The 250-meter indoor track at the VELO Sports Center in Carson, California, is steep -- banking at 45 degrees -- but Katie Uhlaender isn't fazed. It's early August, the first day of the USA Cycling National Championships. Uhlaender is a three-time Olympian and the 2012 world champion in skeleton - the sport where athletes hurl themselves down (face down!) a frozen track at speeds of 90 mph. She has ridden a bike for only four months, and she's competing against veterans who have cycled since childhood. But she loves to ride.
With a 1992 green Cannondale named "Oscar," after Oscar the Grouch on "Sesame Street," she aims to crack USA's Oympic cycling team. Though the odds are against her, the 31-year-old with fire-truck-red hair isn't afraid of failing. Not after sustaining a concussion when her front tire popped off in May. Not after overcoming 10 surgeries because of skeleton. Not after the death of her father, the late MLB player and coach Ted Uhlaender, who always urged her to go for it. "Do it right or don't do it at all," he often said.
The race begins. Uhlaender enters "the flow," a state she also occupies in skeleton competitions. "You start going down the track. You get the butterflies in your stomach and you start thinking, 'I don't know if I want to go any faster.' Then you realize you don't have any brakes," she said. "You have two choices at that point: embrace it or freak out. If you just embrace it, you end up enjoying the ride."
Katie Uhlaender found herself on a bike rather than a sled by chance. Rehabbing hip and ankle injuries at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado in January, she was completing stationary bike work when onlookers asked for her wattage and suggested she try cycling. Uhlaender had no intentions of abandoning skeleton, but moved to Dallas and gave cycling a shot. Having spent months out of competition, she hoped the new sport would provide the thrill she craved. "The only reason I'd say no is fear of failure," she said.
Uhlaender, who also entered the 2012 U.S. Olympic weightlifting trials but didn't make the team, embraces fear. At 19, she walked up to a woman in a gym and dared her to race. The woman was a bobsledder and suggested Uhlaender try skeleton. Uhlaender was terrified but dove in. "Anything that scared me, I had to face it," she said. So while others asked, "Why cycle?" Uhlaender countered, "Why not?"
Uhlaender had natural ability, but she was raw on the bike. "She didn't even know how to put her feet into the pedals," said Nelson Li, a track monitor at the Superdrome in Frisco, Texas, who helped coach her.
Uhlaender trained four times a week, four hours each day to develop speed endurance for the team sprint event, in which two cyclists race two laps in roughly 33 seconds. The lead rider peels off after the first lap and the second rider finishes the race. To train, she'd trail a motorcycle that accelerated from 20 to 38 mph, a difficult feat for a rookie rider. "She's a very strong, powerful and quick athlete, which translates well to the sprint discipline in cycling," said two-time Olympic cyclist Giddeon Massie, one of Uhlaender's friends. "For her, it's a matter of working out some of the mechanics of how to transfer that already-explosive ability into going fast on a bike."
Uhlaender pushed her body to the max to see how much it could take, because for the last decade of skeleton competition, it had failed her. In 2005 she broke her ankle, and she finished a disappointing sixth at the '06 Turin Winter Olympics. She then tore the ACL and MCL in her right knee in 2008 before shattering a kneecap in a snowmobile accident in 2009.
She hit rock bottom when her father, the one who understood her like no one else, died of a heart attack in 2009. She lost her identity and didn't know how to retrieve it. But the medals kept calling, even if the one who cheered the loudest for her in the crowd would not be there. Uhlaender managed to compete at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, but finished 11th.
She couldn't catch a break, suffering a concussion and lingering hip and ankle injuries before the 2014 Sochi Games. She felt powerless, unable to control her body. But while rehabbing at Carrick Brain Centers in Texas alongside military veterans, Uhlaender had an epiphany of sorts: If these men remained hopeful despite brain injuries and lost limbs, how could she not press on?
Although not back to 100 percent, she gave her all to finish fourth at Sochi, missing a medal by just 0.04 seconds. She was devastated. Soon after, she endured two surgeries (one hip, one ankle) and wondered if she had reached the end of the road. "Am I a quitter?" she thought. "I'm about to turn 30. I've had 10 surgeries. Am I done?"
That's when she found cycling. She moved to Dallas without a plan, a job or a place to train. But she had faith. In the words of ex-NFL linebacker David Vobora, who let Uhlaender train at his Dallas gym, the Performance Vault: "She has an immeasurable amount of fortitude and resilience to just say, 'Hey, I'm going to throw away the rear-view mirror -- good, bad or indifferent. I'm going to keep charging ahead because I'm true to myself and I'm true to what I stand for, and I believe that there's still more in my tank even though everybody on the outside doesn't believe it.'"
Uhlaender approached nationals, her cycling debut, with nothing to lose: "If I'm not fast enough, I'm not fast enough," she said. But it still stung when she fell short. Competing in the 500-meter team trial (twice the distance of the team sprint), she posted first-lap times of 21.00 seconds and 20.73 seconds in her two bouts -- but she needed to finish the 250 meters in under 19 seconds to be considered world class.
Making the 2016 Rio squad seems unlikely, and the U.S. may not even qualify in the team sprint. Nine nations qualify, and the U.S. is ranked No. 23 by the International Cycling Union. (The United States didn't qualify a women's team for the 2012 London Games.)
Uhlaender may pursue cycling as a secondary sport, but is now training for the 2015-16 skeleton World Cup team trials in October. She's eyeing the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Maybe Uhlaender chased a goal too lofty to achieve. But she loves the chase, even if it doesn't lead to her intended destination. She smiles, remembering a story about her father stepping into the batter's box for the first time at Yankee Stadium. Seeing Mickey Mantle in the outfield, hearing 50,000 fans scream, he panicked.
"Are you going to let the odds take you down or are you going to fight?" he'd told himself then, later offering the same words of wisdom to his daughter.
Embrace it or freak out.
"You have a choice. Are you going to try to hit the ball or are you going to quit? You've got to go into the batter's box ready to hit."
Enjoy the ride.