Just in time for the 12 Days of Christmas, we offer “The 12 Surgeries of Katie Uhlaender.”
The three-time Olympian in women’s skeleton has gone under the knife more times than most people, and on a variety of body parts. She even came close to dying once.
Believe it or not, none of these surgeries had anything to do with skeleton, in which athletes slide head first down an icy track at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. (However, Uhlaender, 33, did have a concussion in 2013 that required 18 months of recovery).
“Skeleton’s the safest sport I’ve ever done,” said Uhlaender, who has also performed at the elite level in skiing, track cycling and weightlifting. “Skeleton’s safe, it’s everything outside of that that I struggle with.”
That includes taking photos, snowmobiling and even dancing.
But so far this season, Uhlaender has stayed on her sled and off the operating table.
Going into the fifth world cup of the season Friday in Innsbruck, Austria, Uhlaender is the top Team USA slider on any international circuit. She is No. 7 in the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation rankings – after world cup finishes of ninth in Lake Placid, New York, seventh in Park City, Utah, ninth at Whistler, British Columbia, and eighth in Winterberg, Germany. Two Germans, three Canadians and a British slider rank ahead of her.
Uhlaender’s top Olympic finish was fourth at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, but she is in line to receive the bronze medal after Elena Nikitina of Russia, the third-place slider who edged her by .01 of a second, was recently disqualified for doping.
Without further ado, here are “The 12 Surgeries of Katie Uhlaender.”
1. Left ankle.
Uhlaender didn’t realize how bad her first injury was until years later. As a junior in high school, she was taking photos of her friends bouldering in Frisco, Colorado, on Mount Royal. “I went to scoot across a flat rock surface and started sliding,” Uhlaender said, “and at first I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll stop, because it was so slow.’”
She started laughing because she was thinking of “Black Sheep,” the 1996 Chris Farley movie where he says “Every vote counts” before tumbling down a hill. Uhlaender was picking up speed when she remembered that there was a 12-foot cliff ahead of her. “I was sliding head first at this point,” she said. “So I decided to grab the edge and swing around and throw my feet into a tree. I finally stopped, but it broke my ankle. I had to hop out of the woods on my leg. I was on crutches for three or four weeks, and it never properly healed because I kept falling over randomly.”
Uhlaender did save the camera, though. “I actually have photos of the whole thing,” she said.
In the summer of 2004, Uhlaender felt a pop in her foot. “I spent six weeks in a boot and nobody could figure out what was wrong,” she said. At home for an MRI, she was told that her sesamoid bone was broken in half and the bone had died. “They said, ‘That’s not the concern. The concern is you have a hole in your talus bone in your ankle that’s 20 percent the length of bone. It looks like it’s fracturing from the inside out, and if you don’t get it fixed your ankle could break.’”
But it was August, and Uhlaender felt it was too close to the season for surgery.
“I decided to compete the season on a broken ankle, just kind of risk it,” she said. “I just didn’t run at all and I had to wear a boot the whole time.”
As soon as the season ended, Uhlaender had her ankle scoped to clean it out on March 16, 2005.
2. Left foot.
A couple of months later, after she’d started walking again, Uhlaender had another surgery to remove the sesamoid bone that had died.
3. Right knee.
Uhlaender was sixth at the Olympic Winter Games Torino 2006, then won back-to-back overall world cup titles in 2007 and 2008 as well as world bronze and silver medals. “In April 2008, I felt pretty accomplished in my sport and I was thinking about going pro in skiing,” she said. Uhlaender skied in the summer in New Zealand. She had just tested the Olympic track at Whistler when she decided to squeeze in some skiing. “I was on top of a pillow line in British Columbia – it’s basically a gnarly back country line, a bunch of rocks that have snow on them and they look like pillows – but I didn’t make it and I blew out my ACL and MCL.”
Her MCL gone and her ACL at 50-50, she underwent surgery to repair the damage with microfracture and some stem cells.
“I never let myself fully recover,” Uhlaender said. “As soon as I can move I start going again.”
4. Left kneecap.
Going into the next season, Uhlaender was still recuperating from knee surgery when she found out that her father, former Major League Baseball player Ted Uhlaender had cancer. She often accompanied him to the hospital and her head wasn’t really into training. Still, Uhlaender finished third in the world cup standings. On the day she won a silver medal in Park City, Utah, she found out her father had died. A week later, Uhlaender was sliding at the world championships, knowing Ted would have wanted her to compete.
Six weeks later, Uhlaender was on a snowmobile in the backcountry in Vail, Colorado. “I noseplanted the sled into a creek and shattered my kneecap into five to nine pieces,” she said.
