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

Russians stripped of Sochi Olympic skeleton medals; Uhlaender in line for bronze

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Sochi Olympic gold medalist Alexander Tretiyakov and bronze medalist Elena Nikitina of Russia were stripped of their skeleton medals for doping.

It puts the U.S. above Russia atop the Sochi Olympic total medal standings. American Katie Uhlaender is in line for her first Olympic medal.

A full IOC decision is here.

The IOC has stripped Russia of six of its leading 33 medals from the Sochi Winter Games after it commissioned investigations into reports of a state-sponsored doping program leading up to and during the Olympics.

Pending appeals, Latvian Martins Dukurs is in line to be upgraded to men’s skeleton gold, American Matthew Antoine to silver and Latvian Tomass Dukurs to bronze.

In the women’s event, Uhlaender could get her first Olympic medal from her third Games. She originally missed bronze by .04 in Sochi.

“I was half asleep,” Uhlaender said of learning the news at 6 a.m. at a World Cup stop in Whistler, B.C., according to ESPN.com. “I said to [U.S. coach] Tuffy [Latour], ‘Am I dreaming? Is this real?’ And then I got emotional.”

Tretiyakov and Nikitina, as well as two more Russian skeleton sliders sanctioned Wednesday, are disqualified from any future Olympics.

The Russian bobsled and skeleton federation president said the athletes will appeal, according to Russian news agency TASS.

Olga Potylitsina and Maria Orlova, Russians who were fifth and sixth in Sochi, also had their results stripped and were disqualified from future Winter Games.

Previously, the IOC stripped Russian cross-country skiers Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin of their five combined Sochi medals (one each of those medals was won together on a relay).

Russia Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov said he expects Russia to be stripped of its two- and four-man bobsled gold medals, too, according to TASS.

Ten Russian athletes total have been retroactively disqualified from the Sochi Olympics. The IOC will decide on Russia’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics on Dec. 5.

If all Sochi medals are reallocated, Russia will fall from first to third in the total medal standings. Norway and the U.S. would share the lead with 29 medals.

As it stands, without any reallocations yet, the U.S. has 28 medals, Russia has 27 and Norway has 26.

Tretiyakov and Nikitina were looking like medal contenders for PyeongChang.

Tretiyakov, a 32-year-old nicknamed the “Russian Rocket,” was fourth at last season’s world championships and ranked fourth in this season’s World Cup standings.

He was third in last season’s World Cup standings despite being suspended for one race in January.

Tretiyakov, Nikitina, Potylitsina and Orlova were all provisionally suspended for three weeks last December and January after the IOC began disciplinary proceedings for athletes with “evidence of manipulation of one or more of their urine samples” from Sochi.

The suspensions were lifted after nine days “due to a lack of evidence” from a World Anti-Doping Agency-commissioned report on Russian doping.

Nikitina, 25, leads this season’s World Cup standings after the first two races. She won last weekend’s race in Park City, Utah.

Uhlaender has been waiting for this decision for more than a year, since the first reports of widespread Russian doping from Sochi in spring 2016.

“I understand that it was a difference of culture and that the Russians don’t believe they did anything wrong,” Uhlaender said Wednesday, according to The Associated Press. “But this was the only way to fix it.”

The 33-year-old Uhlaender reportedly had an exchange with Nikitina on Facebook after Nikitina’s name appeared on an athlete list that guided Russian doping violations in Sochi.

“I am not on the list!” Nikitina told Uhlaender in 2016, according to The New York Times. “I hope that the truth will prevail! And the perpetrators of this scandal will be punished!”

Uhlaender said in a phone interview Wednesday that she and Nikitina have not communicated since those Facebook messages.

Both women took training runs in Whistler on Wednesday ahead of a World Cup race Friday.

“It was really awkward,” Uhlaender said. “Nikitina wouldn’t make eye contact with me. Yulia, her teammate, made dirty faces at me. I don’t think it’s worth engaging in. I know the Russians don’t think they did anything wrong, and they believe it’s a conspiracy.”

The International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation is still deciding whether to sanction the Russians. As of now, they’re eligible to race in any competition that’s not the Olympics.

Uhlaender shed more tears Wednesday in what’s already been an incredibly difficult 12 months.

On May 6, she was the first to find the late Steven Holcomb, a close friend, unresponsive in his Olympic Training Center room.

“I wish Steve was here,” Uhlaender said Wednesday, according to ESPN. “He would be so elated. He would have broken into my room and woken me up. I miss him so much.”

Last year, she suffered a life-threatening autoimmune attack which put her in and out of the hospital for six weeks.

Doctors asked Uhlaender for her next of kin, she said, according to the Deseret News.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I’m dying,’” Uhlaender said in September, according to the newspaper. “I couldn’t drink, couldn’t eat, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t sleep. … I was hallucinating. Every time I took a breath, it was like someone stabbed me or punched me, so I was having to breathe really shallow. That’s why I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”

Uhlaender returned to her lodging from training in Whistler on Wednesday to find her door decorated by teammate and close friend Lolo Jones. “Congrats Oly bronze!” it read in cutout letters.

She entered the room to find a bronze No. 3 balloon, flowers and a picture of Holcomb that she keeps.

Uhlaender doesn’t believe Nikitina should be allowed to race Friday. Nor should she have been allowed to race at all while she was being investigated, Uhlaender said.

She hasn’t had time to think about what will mean the most — this moment, or when the results are officially changed (that could take a while, pending a Nikitina appeal) or when the bronze medal is in her hands.

If there is a make-up medal ceremony, Uhlaender has one request.

“I would definitely want Noelle [Pikus-Pace] and Lizzy [Yarnold] there,” she said of the silver and gold medalists, adding that the retired Pikus-Pace was one of the well-wishers Wednesday.

Martins Dukurs is in line for the first Winter Olympic gold medal for Latvia and the fourth Olympic gold overall for the former Soviet republic.

He was the world No. 1 going into the 2010 and 2014 Olympics but ended up with silver at both Games behind host-nation sliders (Jon Montgomery, Tretiyakov). He has won six of the last seven world championships.

The Dukurs brothers would become the seventh set of siblings to win Winter Olympic medals in the same individual event, according to Olympic historians.

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Katie Uhlaender

When Katie Uhlaender returned from training at the World Cup stop in Whistler, B.C., on Wednesday:

Posted by NBC OlympicTalk on Thursday, November 23, 2017