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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McKayla Maroney, Tonga flagbearer among viral Olympic stars of 2010s decade

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NBCSports.com looks back at the 2010s this week. Here are 10 viral Olympic moments that defined the decade …

Vancouver 2010: Alexandre Bilodeau wins Canada’s first home gold, hugs brother
Canada went gold-less at both the 1976 Montreal Games and the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. A lot of thought was put into which athlete would earn its first title in Vancouver. It ended up being Bilodeau, who upset the defending champion and embraced his older brother, Frederic, who has cerebral palsy.

Vancouver 2010: Jon Montgomery’s celebratory drink after skeleton title
The Canadian came from behind to stun Latvian Martins Dukurs for gold. The scruffy car salesman/auctioneer then drank from a beer pitcher on a victory march through the Whistler ski village in one of the iconic moments of the Games.

London 2012: Queen/James Bond Opening Ceremony
Who could forget the Queen’s royal entrance into the London Olympic Stadium, “parachuting” in from above with the help of 007. Danny Boyle, the Oscar winner who directed the Opening Ceremony, originally thought an actress — perhaps Helen Mirren — would play the Queen in the skit, if approved by the royal family. “They came back and said, ‘We’re delighted for you to do it, and Her Majesty would like to be in it herself,’” Boyle said in 2013.

London 2012: McKayla Maroney not impressed
Stunned and upset that she was beaten for the Olympic vault title, Maroney became one of social media’s first major memes for her smirk on the podium. “I remember doing the face for literally two seconds,” Maroney said later. “Like, if you watch the video, it’s two seconds. And I remember thinking, did I just make a face? Because it’s natural. I do it all the time. I have pictures of me when I’m little doing it. I have it on my Mac computer when I’m like 13.”

Sochi 2014: Four-ring Opening Ceremony
By the third Olympics of the decade, everybody knew about hashtags. Among the more memorable #SochiProblems was an Opening Ceremony glitch where five snowflakes were supposed to open into five interlocking Olympic Rings. Only four did, leaving one snowflake that ended up looking like an asterisk. Organizers later made light of the mishap in the Closing Ceremony.

Sochi 2014: Johnny Quinn busts through bathroom
The U.S. bobsledder tweeted at 4:16 a.m. ET, “I was taking a shower and the door got locked/jammed…. …With no phone to call for help, I used my bobsled push training to break out. #SochiJailBreak.” And so Johnny Quinn became a social media sensation. He capitalized, training with a SWAT team (after the Games) and becoming a public speaker. Quinn, a former NFL preseason wide receiver, told his story in front of Fidelity Investments, school assemblies and LiftMaster, a suburban Chicago company whose products include garage-door accessories.

Rio 2016: Michael Phelps’ face
The swimming ready room in Rio became such a hit that a constant live stream was added to NBCOlympics.com’s wall-to-wall coverage. Phelps authored the best moment, stewing with a disgusted look as rival Chad le Clos shadow boxed in front of him. “I always know there’s two cameras in the upper right-hand corner right before I walk out, and I’m like sitting there, like spitting water,” Phelps said later. “As I’m making a face, I was like, yep, that’s on camera. … Someone will pick that one up tomorrow.”

Rio 2016: Usain Bolt’s mid-race smiles for cameras
In his last Olympics, the world’s fastest man created the most buzz while caught in still images in semifinals. Photos of Bolt — smiling while looking back at his 100m semifinal competitors mid-race — and exchanging glances with Andre De Grasse in the 200m semis — lit up social media. Tack them on to Bolt’s other viral moments, from crossing the finish line at the 2013 World Championships as lightning struck to getting run over by a Segway at the 2015 Worlds.

PyeongChang 2018: Tonga flag bearer Pita Taufatofua
Taufatofua actually debuted his shirtless, oiled-up Opening Ceremony appearance in Rio as a taekwondo athlete. But his journey to becoming a dual Summer/Winter Olympian is the stuff of legend. He traversed the globe picking up Olympic cross-country skiing qualifying points in Finland, Australia, Colombia and finally Iceland, clinching a spot thanks to the sport’s very lenient structure for athletes from nations without a Winter Olympic tradition. In PyeongChang, he braved near-freezing temperatures to again go shirtless at the Opening Ceremony. He then finished outside the top 100 in his ski race.

PyeongChang 2018: Here Comes Diggins!
The U.S.’ first Olympic cross-country skiing title changed the lives of not only Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall, but also NBC Olympics analyst Chad Salmela. The exuberant call from Salmela, who knew fellow Minnesota native Diggins since she was in high school, became the name of a new flavor at Selma’s Ice Cream Parlour in Diggins’ hometown of Afton.

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BEST OF 2010s: Summer Olympians | Winter Olympians | Teams
MOMENTS: Summer Olympics | Winter Olympics | Paralympics | Viral

USA Bobsled and Skeleton dismisses longtime CEO Darrin Steele

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USA Bobsled and Skeleton has fired CEO Darrin Steele, who oversaw teams that won nine Olympic medals and 12 world championship medals.

Steele will remain in place for about another month. The federation’s board of directors did not cite a specific reason for the change. Athletes were told in a conference call Tuesday night, and John Rosen will assume the CEO role on an interim basis until a permanent hire is made.

“This was a very difficult decision,” USABS board chair Bob Bergbauer said. “We are grateful for Darrin’s guidance, but the board feels it’s time for a fresh perspective as we head into the future.”

The news comes less than two months before the federation begins work for the coming season.

“Darrin did a great job and I’ll always appreciate everything he ever did for us,” USA Bobsled coach Mike Kohn said after the news was announced. “The thing about Darrin that a lot of people don’t understand is there’s a lot that goes on that people never know about, high-level things that take place that pave the way for people to be successful. That’s the thing Darrin was great about and great about helping me with.”

Steele was a two-time Olympic athlete in bobsled, and then took over as CEO in 2007. The U.S. sled driven by Steven Holcomb won four-man gold in Vancouver three years later, ending a 62-year drought for the Americans in bobsled’s signature race. Holcomb drove to two more medals at the Sochi Games in 2014, and U.S. women’s drivers Erin Pac, Elana Meyers Taylor (twice) and Jamie Greubel Poser all guided sleds to Olympic medals during Steele’s tenure as well. Noelle Pikus-Pace and Matt Antoine won Olympic skeleton medals, and for much of Steele’s tenure the federation enjoyed constant success.

But the last two years have been filled with one issue after another. Holcomb died in 2017, sending shock waves through the team and the entire federation. The bobsled and skeleton teams managed just one medal at the Pyeongchang Games in 2018, and last year’s World Cup season landed only eight medals — seven earned by the driving of Meyers Taylor, and the other a bronze in women’s skeleton by Kendall Wesenberg.

“I’m incredibly grateful for the past 12 years with USABS,” Steele said in a statement released by the federation. “I’ve been able to work with some amazing people and shared some incredible moments that I’ll never forget. I’m proud of the work we’ve done, and I wish the organization well as the baton is passed to the next federation leader.”

Steele is also a vice president for the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation, the sport’s governing body. He will remain in that role.

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