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

Steven Holcomb’s family and teammates set to collect 2014 medals at Team USA Awards

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Two years after his passing, Steven Holcomb remains a beloved figure in the U.S. bobsled community. Tonight in Los Angeles at the Team USA Awards, Holcomb will be honored once again when his team’s silver medals, reallocated after Russian medalists in 2014 were stripped of their medals due to doping offenses, are presented to his teammates and several members of his family.

Holcomb’s journey to Olympic stardom was long and difficult. He was born and raised in Park City, Utah, one of the epicenters of U.S. sliding sports, and just missed out on an opportunity to compete in the 2002 Olympics in his hometown at age 21.

Over the next 15 years, he won six overall World Cup titles and five world championships. He was still a consistent contender in his final season, finishing second in the two-man World Cup standings and third in the four-man.

He was also an inspirational figure in U.S. bobsled and skeleton from the beginning of his career. When he started sliding, his then-girlfriend, Tristan Gale, took up skeleton and won gold in 2002.

His shining moment was in 2010 in Vancouver, when he, Steve Mesler, Curt Tomasevicz and Justin Olsen became the first U.S. bobsledders to win gold in 62 years.

Getting to Vancouver itself was a miracle. He had been diagnosed with an eye problem called keratoconus that was robbing him of his sight. Though he adapted to driving by feel, the condition and the prospect of losing his bobsled career pushed him into depression, and he attempted suicide in 2007.

His vision was restored by eye surgeon Brian Boxer Wachler using a revolutionary technique now named after its most famous patient — Holcomb C3-R. He appeared with Boxer Wachler on the TV show “The Doctors” to talk about how the surgery changed his career and life, and he and Steve Eubanks wrote a book called “But Now I See: My Journey from Blindness to Olympic Gold.”

In the 2014 Olympics, he was on the podium again twice. Steve Langton was with him in the two-man and four-man, while Tomasevicz and Chris Fogt filled out the four-man squad.

Those medals are being exchanged for silver tonight at the Team USA Awards, where his teammates and fellow medalists will be joined by his parents and sisters.

Holcomb passed away in his sleep in May 2017 and was honored in an emotional tribute the next month at Utah Olympic Park.

And he’s still present at Utah Olympic Park in an unusual way. Rails from one of his bobsleds are now door handles at athlete housing.

The awards ceremony will also honor the top male and female Olympic and Paralympic athletes and teams of the year, along with the top national coaches and the winner of the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award.

Award finalists:

Olympic men 

  • Nathan Chen, figure skating
  • Caeleb Dressel, swimming
  • Brady Ellison, archery
  • Vincent Hancock, shooting
  • Noah Lyles, track and field

Olympic women 

  • Simone Biles, gymnastics
  • Adeline Gray, wrestling
  • Simone Manuel, swimming
  • Dalilah Muhammad, track and field
  • Mikaela Shiffrin, Alpine skiing

Olympic team 

  • Equestrian jumping
  • Women’s soccer
  • Women’s softball
  • Men’s 4x100m relay, track and field
  • Women’s water polo

Paralympic men 

  • Joe Berenyi, Para-cycling
  • Noah Elliott, Para snowboarding
  • Robert Griswold, Para swimming
  • Daniel Romanchuk, Para track and field
  • Ben Thompson, Para archery

Paralympic women 

  • Kendall Gretsch, Para Nordic skiing and paratriathlon
  • Oksana Masters, Para Nordic skiing and Para-cycling
  • Allysa Seely, paratriathlon
  • Leanne Smith, Para swimming
  • Deja Young, Para track and field

Paralympic team 

  • Men’s Para archery
  • Women’s sitting volleyball
  • Sled hockey
  • Men’s wheelchair basketball
  • Men’s wheelchair rugby

The ceremony will be broadcast on NBC at 3 p.m. ET Dec. 22.

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