Uhlaender had surgery to put wire, screws and hardware in her knee.
5. Same kneecap.
In June of that year, just as Uhlaender had started walking, the wire was tearing into her quad tendon. In July, she underwent surgery to remove all the hardware.
6. Same kneecap.
On Aug. 2, while doing rehab in Las Vegas, Uhlaender couldn’t resist going on the dance floor. “Some girls’ knee hit my knee and it shattered again,” she said, “so then I had to go have emergency surgery. I had a bone graft and they put two screws in my kneecap.”
7. Same kneecap.
In September, the knee went septic. Uhlaender underwent another emergency surgery to clean it out. “They wanted to put an IV in my heart to inject antibiotics every eight hours, and I said no,” she said. “They said, ‘You can get really sick,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I already can’t train and if you do that to me, I’m definitely not going to make the Olympic Games.’ I basically said, ‘If I get sick, fine, if I don’t, then I have a better chance of making the Olympics.”
She took “some really hardcore antibiotics.” “I was just taking the pills and waiting for myself to get really sick and it never happened, so I continued on my way,” Uhlaender said with a laugh.
8. Left hip.
Despite not being able to lift weights or run, Uhlaender qualified for her second Olympic team, placing 11th in Vancouver while having the fastest average start time.
“Once the Games were over, I was trying to start training again and found out there was something wrong with my hip,” she said. It turned out that when she crashed the snowmobile, her femur head jammed in her hip joint and damaged it.
Uhlaender had microfracture labral repair in September 2010.
“I had to compete in December, so I came back way too quick,” she said. “I never let myself recover. All of these surgeries, when it got to the point where I could walk or I could run good enough to beat most people I was competing against, then I would compete.”
9. Same hip.
Unbeknownst to Uhlaender or her doctors, her hip never healed properly and the entire hip joint bone had ossified. Nevertheless, she won the 2012 world championship gold medal in Lake Placid.
After the Sochi 2014 Games, Uhlaender went to a surgeon to figure out what was wrong with her hip. He told her it was probably just scar tissue and she underwent surgery in the fall of 2014.
“I woke up from the surgery and he had done a labral replacement because I had no soft tissue, and microfracture and stem cells,” Uhlaender said. “I was like, ‘All right, I’m not playing around, I’m going to make sure I’m completely healed 100 percent before I come back to competing, because I want to be able to win an Olympic medal.’”
10. Left ankle.
A few months after the hip surgery, Uhlaender was trying to run, but the ankle she had broken nearly 15 years earlier was still bothering her. The doctor told her she couldn’t put off fixing it any longer. Uhlaender had surgery in May 2015.
“I just refused to train, and if anything hurt, I would stop immediately,” she said. “I think it was about two years until I felt 100 percent.”
“Last season I came out pushing faster than I did at 22,” Uhlaender said. “I was pretty happy, and then I had an autoimmune attack that nobody could figure out.”
For three to four weeks, she had a fever of 106, couldn’t eat or drink anything and was hallucinating.
“When I got to the hospital, the first three days I guess they thought I was dying,” Uhlaender said. She was asked for her next of kin.
A stomach scope in November was inconclusive.
Doctors determined she had an autoimmune illness based on a liver biopsy performed in December 2016. “Anyone with autoimmune understands that you’ve never really cured,” she said. “I’m still taking pills. I shouldn’t have a relapse, but sometimes I get tired.”
And while Uhlaender is healthy on the surface, she’s still nursing a broken heart after the death of her best friend, bobsled gold medalist Steven Holcomb in May.
“He was always a big encouragement,” Uhlaender said. “He was also a two-by-four to the head when I needed it.”
Figuratively, of course.
After so many surgeries, Uhlaender has learned a valuable lesson.
“It’s really important to allow yourself to heal,” she said. “When I was younger, I would jump back on it, and push it really hard. Now that I’m older and wiser, I find it more beneficial to actually give myself the time to heal and the grace to just be – and most of the time, I still perform well anyway.
“If I can do it hurt, I can do it healthy, so it’s just a matter of picking and choosing your battles. Right now healing from losing my best friend is one of the biggest challenges, putting into perspective what it’s like to almost die and then lose someone you love and still push forward with your dreams.”
Uhlaender said she is trying to be more in the moment instead of worrying about results.
“I think if you’re true to yourself and you’re not worried about what everything means and you’re just focused on what you need in that moment, everything will work out,” she said. “The biggest thing I need to do right now is make sure that I stay on top of my nutrition and make sure my body stays healthy and my autoimmune’s under control and limit my stressers. Because I just feel blessed and privileged to be able to race. I love sledding and I just want to enjoy it for as long as possible.”