Katie Uhlaender takes advice of best friend into Olympics: Be you

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — At first Steve Holcomb as much as anything was a challenge to a young woman who had never ducked one in her life and had the scars to prove it.

By the time skeleton rider Katie Uhlaender arrived at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York more than a decade ago bobsledder Holcomb was already a legendary recluse.

“He was a hermit and wouldn’t come out of his (dorm) room and I was brand new to the training center and I was just like ‘Ah, this dude needs to come out of his shell,’”  Uhlaender recalled. “So so every day I would knock on his door and invite him to do things.”

She finally lured Holcomb out of the dorm with the prospect of driving a push cart, normally used for dry land training, around the complex.

“We were running around the OTC and riding it around the hallways then we were like, ‘Let’s take it out to the parking lot,’” said Uhlaender, who competes in her fourth Olympic Games this week.

At one point Holcomb, who would go on to win a gold medal at the 2010 Olympic Games in the 4-man bobsled, got caught up in the moment.

“He went hard, he pushed the thing super fast and jumped on it, like this 220 pound dude on this plastic sled,” Uhlaender growing more excited as she recounted the story.

“And he started cruising so fast down the parking lot that he didn’t see there was this pothole,” she continued laughing so hard that she had to catch her breath, “and he hit it and everything exploded and he started rolling and I died laughing. We named the pothole ‘Holcomb’s Hole.’

“That was the first moment where we really became best friends. Like from that day on we hung out like every day and it was epic.”

Again she gave in to laughter at the memory and then tried to catch her breath..

“I think they filled (the hole) in now.”

Unlike the hole Holcomb’s death last May left in her heart.

***

Even before Holcomb’s death, Uhlaender was no stranger to tragedy or trials.

Her path to the 2018 Olympic Games and this week’s skeleton competition is littered with 15 years of injuries and illnesses, Holcomb’s death, like that of her father, former major leaguer Ted Uhlaender, nine years ago, adding heartbreak to broken bones.

Uhlaender, the 2012 World champion, has overcome each obstacle with an uncommon resiliency only to seemingly find another challenge around the next turn.

“Katie, she’s been through surgeries, concussions, liver damage, her father, Holcomb,” said John Daly, Uhlaender’s U.S. teammate.” She’s a trooper. No matter what she has her ups and downs but I don’t think anything is going to keep her from sliding or keep her from winning. Katie, she’s short but we all look up to her.”

At last count she has undergone 12 surgeries. And that doesn’t count the autoimmune illness that nearly killed her in November 2016.

“Thank the Lord (the U.S. Olympic Committee) provides (insurance),” she cracked, “because I don’t know if anyone else would pick me up.”

With her father’s baseball card taped to the bottom of her sled, she finished fourth at the 2014 Olympics, missing the bronze medal by four-hundreths of a second. The race recently pushed Uhlaender unwittingly into the center of the Russian doping scandal.

Russia’s Elena Nikitina , who edged Uhlaeneder for the bronze medal, was among the Russian athletes banned for life and stripped of their Sochi results by the International Olympic Committee in December after an investigation found they had been part of a widespread doping system orchestrated and financed by the highest levels of Russian sport.

Uhlaender and much of the Olympic movement thought she became the bronze medalist. But shortly before the 2018 Games, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the IOC ban and disqualifications.

Uhlaender was back in fourth place.

“I’m so tired of the sad story and all these challenge I keep facing,” she said. “But at the same time those are the moments where I do stop and I think and I find the moments of relief and I focus on that. And I think ‘OK, how do I make sure I don’t make the same mistakes? How do I learn from this?’”

In Holcomb she found a mentor who gave her lessons to live by.

Since his death, she has been guided by advice he gave to her in the hospital as she battled back from her near death experience.

“I was getting down on myself and like you said this stuff keeps happening to me and I started to get into this negative snowball,” Uhlaender said. “And he said, ‘Look, you need to be you. You’re getting into this negative thing that happened when you lost your father. You know you’re not your father. You need to do you and be the fierce woman he raised you to be and that’s how you honor him.’”
“And so knowing he said that to me and passed shortly afterwards what else would he have said to me? So I have peace knowing my best friend was an Olympic champion and believed I could be. And that just boosts my confidence and motivates me more and the only way I can continue both my father’s legacy and my best friend’s is to do what he said. I have to maximize what I have and live to my life to my fullest because that’s why were friends. That’s what drew us together.”

