Katie Uhlaender (USA) competes during the women's official skeleton training of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Sanki Sliding Center.
John David Mercer
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — She’s her father’s daughter, no doubt. U.S. skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender is tough, fearless, determined and resilient.
Just like her dad.
Sadly, she didn’t realize it until he was gone.
A hard-nosed major league outfielder who raised his little girl to love baseball, Ted Uhlaender also taught Katie to work hard, dive headfirst into anything she tried and win. He died in 2009 of a heart attack after battling cancer, and less than a year later, she went to her second Olympics with a broken heart.
Katie Uhlaender didn’t know where to turn and arrived at the Vancouver Games with a mind filled with thoughts of doubt and guilt. She didn’t want to be there. One of the medal contenders, she finished a disappointing 11th, and in the days following her competition, the 29-year-old of Breckenridge, Colo., struggled to make sense of her life.
"I was mentally unstable and lost," she said. "I was trying to figure out how to live without my dad. He was the one I would always turn to when I started to freak out or panic or doubt myself.
"When I lost him I had no purpose."
That’s when Picabo Street entered her life. She’s been there ever since.
Through a mutual connection, Uhlaender was introduced to Street, a 1988 gold medalist in Alpine skiing. The two free spirits bonded immediately.
"She was in a real bad spot, a funky spot," Street said Monday at the Sanki Sliding Center, moments after giving Uhlaender a pep talk as she prepared for competition Thursday and Friday. "I grabbed her and we went for a walk and I asked her, `What’s up with you?’ She told me the whole story and told me that her father had passed and how hard of a time she was having. She was confused and I just became a friend to her."
More than that, Street helped fill the void left by her dad.
The first time they talked, Street, who has two children of her own, sensed Uhlaender was in serious trouble. Street’s instincts told her Uhlaender was sliding to a dark place.
"The first thing I told her was, `Look, dude, this too shall pass. Calm down, we’ll get there. Just settle down. You’re going to be all right,’" Street said.
"I thought she maybe was on a path to self-destruct and I was like, `No, dude, we’re going to be all right. We’re going to get through this.’ And that vulnerability, it hit me hard and I just kept real good track of her and stayed right on her."
Uhlaender now feels healed, whole.
Since taking up skeleton in 2003 after dabbling in other sports, she has overcome numerous injuries, including twice shattering her kneecap. She once raced an entire season with two broken bones in her foot and has undergone several surgeries on her knees and hip. In October, Uhlaender sustained a concussion during a training run in Lake Placid, N.Y., and only recently stopped having symptoms.
The injury contributed to an inconsistent World Cup season, but she’s healthy, focused and feeling energized for her third Olympics. She’ll race on a track where she finished second a year ago behind teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace, a medal favorite in Sochi after missing the podium by one-tenth of a second in 2010.
"She’s in a way better place and it took a while," Street said. "It would take a while for anybody to get there. Ted was her rock. He was her idol. He was her daddy. He played so many roles in her life and I think what has happened over the last four years is that she has realized that she’s her own person."
On Thursday, Uhlaender, her hair dyed American flag-red and wearing a helmet with a bald eagle painted on its front, will tear down the starting ramp and launch herself onto a sled that will reach 85 mph.
As always, her dad will be ride along. On a necklace, Uhlaender wears the 1972 National League championship ring Ted won with the Cincinnati Reds.
While learning to cope with his death, Uhlaender was drawn to the farm in Atwood, Kan., where Ted raised cattle. She goes there often and feels his spirit in the open spaces. She has grown to love farming and the 2012 world champion wants to one day own her own ranch.
Street has gone there, too, and seen it transform Uhlaender.
"There’s a peace about her there," she said. "Her brain moves slower. It’s a calming place for her. It’s become kind of this safe haven and she feels much love there. It’s raw and it’s real there."
After her father died, Uhlaender spread some of his ashes at Denver’s Coors Field. She took the rest to the farm, where Ted Uhlaender, baseball player, hunter, dad, was sent off in style by his little girl.
"We had the ceremony during pheasant season," she said. "We shot off a lot of guns and dynamite and spread the ashes. It was perfect."