When USA Bobsled & Skeleton announced the 2015-16 national team earlier this month, two veterans were missing from the world cup roster.
Three-time Olympian Katie Uhlaender was named to the Intercontinental Cup team.
And after finishing second in the first two selection races, 2014 Olympian Kyle Tress announced that he is taking the year off.
“I just knew that it wasn’t going to be a very productive season for me in terms of racing,” said 34-year-old Tress. “I just didn’t really have the heart for it this year.”
For Uhlaender, 31, it’s been a slow climb back from two major surgeries since she last slid at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. She has won every title there is to win in skeleton, including the 2012 world championship and world cup overall titles in 2007 and 2008. But she has yet to win an Olympic medal.
At the Sochi Games, she finished fourth, just 0.04 seconds off the podium. She was teary-eyed after the race but philosophical.
“There are worse things in life than coming in fourth at the Olympics,” she said at the time.
But neither Uhlaender nor Tress is exiting stage left. Not yet anyway.
“I just can’t end on that,” Uhlaender said by phone from Lake Placid, New York. “I wanted to come back.”
For Tress, it’s a much-needed hiatus after 13 years on the national team — and over half that time racing the world cup tour.
“I really wanted to do this last season after the Olympics,” he said. “But I decided I needed to get right back into it. I was pretty disappointed with my performance in Sochi.”
He finished 21st in his Olympic debut.
Tress is coaching the Intercontinental Cup (ICC) team this winter and living in Lake Placid. He is finding inspiration being around kids who are new to the sport.
“They aren’t jaded about it yet,” he said. “Everything is great to them. It’s fun. I think I missed that a little bit.”
He is also hoping to travel with the ICC team and train on tracks where he has struggled in the past. Without the pressure of racing, he can test new equipment and try new lines on each track.
Uhlaender is also looking forward to the ICC tour this winter, but as a competitor. It’s a step down for the slider; she has competed on the world cup tour since 2004. But after back-to-back hip and ankle surgeries in 2014, her focus has changed.
“I’m going to use this season to get back into my groove,” she said. “It’s a rebuilding year for me.”
Her ultimate goal is to finally win an Olympic medal at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
Uhlaender’s climb to the PyeongChang Games actually started four months before the Sochi Olympic Games — which she thought would be her last. In October 2013, she hit her head training on the Lake Placid track and suffered a concussion. Without taking time to recover properly, she was still suffering post-concussion symptoms in Sochi. She was also having trouble with her left hip, and her ankle hurt, too.
Looking back, she said it was “pretty freaking amazing” that she finished fourth in Sochi, given that she was damaged goods.
Three months after returning from Sochi, she had major surgery to rebuild her hip — which had bothered her even after surgery in 2010.
“It turns out that I had no soft issue in my hip,” she said. “That stabbing pain I was having was the fact that my joint had ossified.”
Last fall, she tried to return to skeleton. But now her ankle really hurt. An MRI showed cartilage and bone jamming into the joint. On Oct. 1, 2014, she underwent surgery again. It was her 10th surgery since she first started sliding in 2002.
“Steadman Hawkins [Clinic in Colorado], they’re like my Frankenstein peeps,” she joked.
Unable to run — or weightlift (she competed in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Weightlifting), she began cycling last winter. First, she was on a stationary bike at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado. The wattage she was producing on the bike indicated that sprint cycling might be her forte.
“I think it’s a perfect sport for me,” she said. “It’s no impact, and I have a ton of power. Just figuring out where to put that power to use is kind of cool.”
She competed in team sprint at the U.S. track nationals in August, finishing fifth with McKenzie Browne.
Although she will return to the velodrome if her cycling friends ask her to race again, skeleton is her priority through 2018.
But getting back on the sled wasn’t easy. After two weeks of dry-land training in August, her leg swelled. Then when she got on the track, she had to face an unfamiliar emotion: fear.
She had not slid since the Sochi Games and was about to slide on the track where she suffered that concussion two years ago. She felt as if she was hanging out with a dog that had bit her.
“You know it’s OK because (the dog) was retrained, but you’re a little anxious even though you know you’re OK,” she explained. “It took me until after the Park City (selection races in early November) to build that trust back.”
Adventure-seeking, danger-loving Uhlaender is coming to terms with fear.
“I’m finding out that being scared doesn’t mean you aren’t tough,” she said. “It’s a matter of accepting your emotions and being able to deal with it. That’s what being brave is about.”
Back in Lake Placid for the ICC race on Nov. 19, she can’t wait to get on the track now.
“I finally was able to relax into the chaos instead of it feeling like chaos,” she said.
Like Tress, Uhlaender wants to compete in Korea in 2018. And she has put aside the nagging fear of missing the podium again by a few hundredths — thanks to speedskater Dan Jansen, who missed medals at both the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Winter Games. He told her that she shouldn’t think of it like that.
“One step at a time, stay present, and just do what I gotta do,” Uhlaender said. “I’ve made some mistakes, I gained 10 pounds in my time off.”
Then she added with a laugh, “That’s probably the worst of it.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.