***

The sport she chose reflects her personality. Uhlaender lives life the way her father’s Cincinnati Reds teammate Pete Rose slid into the bases — head first.

She is a human rocket of cherry red hair, energy, ambition, defiance, raw power and guts; a personality that simply cannot be contained in her 5-feet-3, 135-pound frame. Holcomb, a hulk of a man, never had a chance.

“They were friends from the get go,” said U.S. bobsledder Carlo Valdes. “Whenever you saw Steve you better believe Katie’s nearby.

“They shared their successes together, they were doing well at the same time.”

They both won World Championships in 2012, Uhlaender in the skeleton, Holcomb winning titles the 2-man, 4-man and team competition to go with his 2010 Olympic gold medal.

Uhlaender was determined to join Holcomb on the medal podium two years later, driven by the need to honor her father’s memory and make up for a meltdown at the 2010 Vancouver Games a year after his death.

“Her redemption and comeback to fulfill that dream for him,” said former U.S. bobsled athlete Jazmine Fenlator, Uhlaender’s one-time roommate at the OTC in Lake Placid.

Holcomb took a pair of bronze medals in Sochi and then was there for Uhlaender when she missed her a bronze of her own in less than a blink of an eye.

Uhlaender was asked how long it took her to get over the Sochi disappointment?

“Who says I’m over it,” she responded.

Uhlaender was by Holcomb’s side as he battled Keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease which impacted his life on and off the track and led to bouts of depression. Holcomb was open about his depression including a suicide attempt.

Holcomb underwent a non-invasive surgical procedure called corneal collagen cross linking (C3-R) to stabilize the disease then a year later underwent a procedure where implantable corrective lenses were inserted.

“When I met him he was squinting at all the time,” Uhlaender said. “When he could finally see, I was like, ‘Still like it?’”

The procedure was renamed Holcomb C3-R after his Olympic triumph in Vancouver. It was the first time a medical procedure was known to be named after an Olympic athlete.

“We were just there for each other,” Uhlaender said. “And I swear if anyone got a hold of the WhatsApp chats that we had for the last seven years it would be mortifying because my entire life, deepest, darkest secrets are there. No judgment, nothing. And it made it easy to sift through all the crap because if I could tell him the worst thoughts in my head and make sense of it then it was OK and I did the same for him. It was just special.

“We got each other and it wasn’t a dating thing. If we’d ever gone there we would have lost the friendship we had. We loved each other unconditionally. It was a joke but I told him ‘alright dude if I’m 40 and I’m still single, he was my backup.’ All right I might as well marry my best friend. I don’t know how to explain our friendship. We were close and our paths never grew apart. We were in it together.

“We understood what we were chasing after, we understood all the things.”

Holcomb maintained Uhlaender’s need to honor her father’s memory was a burden on her. At all times she wears around her neck his 1972 National League Champions ring on one chain, a small metal baseball containing his ashes on another necklace. Before races she takes the two memorials from their place next to her heart and tucks them into the back of her sports bra. She found peace and inspiration in the routine, believing her father was with her through each turn. She grew up trying to meet Ted Uhlaender’s exacting standards and into her 30s, nearly a decade after his death, she was still trying to live up to him.

But Holcomb told her that her determination to be her father’s daughter was preventing her from being her own person.

Fighting off death, she finally got the message.

Uhlaender was training in Park City, Utah, Holcomb’s hometown when she started feeling sick in November 2016. After first doctors told her she had the flu. She flew to Vancouver to train in Whistler thinking her symptoms would improve. When it didn’t she flew to Colorado Springs where a friend seeing picking her up at the airport saw her condition and immediately drove her to the emergency room. The move probably saved her life.

Seven hours after checking in, her liver enzymes were at alarming levels. She couldn’t eat, drink or sleep. Her temperature hovered at 106 degrees for days, she said.

“And I couldn’t breathe because my liver swelled so much and nobody knew what was going on,” she said.

Uhlaender was given an IV.

