Journey Of Champions presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance: Katie Uhlaender And Sarah Hughes Talk Monkey Business
|Katie Uhlaender poses at the NBC Olympics/U.S. Olympic Committee
photo shoot in April 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.
|Sarah Hughes won
the gold medal in
the ladies' figure
at the Salt Lake City
2002 Olympic Winter
I had the chance to chat with two-time Olympian Katie Uhlaender via FaceTime last week. Katie has been one of America’s top skeleton athletes for the better part of the past decade. In case you forgot what the sport of skeleton entails, it’s when an athlete takes a running start at the top of a bobsled track and then quickly mounts themself on a bare sled, head-first (!!) to ride the track facing speeds up to 80 miles per hour. Pretty gnarly stuff.
Over the course of our interview, Katie revealed how she first got into skeleton, her goal of becoming a summer Olympian in weightlifting at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and her dreams of getting into the monkey business, among other things.
Sarah Hughes: How did you first get into skeleton?
Katie Uhlaender: It was random. I had just graduated high school and I met this girl in a gym. I basically just went up to her and was like, “Hey, you look strong” because she was squatting a lot of weight. Then I was like, “Do you sprint?” And she said yeah. So I asked if she wanted to race. And she was like, “Who the [heck] are you?” Those were her exact words. So I was like, “My bad, I’m Katie. I’m just training to be an athlete and I haven’t sprinted in a while. I thought it would be fun to race you.” She happened to be a bobsledder and she talked me into training with her to try out skeleton. So that’s what I did.
SH: Is that a typical story of how people get into skeleton? How does one start?
KU: I don’t know, to be honest. It was totally random for me. And she showed me what it was. I didn’t even know what skeleton was. She was like, “You should do skeleton.” And I thought, “What is that?”
When she showed me, I thought, “Eh, it could be a once in a lifetime opportunity just to try it,” so I went and tried it and then three weeks later I was a national champion — the junior national champion. I went to worlds for juniors and then came back and won nationals. So I was like, “Do I get a PhD and become a primatologist like Jane Goodall or Jeanne Altmann — I wanted to study gorillas — or do I become an Olympian?” Olympian, for some reason, had a better ring to it, so I went, and three years later, I was an Olympian.
SH: What an upward trajectory. And in what people perceive to be an unconventional sport. Are you naturally a daredevil?
KU: I feel like fear is inevitable, especially anyone who is in competition. It is always scary. It doesn’t matter if it’s when I step up to the platform for weightlifting or for skeleton. I definitely enjoy the rush of pushing myself to the edge. Whether it’s a sport or a challenge, I definitely go for it. Now that I’m older [she’s 29 years old], I’m becoming pickier about what challenges get my heart rate up, but to be a daredevil doesn’t mean you don’t have fear. It’s something that you accept and kind of use it to motivate you.
SH: I was reading one of your blog posts on TeamUSA.org. You mentioned that one of your friends tried skeleton for the first time when he was visiting you in Europe. Is skeleton a sport anyone can just go and try cold, or do you need some preparation off the track first? For example, if I wanted to try it right this second, could you take me for a run?
KU: Yeah! You can. You should come out to Park City and we can try it!
|Katie Uhlaender competes at the women's skeleton world
championships on Feb. 1, 2013 in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
KU: I’m actually in Calgary right now. I travel a lot. But out of the places I train, I recommend Park City for you to come out and try it for the first time.
SH: Ok, maybe we can coordinate that next time I’m in the area. My next Olympic sport can be skeleton!
SH: You’re a seasoned Olympian in skeleton already and Sochi will be your third Olympic Winter Games. I know you train with a lot of athletes who are trying to make their first. Do any of them ever ask you for advice on making the team?
