U.S. women’s skeleton slider Katie Uhlaender has high hopes and a very realistic chance of being in Pyeongchang, South Korea, at this time next year, for what would be her fourth chance to compete in a Winter Olympics.
She’ll be trying to win her first Olympic medal.
That is, unless one arrives in the mail beforehand.
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Uhlaender finished in fourth place at the Sochi Games three years ago, behind Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold, U.S. teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace and Russia’s Elena Nikitina – an athlete who was temporarily suspended by skeleton’s governing body earlier this season over ”an alleged anti-doping rule violation” at those Olympics.
The probe into Russia’s state-sponsored doping program continues, and if the International Olympic Committee concludes that Nikitina was among the athletes who had doping samples doctored as part of that scandal at the Sochi Games, then it would almost certainly order her medal reallocated to the next finisher.
That would be Uhlaender, who is left to wait and see what’s going to happen.
”I’ve held my integrity. Maybe it was a blessing so that I didn’t quit,” Uhlaender said. ”I have one title left to win. I’ve won every title there is in this sport. There’s one left. If I do that, I think I can walk away from this sport fulfilled. And the bronze, if it was awarded to me, it would motivate me even more to just prove that I deserved it.”
There’s no timetable for when the IOC could decide on what to do with the Russian athletes who won medals in Sochi and were implicated in the scandal. And if Uhlaender does get the medal, it’s not like she gets to go back to Sochi, climb onto the medal stand and see the U.S. flag swaying in her honor.
”You don’t get that moment back,” said longtime U.S. bobsledder and close friend Steven Holcomb. ”It’s a shame.”
Uhlaender has been the overall World Cup champion, won the world title at Lake Placid in 2012 and is the only woman in her sport – where sliders go headfirst down an icy mountainside chute at speeds that can exceed 80 mph – to win gold, silver and bronze medals at the world championships in her career.
All that has come in a career marred by personal tragedy (notably the death of her father just before the 2010 Vancouver Games), numerous injuries (many of which threatened her career), a concussion and most recently a nasty infection that kept her off the ice for the first part of this season and left her hospitalized.
The tribulations, she insists, have brought her peace and perspective.
”It’s been a long and hard road back,” Uhlaender said. ”I’m trying to not take it too seriously, not get too stressed about something I can’t control, it’s all about just enjoying every moment and I think that’s how you go fast on a skeleton sled.”
Bobsled’s and skeleton’s world championships start this week in Konigssee, Germany. They were originally slated to be held in Sochi, then moved late last year after many sliders said they would skip worlds unless they were moved – a direct response to the Russian scandal. To explain the move, the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation said it wanted ”a competition that focuses on sport rather than accusations and discussions.”
Uhlaender won’t be competing. Doomed in part by missing the first half of the season with that illness, Uhlaender didn’t make the U.S. team heading to worlds; Annie O’Shea, Kendall Wesenberg and Savannah Graybill qualified over her.
Given what she’s gone through health-wise, not making worlds is a mere bump in the road.
”I’m here, I’m alive and I’m happy,” Uhlaender said. ”I’m done with the comeback stories. I’m here to do my best and be awesome.”
She’s also fighting for clean sport, more than ever.
Uhlaender has not made this personal, and she isn’t attacking Nikitina. But she – like many athletes – are wondering why the decisions regarding how to deal with implicated Sochi medalists is taking so long.
”You don’t want to win on a disqualification,” Uhlaender said. ”I’ve never wanted to win like that. I want to win at my best and everyone else at their best and on an even playing field. Anyone behind me, if they were doping, it doesn’t matter. I want to show you can do it clean, that clean athletes still have a shot. That’s the spirit of sport.”