Steven Holcomb

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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Steven Holcomb’s mother honors son, teammates with speech after accepting Olympic silver medals

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Steven Holcomb‘s teammates and his family were honored in a medal reallocation ceremony at the Team USA Awards last month, after being upgraded to Sochi Olympic silver medals after the disqualifications of Russian sleds due to doping.

Holcomb, who in 2010 drove the first U.S. bobsled to Olympic gold in 62 years, died in his sleep in May 2017 at age 37.

In 2014, Holcomb and Steven Langton rode to two-man bronze. Holcomb, Langton, Curt Tomasevicz and Chris Fogt teamed for four-man bronze. The Russian sleds that originally finished first were later disqualified for doping and the results adjusted.

Holcomb’s mother, Jean Schaefer, capped the ceremony with a speech in front of a room of Olympians and Paralympians. The full transcript from her speech at the awards show, which aired on NBC on Sunday:

I am honored to be the voice of Steven tonight. I tried to imagine what Steven would say and what he would be feeling. I think Steven would be feeling extreme excitement and pride — silver medals for his team and for his country. The reward of dedication and just plain hard work. A sense of satisfaction to be recognized as competitors with integrity. A deep gratitude to his teammates, Chris, Steve, Curt, with whom he shares this honor. Gratitude. Gratitude to the team behind the team, the USOPC. Gratitude to the Bo-Dyn project, who first recognized there is a need for a competitive bobsled. Gratitude to [former U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton CEO] Darrin Steele for his leadership and his support. Gratitude to Coach Brian Shimer, who is so much more to Steven than just a coach. He’s a true friend. And, finally, gratitude to [U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Marketing and Communications Director] Amanda Bird, who always kept his family up to date. Finally, I’d like to share with you: these are the flowers from the medal ceremony in Sochi. They were carefully packed in a silver shoe box — yes, silver — to journey all the way from Russia to Steven’s mom in Colorado. They say so much about Steven Holcomb as a man. He was thoughtful, dedicated, kind. A man who had a passion for the bobsled. We love you, Steven, and we miss you. Thank you.

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MORE: Top U.S. bobsledder pregnant, to miss season

Nathan Chen, Simone Biles, U.S. women’s soccer team win Team USA Awards

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Simone Biles was named female athlete of the year and Nathan Chen took the corresponding award for men Tuesday at the Team USA Awards in Los Angeles.

Six-time Olympic swimming champion Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who has taken up wheelchair CrossFit competition since an ATV accident in 2014 left her paralyzed from the waist down, took the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award. She works to help other people with spinal cord injuries through the Amy Van Dyken Foundation and Amy’s Army, which has launched a Wheels for Kids program to help injured children find wheelchairs that may not be covered by insurance.

The show also included a medal ceremony in which the teammates and family of the late Steven Holcomb received silver medals that were reallocated after doping infractions changed the results of the 2014 Olympic bobsled competition.

MORE: Holcomb’s legacy lives on 

Award winners from the ceremony:

Female Olympic athlete of the year: Simone Biles, gymnastics 

Biles took a one-year break after winning four gold medals and a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics, then came back to do even better, unleashing new skills on the balance beam and in the floor exercise. This year, she won five gold medals at the world championships, breaking the record for career medals.

Female Paralympic athlete of the year: Oksana Masters, Para Nordic skiing and Para cycling 

Already an eight-time Paralympic medalist in Nordic skiing, biathlon and rowing, Masters had a breakout year in cycling, taking silver medals in the world championships. In Nordic skiing, Masters took five world championships (three cross-country, two biathlon) and the overall World Cup championship in sitting cross-country along with a second-place overall finish in biathlon.

Male Olympic athlete of the year: Nathan Chen, figure skating 

Chen had a double back-to-back year, winning his second straight world championship and his second straight Grand Prix final. He also started his 2019-20 season by winning both of his Grand Prix events. He and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu are far ahead of any other skaters in posted scores this season.

Male Paralympic athlete of the year: Ben Thompson, Para archery 

Thompson took the world championship and the No. 1 ranking in the men’s compound event and led the U.S. to a world record in the team compound event.

Olympic team of the year: U.S. women’s soccer team 

The team claimed the sport’s biggest prize for the second straight time, working its way through a difficult field that included a quarterfinal matchup with host France to win the World Cup once again, adding to its previous wins in 1991, 1999 and 2015.

Paralympic team of the year: U.S. sled hockey team 

Like the women’s soccer team, the sled hockey team went unbeaten in the world championships and claimed a fourth world title.

MORE: Golden goal clinches championship

Olympic coach of the year: KiSik Lee, archery 

This year, Brady Ellison won a world title and set a world record in the Pan Am Games, and Ellison teamed with Casey Kaufhold to win the world title in the mixed team event, which will be on the Olympic program in 2020.

Paralympic coach of the year: Wesley Johnson, paratriathlon 

The founder and head coach of Balanced Art Multisport in Salt Lake City, Johnson is the personal coach of three top-10 paratriathletes, and he served as an assistant coach in the world championships, where three of the athletes he coached won silver medals.

NBC will have highlights of the show at 2 p.m. ET Dec. 22.

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