KU: I haven’t had a lot of athletes come to me for advice. I think when they’re attempting to make their Olympics, as I know from my first Olympics, it’s really intense. My goal was to make the Games, and of course I wanted to do well when I got there, but the Olympics were bigger than I’d expected. There is nothing that can prepare you for it. And I think when athletes are shooting for that first Games, they don’t really ask for advice until they know they’ve made it. The best advice I could offer would be to just not think anything too differently, and don’t focus on just making the team. Because if you do, you’re going to feel like you’re done when you have just gotten there. Because you’re not done. That’s when the real Games starts. I mean, it’s hard because it’s four years, or however long you train to go there, and then you make it. You did it, you made the team, but it’s not over yet.
SH: How is going into your third Games different than the first two?
KU: First of all, the biggest difference is that I’m not injured. I’m not going into this Olympics with a surgery — knock on wood because it’s only August. That, and I pretty much know I’m going so I’m really just focused on the steps of preparing myself for the Games. I’m looking at being at a certain point right now and then being at a certain point in October and then being at a certain point during the world cups. I’m already planning my Christmas breaks and where I’ll be for training. Really everything is being honed into being set up for Sochi. It’s exciting.
SH: Where is your home base?
KU: I have a farm about three hours east of Denver, but it’s just tough because everything I do for training is sport-specific so I don’t get to go there a lot.
SH: A sport like skeleton involves a lot of visualizations because you can only take so many runs. A lot of your training time is not spent on the actual track.
KU: And it’s not like bobsled. We’re bent over a sled that’s 50 percent of our weight. It’s a very technical thing to do, to run bent over the sled on ice. So I’m pushing on ice twice a week and I’m ecstatic because it’s the best thing I could be doing to prepare without actually being on ice. Just being able to load on my sled and go down the hill for a half of a second is awesome because I push hard and then I can lay on my sled and relax and melt into it for a little bit and visualize, think about what it will be like to slide again. Every year, being off ice for six months and then getting back on, going headfirst getting this close [shows an inch distance with her fingers] is always the moment I’m like, “Holy, this sport is gnarly!” When you’re 19, 20, you just go and do it. You can take a million runs. Now that I’m 29, it’s a different ball game. It’s about staying healthy and more about that than anything else. I mean, it’ s still sledding, it’s still wicked fun — which is why I think I enjoy pushing on ice more — but that’s why I’m here. For sport-specific training.
|Katie Uhlaender competes at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials -
Weightlifting in March 2012.
SH: How did you get into weight training?
KU: [laughing] I made the mistake of not listening to my coach in 2006. I was power cleaning pretty easily at 60 kilos [approx. 130 pounds], and everyone was like, “Oh, you should do weightlifting.” But then I found out that Olympic weightlifters were in the gym twice a day, six times a week. I was all about being outdoors and doing kiteboarding and extreme sports in my free time. If I had just done weightlifting then, I would have had a legitimate run at London or even possibly, Beijing, but I didn’t. Then in Vancouver, I was powerlifting at 95 kilos with a broken kneecap and it came up again. When Nike said they would back me, I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. I thought it would be a challenge for me. My third meet in weightlifting was the Olympic trials.
SH: Is there any crossover between the two sports?
KU: I’m finding out now what the differences are because I’m so new to weightlifting. With my injuries — I had hip surgery, I had four knee surgeries — running was really difficult, and that’s what I mostly did for training. This is the first summer I’ve actually been sprinting again. It’s the same energy system as skeleton, if that makes sense. Weightlifting is a very short burst of energy for a very short period of time and skeleton is up to six seconds. So, even though skeleton is not aerobic, it’s a lot more aerobic than weightlifting.
SH: So, after Sochi, is your plan to start training immediately for Rio?
KU: The plan right now that I’ve discussed with USA Weightlifting and USA Bobsled & Skeleton is to do a switch like I did in 2012. I’ll still slide recreationally — world cups and the world championships, because I plan on going to Korea (for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games) — but I’m going to make weightlifting my main focus. There’s a long-term plan.
SH: That’s really cool. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me for the Journey of Champions presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance series and share some of your journey with me thus far.