PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA — At some point this year, Katie Uhlaender decided the best way to confront her grief would be to accept it. She had constructed her worldview on applying calculation to hazardous circumstances with unknown outcomes, to achieving peace amid chaos. She throws herself down icy tracks and ragged mountains and calls herself a “seeker” — not of thrills but of what lies within her. What Uhlaender is really after when on top of a skeleton sled is a full embrace of the moment — and of herself.
How, though, to reconcile that approach with the unthinkable? In May, while training for her fourth Olympics and still grappling with competitive heartache from the third, her outlook grew complicated and sad beyond comprehension. Her best friend, Olympic champion bobsledder Steve Holcomb, stopped responding to messages for two days. She knew something was off and that something might be wrong. She forced her way into his room at the training center in Lake Placid, N.Y. She found Holcomb lying motionless on a bed. He had, she would later learn, a toxic combination of alcohol and drugs in his system, which friends and family believe was accidental. At 37, he was dead.
Holcomb’s death upended the USA Bobsled and Skeleton teams and crushed Uhlaender.
“Grief sucks,” Uhlaender said. “It makes you feel crazy. The most random things will make you feel sad or angry or all the emotions. And you just have to sit with them. And it’s painful. But I’m not going to let it stop me. All of those emotions are part of me, and I love me. So I’m going to maximize that and bring it to the line to honor them.”
Uhlaender, 33, is practiced at hardship. In 2009, she buried her father, professional baseball player Ted Uhlaender. She has battled the effects of multiple concussions and recovered from a dozen surgeries. In 2016, an autoimmune disease could have killed her. At the 2014 Sochi Games, she missed a bronze medal by four hundredths of a second to Elena Nikitina, a Russian later found guilty of doping. Earlier this month, a Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling cleared Nikitina, probably preventing Uhlaender from receiving the medal that had been earmarked for her.
And she’s still here, bubbly yet badass, joyous and rad, smiling one moment and crying the next, every emotion on fearless display, her hair streaked with bright red and a menacing eagle painted on her helmet.
“You can see if something kind of gets her down or she has a setback, she can use it as motivation on race day,” U.S. skeleton slider Matt Antoine said. “Sometimes I envy her spirit. No matter what happens to her, nothing is going to break her.”
Uhlaender has prepared herself for one of the most significant events of her professional career, in part, by leaning on words from an inspiring source. Whenever Uhlaender faced a trial, Holcomb always knew what to say. When she left the hospital after the autoimmune disease, they talked about their goals and the Olympics and life. What Holcomb told Uhlaender still motivates her.
“Stop being the daughter your father guarded,” Uhlaender recalled Holcomb telling her, “and be the woman he raised to be fierce and reckoned with.”
Nothing about Uhlaender’s grieving process for Holcomb is easy or linear or finished. During a news conference before these Olympics, a question prompted Uhlaender to contemplate memories of Holcomb.
“I’m not going to lie,” Uhlaender said, peering toward the ceiling. “I’m trying not to cry right now. If I look up, it usually works.”
Her eyes welled, and tears streamed down her cheeks.
“That happens to me every day,” she said.
They had lived at the training center, bonding over silly jokes and long talks and solving math problems together. “We were super nerds,” Uhlaender said. Once, while driving Holcomb to the airport, Uhlaender decided she would visit Holcomb’s family. Without bags or any plan for when she landed, she purchased a plane ticket.
Uhlaender keeps Holcomb with her at all times. During her World Cup season, she affixed a decal reading “Team Holcomb” to her sled. She has a picture of him in her room here. One of Holcomb’s parents attended every North American race this season, and his mother planned to come to the Olympics.
“I have 15 years with him,” Uhlaender said. “I think I spent more time with him than my family. He really was my family. I think we’ve been on this journey together.”
