Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by Milk Life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
There’s one stat that doesn’t show up in Katie Uhlaender’s bio, and that’s the dozen significant surgeries she’s had during her long skeleton career.
Also missing from the list of her achievements — which include both an individual and team world championship gold — are the disappointments she’s experienced in the Olympics, the life-threatening illness she overcame since the 2014 Sochi Games and the losses of her father in 2010 and her best friend, Olympic bobsled champion Steve Holcomb, in May 2017.
So as Uhlaender, 33, takes stock of her career as she prepares to compete in a fourth Olympics next month in PyeongChang, South Korea, her focus is on one thing. She is determined to maximize her potential.
“I want to be at my absolute best at the Games,” she said.
Her simple goal comes with a lot of moving parts, however. It means staying healthy, continuing to perform and improve steadily with a new sled as the Games approach, and doing it all while grieving for Holcomb, a longtime buddy and kindred spirit. Holcomb, 37, died in his room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center at Lake Placid, New York. Uhlaender found him after not being able to reach him for two days.
It was Holcomb who was by her side at a hospital in 2016, supporting and encouraging her when she was fighting through an auto-immune disease that could have been fatal, and it was Holcomb who had been her confidant while training and traveling the globe to compete for more than a decade. He was a man who cheered her on and urged her to just be herself. So, his death left her devastated.
“I’m still recovering from losing my best friend and almost dying last season, so I’m just trying to incrementally improve every race and make sure that by the time I get to the Olympic Games I’m at my absolute best, so I can honor my late father, my best friend and my country,” she said.
She’s trying to get to South Korea by taking positive steps every time she’s on a sled.
“I’m trying to incrementally improve each week and make sure that I stay healthy, I eat clean and I do what I need to do by peaking in February,” she said.
She’s also trying to be kind to herself, to give herself the chance to heal emotionally while pushing herself physically. That means giving herself the time and space away from the tumult and pressures that come with the Olympics.
“I’ve created time to make sure that I can recover,” she said. “I’ve given myself space to heal from grief and also the auto-immune attack that I had last year. … (In the) Olympic year it gets overwhelming with all the interviews and the travel and the racing. It can be really easy to dig yourself into a hole, and I’m attempting to do the opposite.”
The daughter of longtime former major league outfielder Ted Uhlaender has competed in three Olympics with varied results. At Torino in 2006, she was sixth. Four years later in Vancouver she was 11th. At Sochi in 2014, she finished fourth, a heartbreaking .04 seconds behind Russian Elena Nikitina for the bronze.
But Nikitina has since been stripped of her third-place finish because of a doping violation. So, barring an appeal, Uhlaender will finally receive her long-sought Olympic medal.
She’ll pursue a second medal on a new sled she’s been using on this season’s circuit. She hasn’t had the results she wants yet — finishing seventh, eighth and ninth twice in world cup events — but she believes she’s improving and melding with the sled in time for Korea.
“I think from here on out it should get better,” she said. “I decided to name it Eleven, from ‘Stranger Things’ because it honestly steers with my mind. Like I don’t need to actually steer it. I control it with my mind. And my father’s baseball number was 11, and so was my Little League number, so it just felt right.”
Uhlaender said getting back into the rhythm of training and competing has been “necessary.” It’s put her back on track toward her goal of earning a spot on the podium in her fourth Games. Even through setbacks, injuries and pain, she’s determined to get there.
“I’m working to be at my absolute best,” she said. “I want to walk away from Korea saying that I was at my best for the first time and that nothing was holding me back. I’m not going to let the death of my best friend be a negative. It’s going to be something to inspire me.”Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.