Uhlaender ready to write own destiny
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- On the day that scared her more than any other, Katie Uhlaender was out of answers. In her apartment in Lake Placid, N.Y., her blinds were drawn shut. The television was turned off. She couldn't take it anymore.
Two weeks earlier, on a training run at the Lake Placid Sliding Center, the 29-year-old skeleton athlete slammed her head against the wall in Turn 7. Three turns later, she slammed it again. The rest of the way down the 19-turn track her head pinballed back and forth off the rock-hard ice. When her sled finally came to a stop, she knew. She told her coach: "I have a concussion."
Doctors told her she'd be back to normal in no more than a week. But now almost two weeks had passed and she was still miserable. Her eyes were sensitive to light. She couldn't watch television. She couldn't drink coffee. The slightest bit of exercise would make her dizzy, filling her head with unrelenting pressure.
She would sit, at home, in the dark, bored. For a woman who is typically a constant blur of motion, it was hell. After everything she had dealt with in the past, after the surgeries and funerals and psychological struggles, 2013-14 was supposed to be her season of redemption. But her head wouldn't cooperate.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'If this is what life is going to be like now, I wouldn't mind just checking out,'" she said.
There is perhaps no human relationship in the world more precious than a father and his daughter. And Katie Uhlaender's bond with her dad was, indeed, one-of-a-kind. An eight-year major league outfielder with the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds, Ted Uhlaender's parenting style could best be described as old-school. Coddling was not a concept he thought highly of.
Instead, he believed in constantly pushing his daughter. He ordered her not to throw like a girl. When they would race, he refused to ever let her win. Think Clint Eastwood in "Trouble With the Curve."
"When I saw that movie I didn't understand why people thought it was so strange," Katie said. "That was me and my dad."
When the little girl would fall or struggle or think about quitting, her dad was always right there. Not with a hand or a pat on the back, but with advice. Words that still rattle around in her head today.
You have to earn everything you get.
Are you going to quit or are you going to get back up and try again?
Be a warrior.
The end result was a woman who grew up to be an intense, motivated and fiercely competitive athlete. In 2003, at age 19, Uhlaender began racing skeleton, quickly becoming a track junkie, harassing coaches and workers for insights she would pen into a notebook. Three weeks after her debut she became a U.S. Junior champion. Five weeks after that she was a U.S. champion. With her dad cheering every victory along the way, she'd go on to medal at the World Championships in 2007 and 2008.
But in 2008 Ted was diagnosed with cancer. Over the course of the next year, Katie watched her father gradually deteriorate, day by day. On the morning of Feb. 12, 2009, she called him like she did before every race. As always, his words prompted focus from his daughter. But a few hours after their conversation, Ted Uhlaender died of a heart attack at the age of 69. The decision was made not to tell Katie until after her race. She finished second.
I was angry. I had no passion to go to the Olympics. I didn't want a medal. I wanted my Dad.Katie Uhlaender
This is where her downward spiral began. The next week Katie stood at the start line of the World Championships and looked to the spot where her dad promised he would be. He wasn't there. Neither was her mom, who had overslept. "It was the first time I realized I was alone," she said. "And I have to continue life without him."
She was angry. Frustrated. Sad. And began making rebellious decisions. Six weeks after her father's death, she crashed her snowmobile.
"It was like, 'I know you told me not to do this but I'm going to go out there and do it now because I can,'" she said. "I still wonder if I purposely crashed. I was in such a state of chaos I didn't care. I would just go do something, and whatever happened, I didn't care about the consequences."
After the sled came to a stop, she pulled up her pant leg to survey the damage. It wasn't good. "My leg looked like a crumpled piece of paper," she said.
The hardware doctors installed in her knee tore her quad tendon. After recovering, she bumped knees with another woman while dancing and shattered her kneecap again. There was another surgery. Two more screws. It was during those procedures that she contacted sepsis.
Through all this chaos, Uhlaender headed to Vancouver for the 2010 Games as a medal contender. But Opening Ceremonies were on Feb. 12, 2010 -- the one-year anniversary of her father's death. She couldn't handle the coincidence. When her day came to race, she was an emotional wreck. She finished 11th.
"I was angry," she said. "I had no passion to go to the Olympics. I didn't want a medal. I wanted my dad."
Late last September, at a cushy Park City, Utah, resort where the U.S. team gathered for its pre-Olympic media festival, Uhlaender bounced from interview to interview, telling anyone who would listen that she was back. The psychological struggles of the past were behind her and this season was hers. No, she couldn't promise Olympic gold. But she was going to make damn sure there would be no more beating herself. She was ready.
Uhlaender had former Olympic medalist Picabo Street to thank, as it was Street who pulled Uhlaender aside in Vancouver and insisted she would be fine. It was simple, but it helped. Street told her she just needed to get out of her own head for a while.
"I was shattered into pieces," Uhlaender said. "I needed to be put back together into a mosaic."
She made a conscious effort to think positive, not harp on the past and use her dad's memory as an inspiration instead of an obstacle. In 2012, Uhlaender won the Skeleton World Championship. Entering this season, she felt she was in the best shape of her life. She felt invincible, physically and mentally.
