Katie Uhlaender

Katie Uhlaender
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Katie Uhlaender wants to finish her skeleton career her way

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In 2018, Katie Uhlaender stood where she has so many times — at the start of an Olympic skeleton competition. But this time, the former world champion and World Cup champion felt dragged down by so many traumas and emotional moments. 

The surgeries. The debts. The loss of an Olympic medal she held only briefly. The sudden appearance of her estranged mother a startling sight that surely would’ve been better at the finish line in PyeongChang rather than the start house. And worst of all, the death of her best friend, Olympic bobsled champion Steven Holcomb, whose body she had discovered.

She finished 13th, the worst result of her four Olympic appearances.

Today, she’s determined to get back one more time.

I did not want to end it that way,” Uhlaender said in a telephone interview from Germany, where she was once again devoting her holidays to training. 

She’s not on the World Cup circuit this year, having been out last year and narrowly missing out on a place in the top tier of competition after the national trials last month. But she has embraced her assignment to the North American Cup, where she won two straight races in late November, and the Intercontinental Cup, where she was on the podium in her season opener Dec. 7 in Winterberg, Germany.

I honestly thought maybe that was a blessing,” Uhlaender said. “I could work on the lower circuit. If I can continue to love the sport, I think the speed will come on its own.”

Uhlaender has had plenty of success in her career. She won the world championship in 2012, completing a set of medals to go with her 2007 bronze and 2008 silver. She won the overall World Cup in 2007-08, followed up by finishing third the next year and again in 2012-13. She’s even found other competitive outlets, dabbling in weightlifting and track cycling.

Her cycling has provided a way to stay in shape without putting any more strain on a body that has had, as recounted by a Team USA story in 2017, a total of 12 surgeries some resulting from a serious snowmobile accident (exacerbated by a collision while dancing), two related to an autoimmune disorder, and none resulting from any of her sports.

She also dealt with mental strains. She had an Olympic medal ever so briefly, when Russia’s Elena Nikitina was stripped of the 2014 bronze medal for a doping violation but then reinstated on appeal, a decision announced just before the 2018 Olympics.

Less than a year earlier, after wondering why she hadn’t heard from Holcomb in a couple of days, she broke into his room and found him dead in the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“Finding your best friend dead like that was like being kicked in the gut so hard,” Uhlaender said. “I couldn’t really find my footing. I focused on helping his family.”

Holcomb had been a steadying force in Uhlaender’s life and career. Continuing without him wasn’t easy.

I hadn’t competed without Holcomb my whole career,” Uhlaender said. “The whole time, he was my confidant. If I wasn’t sure of my plan to execute the race, I was in his room, talking it through with him.”

Between the emotion of Holcomb’s death, the medal controversy and the sudden appearance of her estranged mother, Uhlaender was not in a good place mentally when she competed in PyeongChang.

She sounds more positive today. But in describing how she got to this point, the struggles are always there. The debt. The scramble for health insurance. The harassment from Russian fans throughout the medal controversy. The losses of Holcomb and her father, Ted Uhlaender, whose World Series ring Uhlaender wore on a chain on her neck for years. The difficulty in finding a job that she could balance with training and travel, especially when she hasn’t found the time to get an education that makes her competitive on the job market.

But she has found interesting employment in the past year, doing production work on “Survivor” and the reborn “Eco-Challenge” TV series. The income helped, and the shows fit well with her love of adventure and challenging herself.

I’ve been to four Olympics, and it doesn’t compare to the pressure of a reality show,” Uhlaender said. “That’s why I love that crew. They do expect your best, but they also care about you. They care about your well-being. You care if I perform, but you actually care if I’m OK.”

She also got a mental reboot.

My job was to go through the jungle and follow these racers in the jungle with just the resources of the jungle — I had no Internet, no phone,” Uhlaender said. “I hadn’t slept in 36 hours. Then one of my crew said, ‘You know, you’re really hard on yourself.’ I realized I was feeling so guilty with what happened with Holcomb that I hadn’t allowed myself to heal.”

Back to competition she went.

She also has proudly taken up a role as an athlete advocate. She has taken her efforts to reform Olympic organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere to Congress and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, seeking support for athletes in need and penalties for countries that skirt doping laws.

We need an organization to advocate for athletes,” Uhlaender said. “That’s been the whole problem with the doping scandal.”

She has become a top spokesperson for the Level Field Fund, an organization that helps athletes like her keep training with a fifth possible run at the Olympics still two years away.

My goal coming back is to end it on my terms,” Uhlaender said.

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U.S. Olympic skeleton team finalized

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Katie Uhlaender is going to a record fourth Olympics for a U.S. skeleton slider and looking for either her first or second Olympic medal.

