‘The sooner you can let go, the sooner you’re going to feel closer to him.’ In my head, I was just so mad. Now, I feel more love, and I feel just as close to him as I was before. It's as though he's here. I can’t physically talk to him, but I feel like I’m doing my best to live the way he wanted me to. And Carl told me he left me with all the tools to continue on and, one day, I would realize that.”
|Katie Uhlaender competes in the women's skeleton third heat of
the 2013 World Championships at Olympia Bob Run on Feb. 1,
2013 in St Moritz, Switzerland.
Uhlaender is still moved to tears at the thought of her father, but, these days, in a more healthy way.
“All the tools he gave me for the first two Olympics, I was just so oblivious to it in Vancouver,” she said. “It might have been too soon for me. That's what's given me strength going into Sochi, just taking all the life lessons I've had over the past three, four years, and I just am not going to let it take me down this time.”
Though it hasn’t been an easy road, Uhlaender certainly feels as if she has turned a corner.
"I felt like winning the 2012 World Championships kind of broke that curse," she says. "And I feel like I'm on the way back to where I was before I got hurt. And that was winning medals, quite often."
In her most recent race, at the season-ending stop in Sochi, Uhlaender recorded the track record in her first heat and finished second at the event to teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace.
"Noelle and I basically ran away with it,” Uhlaender said. “It was awesome. It was an amazing race, especially to have USA No. 1 and No. 2. I mean, if I have to lose, at least it's to my teammate. I just love seeing the U.S. do that well.”
If Uhlaender has her way in 2014, the Olympic podium will feature the pair that has known each other for the better part of 10 years.
“We're very competitive women,” said Uhlaender, who adds that the relationship between rivals has matured over the years. “And it's great to be able to push each other to be our best. And, when we do that, we win medals.”
In Sochi, both will be considered among the favorites on a track that has as many as three uphill sections and, while far from the world’s fastest, will still send competitors down the track at speeds nearing 85 miles per hour for merely a minute. Fractions of seconds will mean the world.
“The pressure can get to a lot of people,” Uhlaender said. “You work four years to go to the Olympics and you have four minutes. This time, I feel more prepared than ever and I can't wait to shine in those four minutes.”