“Which saved my life and because of the state of my liver I couldn’t take any drugs, I couldn’t sleep it was one of the most surreal experiences I‘ve ever had because I was in so much pain,” she said. “Once the doctors came and said is there anyone we should contact. I said what are you talking about? I’m in the hospital. Where else do I need to go?

“Then I realized they thought I was dying.”

Eventually she recovered. She was put on Prednisone, a synthetic corticosteroid that is used as an immunosuppressant drug.

“It made my crazy and I gained a ton of weight, Prednisone is something that messes with your my emotions. Couldn’t sleep. I was having panic attacks. I went on the World Cup and I was having to take Valium and Ambien to sleep. I literally came out of the hospital and hadn’t slid in six weeks. I was the weakest I’d ever been and had to race in World Cup. But I was fully recovered.”

And with Holcomb’s help she had a new view of her life.

“When I realized that I was actually dying,” she said. “I didn’t panic. I just realized I’ve lived a wonderful life. I’ve done so many things. I have so many great people in my life and I was just like if it’s OK to check out, I’m OK with that. Which was really weird. I thought I’d be scared but I wasn’t.  But it also showed me that now that I didn’t die I have more to live and there are more memories I can create thinking about what Holcomb said about being that woman I was raised to be fierce, doing me and unapologetically, radically truthful with myself about what I want and what I want to do, embracing the negative, the positive, it’s me, that’ s who I am and I love it and I have no apologies for it and that has created a whole new approach to how I live life. I’m not perfect. I’m just real.”

South Korea would be for her. And always Holcomb would be there by her side.

“We always said we were lifers,” she said. “He took that a little too seriously in my opinion.”

It was Uhlaender who discovered Holcomb’s body in his Lake Placid dorm room May 6.

“I found him,” she said.

“I knew something was wrong. Like he didn’t talk to me in two days which was weird. So I broke in.”

A toxicology report found Holcomb had a fatal combination of alcohol and prescription sleeping pills in his system at the time of his death. His blood alcohol level was 0.188, above the level of intoxication. The report also found a higher than normal dosage of Lunesta, a sleeping pill in his system.

An Essex County coroner’s investigation into the death was not released after Holcomb’s family threatened to sue, according to published reports.

“It was an accident,” Uhlander said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he wanted to be here.”

With Holcomb gone, Uhlaender has found a mentor in another star-crossed Olympian, speed skater Dan Jansen.

Jansen was a heavy favorite to win the 500 and 1,000 meter races at the 1988 Games. But the morning of the 500 he found out that his sister  Jane Marie Beres had died of leukemia. He decided to race, only to crash. He also crashed in the 1,000. He failed to medal again four years later at the 1992 Games. It wasn’t until the 1994 Olympics that Jansen finally won the 1,000 title, setting a world record in the process.

“I ran into him in Sochi and I was like man how do you deal with people asking are you going to go again?” Uhlaender said. “I lost by four-hundredths of a second and I’m supposed to go another four years? I’m tired of being the sad story and then he told me his story and I had no idea he had lost his sister and it took him four Olympic Games to win a gold medal.

“And he said take it day by day and do the best you can each day. Sometimes when I have hard times I call him and we talk it out. He’s been a huge mentor to me especially with the loss of Holcomb and having to deal with grief and making sure I don’t go to far into the mental state, like I have to do this for him. That’s not the right way. You have to do it for yourself.”

And she continues to receive direction from Holcomb in Pyeongchang both on  and off the track.

“I have all his lines for Korea,” she said referring to the Olympic sliding course. “I have all of them. Because we dialed in that track together, so those are things we would do, go through the curves.”
Uhlaender will tackle those curves alone, doing it not for her father, not for Holcomb but for herself, realizing now that that’s how they both would have wanted it.

She was asked what the last thing Holcomb said to her was?

“I love you,” she said, her voice breaking.

Tears began rolling down her cheeks and she took two deeps breaths.

“Dang it,” she said before her voice broke again.

She pulled out her cell phone and read a message Holcomb sent her while she was hospitalized.

“OK I’m going to be real. You’re not Ted, you’re Katy. You’re aren’t your father. You are you. Do you. Be you. Stop being the girl your dad guarded and be a woman who sprouted and became the force he wanted. Katy.

“The only way to move forward is to let go and embrace all of what you are. Face the reality and move forward.”

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