The 33-year-old was one of four athletes named to the U.S. Olympic skeleton team on Monday, joining Sochi bronze medalist Matt Antoine, 2010 and 2014 Olympian John Daly and first-time Olympian Kendall Wesenberg.

Uhlaender placed fourth in Sochi, .04 behind Russian bronze medalist Elena Nikitina.

Nikitina’s bronze medal was stripped last year due to doping, and she was barred from the Olympics for life, though she is appealing. Uhlaender waits to see if she will be upgraded from fourth place to bronze.

Antoine, too, could be upgraded since Aleksandr Tretiyakov was stripped of his gold.

Daly was in fourth place after three of four runs in Sochi but finished 15th after slipping at the start of his final run.

He came out of a two-year retirement in 2016, hoping for another chance to author a different ending to his Olympic career.

Wesenberg, 27, is the only American slider to earn a World Cup medal since the start of 2017.

She first learned of the sport while watching bobsled during the 2010 Olympics. Wesenberg finished her degree at Colorado, where she played club soccer, and moved to Utah in 2012 to pursue skeleton.

The best World Cup finish for any American this season is seventh.

The Olympic men’s gold-medal favorites are South Korean Yun Sung-bin and Latvian Martins Dukurs. The top women are Germans Jacqueline Loelling and Tina Hermann and Canadians Elisabeth Vathje and Mirela Rahneva.

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MORE: Host South Korea seeks Olympic sliding breakthrough in skeleton

More Russian doping means Steven Holcomb’s medals will be upgraded

Steve Holcomb
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Steven Holcomb remains a winner of three Olympic medals. He will have held only one of them.

Another round of International Olympic Committee sanctions against Russian athletes who were found to have participated in doping at the 2014 Sochi Games came down Friday, headlined by bobsledder Aleksandr Zubkov being stripped of the gold medals he won in two- and four-man events.

Holcomb, who died in May, will posthumously move up one spot from bronze to silver in each of those races, once the medals are formally reallocated.

“It’s going to be weird for his family and it’s going to be weird for us,” U.S. veteran push athlete Chris Fogt, who was part of Holcomb’s four-man team in Sochi, said after the IOC decision Friday. “I’d like to think that we would be all together when it happens. And when we get those medals, we’re not going to have him there.”

A half-dozen U.S. bobsled and skeleton athletes are going to benefit from the Russian medalist disqualifications.

Skeleton racer Matt Antoine and bobsledders Holcomb, Fogt, Steven Langton and Curt Tomasevicz all left Sochi with bronzes and will be getting silvers. Skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender will be getting her first medal, with her finish upgraded from fourth to bronze. And combined, they’ll be collecting a total of $45,000 in additional bonus money from the U.S. Olympic Committee, which rewards medal performances.

MORE: A look at the Russians stripped of Olympic medals from Sochi

Now comes a delicate matter, with Holcomb’s family likely having to surrender his bronzes and await the exchange for the silvers. Holcomb’s father and one of his sisters wore the bronze medals at his memorial service in May in Lake Placid, New York.

“It’s definitely a little bittersweet that Holcomb isn’t here to see this happening,” said Langton, who was with Holcomb for the two-man medal-winning ride in Sochi and was also in the four-man sled with Holcomb, Fogt and Tomasevicz. “He worked hard and he earned those medals. It would have been very nice if he had the chance to enjoy them.”

Zubkov has been at World Cup races this season as president of the Russian bobsled federation. Unless the ruling is overturned on appeal, he won’t be at the Pyeongchang Olympics this winter, or any other Olympics. The IOC says sanctions against him – and other athletes found to have doped – include lifetime banishment from the games.

The International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation provisionally suspended Russian skeleton athletes Aleksandr Tretiakov and Elena Nikitina from World Cup events – both won medals in Sochi that were stripped this week. It’s likely that a similar ban could be issued to the bobsledders involved in Friday’s IOC ruling, including Zubkov.

“It’s important to be able to move forward,” said USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele, also an executive with the IBSF. “No doubt about it.”

Pending the IBSF changing results as the IOC has asked, the two-man gold medal will now almost certainly go to Beat Hefti and Alex Baumann of Switzerland. The four-man gold medal would go to the Latvian sled driven by Oskars Melbardis and pushed by Arvis Vilkaste, Daumants Dreiskens and Janis Strenga.

Holcomb’s sleds would get the silver in both races. Russia would get the bronze in both, with driver Alexander Kasjanov – who had a pair of fourth-place showings in Sochi – set for the upgrade. Neither Kasjanov nor any member of his team has been sanctioned by the IOC in relation to the doping scandal.

Langton said he’s pleased that the process, which sliding athletes from countless countries have been monitoring in anticipation of the disqualifications, is finally nearing an end.

“I had faith that the people handling it would handle it appropriately,” Langton said.

Thomas Bach warns critics ahead of Russia decision