PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Preparing to plunge down an icy track at her fourth Olympic Winter Games, skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender looked around and saw someone she never expected to see at that moment:
The two hadn’t spoken in four years after a falling-out. And how did her mother get through security anyway?
“It felt like I fell through the floor,” Uhlaender said. “I’m not going to lie. I almost started crying. I blew her a kiss.”
And then Uhlaender had to go. “I was kind of busy,” she said. “I kind of wish she had waited.”
When the women’s skeleton competition concluded Saturday with the final two runs, Uhlaender, 33, was disappointed with her 13th-place finish, but her only regret was that she didn’t push faster.
She had her mother back in her life. “I’ve been waiting,” said Uhlaender, whose father, Ted, a former Major League Baseball player, passed away in February 2009.
“I couldn’t be more grateful for her to come all the way here from Colorado to give me the support. There’s so many good things coming out of the race.”
While Uhlaender knew her mother, Karen, was coming to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, and had helped with some arrangements, she expected to see her after the race – not at the start standing next to her coach.
“I just saw nothing but love,” said Uhlaender, who declined to say what caused the rift. “It was just a lot to take in in that moment.”
Wearing her signature American eagle helmet, her red-tinted hair flowing underneath, Uhlaender was 12th after two runs Friday.
She then posted a time of 52.33 on Saturday’s third run to drop to 13th. Her fourth run was her slowest at 52.55 seconds, but Uhlaender held onto 13th place with a combined time of 3 minutes, 29.61 seconds, 2.33 seconds behind gold medalist Lizzy Yarnold of Great Britain, who defended her title from Sochi.
Teammate Kendall Wesenberg was 17th in her first Olympic Games with a time of 3:30.92.
Uhlaender was fourth four years ago in Sochi, missing the podium by .04 seconds. In her first Games in 2006, she placed sixth, then she was 11th in 2010.
“It feels like I just blinked and I was in Sochi yesterday,” Uhlaender said.
At Alpensia’s Olympic Sliding Centre, Uhlaender also had a second mom at the track: Jean Schaefer, whose late son, Steven Holcomb, was Uhlaender’s best friend.
Holcomb, a three-time Olympic medalist and bobsled legend who was expected to dominate in PyeongChang, died suddenly last year. Uhlaender said she lived with Schaefer after the falling out with her own mother.
Uhlaender said before competition began that it was “really weird” to be at the Games without Holcomb.
“I think of him every day,” she said. “I started crying in the start house. I think I’ve been crying all week, if we’re going to be honest. I just looked at my coaches and I was like, ‘Why do I have to be so human? Can you take the feels away, please?’ Because you can’t control grief and you can’t control your desires and your wants sometimes.
“And I just was letting myself cry, letting myself feel it every time I stepped to the line. I felt like I drove really well. My legs were a bit weak, but I couldn’t change that. My legs gave everything I had in that moment.”
Uhlaender said her start was about a tenth of a second slower than she thought it would be. During training, she’d had some top three or top four finishes, although she couldn’t repeat them when competition began.
The track was much faster than she had remembered. On her first training run, Uhlaender said, “I just overdrove everything and slammed into all the walls, and halfway down instead of being upset I just started laughing. And I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness. I’m at the Olympic Games and I just hit every wall possible. Seriously. I counted, it was at least nine. There are only 16 curves.
“When I got to the bottom, I just was laughing, I pulled my helmet off and I was like, ‘This is amazing! How much fun is this?’ And then I told the girl that went the fastest, ‘Nice run!’”
Uhlaender was much better by her last run, though she said she had a big skid on the exit from curve 7 to curve 8.
“But I live for these nerves and for the competition,” she said. “I just wanted to walk away feeling as though I had maximized my potential.”
At age 33, after 15 years competing internationally, including the world championship in 2012 on her home track in Lake Placid, is Uhlaender contemplating retirement? After all, she’s had 12 surgeries and is one of the few athletes who starts a sentence with “When I was on my deathbed.”
“Those thoughts are there,” she said. “I think I’m not supposed to make any big decisions yet. I’m 33, so to go another four years sounds crazy, I think I’m just going to take it one day at a time.”
In late 2016, Uhlaender was hospitalized following an auto-immune attack.
“When I was on my deathbed, I had pretty much accepted it,” she said. “I had given up to a certain extent and I just remember being at peace and thinking, ‘I’ve lived a great life.’ But I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a three-time Olympian. I’ve done this, I’ve done that.’ I was literally thinking of the people I love and the people that love me, the experiences I had.”
Uhlaender said finances could keep her from vying for another Olympic Games, although she doesn’t consider competing in skeleton a sacrifice.
“It’s a privilege and a choice to represent my country,” she said. “I bought my own sled, I had my own speedsuits, my own helmet, I invested in my training. I put everything I had into it, so I expected a better result. The only thing I couldn’t plan for was almost dying and finding my best friend passed away and then the Sochi doping scandal and my mom after four years of not seeing her showing up on the line.”
Last fall, it appeared that Uhlaender would get the bronze medal from the 2014 Games after Elena Nikitina of Russia was implicated in the Sochi doping scandal. However, the situation then was reversed.
But Uhlaender said it’s not the results that are important.
“It was the moments going down the track where my stomach’s in my throat,” she said. “I just love life, whether or not the bronze medal ends up mine or not, that’s not what it’s about. I think it’s an opportunity to seize the moment and that’s what I tried to do here and I think I want to walk away knowing I have tons of people that love me and that have supported me and the journey is crazy!
“There’s going to peaks, there’s going to be valleys and I don’t want to walk away being bitter or upset. I’m doing the best that I can and I want to be not just an Olympian, but a really great human and inspire others to do the same.”