"I may have not done what I wanted in Vancouver," she said that day in Park City. "But life is what it is. It hits you. I'm going to get up, move forward and rise above the challenges. I'm going to make my comeback in Sochi.
"I want to inspire people like [my dad] did. I want to lift people up and help them rise up and conquer their own challenges so they feel invincible. That's what he did for me. He made me feel like a warrior. I want to do that for other people."
Two weeks later, in Turn 7 in Lake Placid, her words were put to the ultimate test.
In Lake Placid, the day of Oct. 15, 2013, was one of those warm fall days when summer seemingly refuses to let go. The temperatures hovered in the low 60s, drips of ice were falling off the tops of the corners onto the track. Uhlaender was uneasy about training that day. She pushed through anyway.
"The track was horrible," she said. "Somebody shouldn't have let us slide."
After her accident, she was angry. In the days and weeks that followed, she wallowed in depression. She was sensitive to light. She saw tracers in her vision. If she stood too quickly, she felt like she was going to pass out. Her blood pressure was erratic. She ate poorly.
"It felt like I was constantly PMS-ing," she said. "I said at one point, 'I don't know if it's my ovaries or my brain.' I didn't understand concussions. I thought you hit your head, take a week off and you're good to go. I had no idea there was a chemical component as well."
Added Tuffy Latour, her coach: "She wasn't the same person. The intensity level wasn't there. She was a bit more mellow. She was forgetting things. It wasn't her."
And then that day in her room, suicide entered her mind. Just as quickly, the thought went away. It scared her. "It was like, 'Did I really just think that? Where did that come from?'" she said. "I was depressed. I needed some help."
American bobsled driver Steve Holcomb, one of Uhlaender's closest friends, had battled depression earlier in his career. The two talked. Uhlaender then underwent brain wave and massage therapy in Canada. Doctors cleared her to begin the season at the World Cup race in Calgary in November. She finished 12th. A week later, one day before a World Cup race in Park City, she woke up unable to turn her head. She raced anyway, finishing 14th.
The results were frustrating. And she still didn't feel quite like herself. She pondered retirement.
"I'm a world champion so anything other than kicking everyone's ass just sucks," Uhlaender said. "Coming in 12th, 14th and ninth was a punch to the gut every week. I told Tuffy, 'I'm not here to just go. I have more to live for. If my brain needs a break I'm going to give it a break.' It broke my heart to say it but I meant it."
After Park City, she sought answers at the Carrick Brain Center in Texas, the place that helped NHL star Sidney Crosby return to the ice. There, she underwent therapy in which they asked her to stare at a moving, multi-colored dot.
"I thought they were full of crap," she said. "But at the same time I had nothing to lose."
The dot therapy worked. On Jan. 18 in Austria, Uhlaender and teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace were named to the U.S. Olympic women's skeleton team. It should have been a moment to celebrate. Instead, it was a nightmare.
Pikus-Pace had dominated the season, winning four of the season's seven races and finishing second in two other events. At the news conference that day, Uhlaender was all but ignored. The media wanted to talk to Pikus-Pace about her yearlong rivalry with Great Britain's Lizzie Yarnold, the World Cup champion. Afterward, Uhlaender broke down in tears.
"The best way to describe it is if I was a woman and was barren and my best friend had a baby," Uhlaender said. "I was happy for her. But I was crying inside. I knew I was capable of winning as well. I thought it was going to be her and I back and forth all season."
After the interviews, Latour sat down with Uhlaender to console her in hopes of getting her mind right in the lead-up to Sochi.
"You could just tell she felt like everyone else was in a much better place than she was at that moment," Latour said. "And she was right -- they were. I told her she had a right to be angry. And she should use that anger to help her achieve the goals that are still there for her."
The next week in Koenigsee, Germany, Uhlaender was winning training sessions. She and Latour agreed Uhlaender had a chance to medal. But the morning of the race, snow. She finished 16th. She was furious. Yet at the same time, she could laugh about it. She jokingly told Pikus-Pace, a devout Mormon, she was converting.
"I told her, 'Obviously, God likes you more,'" Uhlaender said. "I'm going to be Mormon."
She thought she was invincible. She thought she had done everything right. No snowmobiling. No skiing. No diving off cliffs. And yet the world reminded Uhlaender that nothing is guaranteed, no matter what you think the world might owe you.
This week, Uhlaender bounced around the Sanki Sliding Center this week with her trademark red hair atop her head and a smile stretched across her face. Latour has reminded her that an athlete makes his or her own luck. There are good days and bad -- everyone has both -- but it's how you respond that matters most.
The rest of the world has mostly written Uhlaender off here during the Olympic skeleton championships in Sochi on Thursday. But she's the track record holder. She finished second in the test race here last season. And in four training runs this week she has finished fifth, eighth, sixth and eighth.
"Everything is lining up for her," Latour said. "She'll make her own destiny."
That's something her father would have told her if he were still around. Suck it up. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Go kick some ass.
"I've tried to learn that sometimes s--- just happens," Uhlaender said. "It's just like stepping up to the plate. The odds are against you every single time you dig in. Are you going to run away and quit? Or are you going to hit that ball and chase your dreams? I've already been through everything. Now is the easy part. I just need to go do what I do."