But she is purposefully not trying to race for Holcomb. She learned the peril of trying to win for somebody else after her father died, of a heart attack, at age 69. She wanted to win a gold medal for him in Vancouver, but in training, it became a burden. Any mistake was not just a learning opportunity but a letdown of her late father. She shattered her kneecap in a snowmobile accident in the summer of 2009, and she pushed too hard coming back from multiple surgeries. At the 2010 Olympics, she finished 11th and left Vancouver stressed.
“My mistake in 2010: I put too much pressure on myself,” Uhlaender said. “I was trying to do it for him. I lost myself. It’s taken me a long time to get that back.”
In Sochi, Uhlaender evolved her approach. She wears her father’s 1972 National League championship ring, won with the Cincinnati Reds, around her neck. Between the first and second days of heats, Uhlaender removed the necklace with her father’s ring and handed it to her coach, Tuffy Latour. “I need to do this on my own,” she told him.
That day, Uhlaender made a final run good enough for a medal. Nikitina edged her by a vanishingly thin margin. This winter, the International Olympic Committee issued lifetime bans and stripped Russians caught doping of medals. She would get her bronze, by IOC decree.
On the day Uhlaender arrived in South Korea, her social media feed filled with vulgar, taunting messages from Russians. (“Some of them were funny,” Uhlaender said. “Like, ‘You’re not an athlete. You’re a bitch.’ I was like, I think I’m both sometimes.”) A German reporter messaged her. She called a U.S. Olympic Committee official to figure out what was going on.
She learned the Court of Arbitration for Sport had overturned the IOC’s ruling, so Nikitina would keep her medal. Uhlaender cried, not for her medal but for her sport.
The roller coaster ordeal added to Uhlaender’s trying year. But she had been through so much, and it had taught to persevere.
“I’m done worrying about medals,” Uhlaender said in the fall. “I’m not saying I’m going to win anything. I’m strictly just trying to get better every day. I’m trying to heal. Grief on its own is hard, and now I’m trying to train for the Olympics, too. So I’m giving myself grace to make some mistakes, to not be perfect this time.”
When she was 4 years old, on a sailing trip with her mother, Uhlaender declared she wanted to jump in the water and pull herself up by a buoy, like all the adults were doing. Uhlaender’s mother told her she wasn’t strong enough. “Yes,” little Katie thought, “I am.” When her mother turned around, Uhlaender jumped in the water and pulled herself by a buoy. Her mother shouted she had told her not to jump.
“No,” Uhlaender said. “You said I wasn’t strong enough.”
The impulse to jump has stayed with Uhlaender. She has dabbled in heli-skiing and big mountain competitions, finishing fourth once in New Zealand. When she is hurtling down a mountain on skis or nose-first down a sheet of ice, she is looking inward.
“You don’t try to deny the fear,” Uhlaender said. “You don’t try to grab on to anything that’s a good thing that’s happening. You’re just fully in the moment. Focused. Taking it in. Riding the wave. That ride — and the ability to just let go and have confidence that you can take whatever’s going to come — that’s what’s so amazing. And to do it calculated. I’m not going into it recklessly. I have a plan. I know what I’m capable of. When I come out the other side and it’s successful, that’s what I’m chasing.”
When she is finished with skeleton, Uhlaender plans to try all the risks her coaches disallow. She wants to jump off bluffs in a squirrel suit. She wants to try speed skiing and work more on her freestyle skiing.
“Part of me thinks I might not make it to 50,” Uhlaender said. “I would be content living my life hucking myself off cliffs. There’s nothing like being on top of a mountain, and it’s quiet, and you’re just ripping. That moment of just calculated, relaxed chaos — it’s amazing.”
Uhlaender has made no plans for her skeleton future, but she has no designs on retirement. She loves skeleton, the way it gives her one minute at the top of the track, when she is alone and all her thoughts disappear.
In her first training run in PyeongChang, she underestimated the speed of the track and crashed into the walls on every turn. Halfway down, she started laughing. When her sled came to a stop, Uhlaender rose, took her helmet and looked around.
“This is amazing!” she shouted. “How much fun is this!”