DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea — What happened to Katie Uhlaender this weekend was amazing — that’s what she said when it was over — but at first it was also unexpected, startling even, because there she was at the start line, bodysuit on, helmet on, game face on, and then she looked up. She was looking for her coach, expecting cues. But instead her eyes fell on somebody else, standing nearby. Her mother.
“I felt like I fell through the floor,” Uhlaender said.
Uhlaender was seconds away from beginning an Olympic skeleton race, and she’d devoted her life to making this moment as consistent as possible. Only now she’d made eye contact with her mother, and her mother was crying, and Uhlaender was nearly crying, and just as the first of her four heats was beginning, Uhlaender was thinking about that face, and the love she saw in her mother’s expression, and how it had been four years since the two of them had last seen one another or talked.
“It was just a lot to take in in that moment,” Uhlaender said.
So, of course her skeleton race didn’t go well. She went twice down the course Friday night, happy with neither run, telling a Team USA official, “I need a hug.” But then came Saturday, the last two heats. Her mother was back in the stands. Uhlaender was well out of medal contention. She took two more runs down the course, faring no better than the night before, only this time, what seemed apparent is that there are two kinds of surmounting outcomes at the Olympics, and some involve medals and others do not.
“Really, can I be upset that my mom flew I-don’t-know-how-many thousands of miles from Colorado to be here? Like, I just saw nothing but love,” she said. “The fact that she’s here, that she is showing me all the love she has, that is huge. I want to accept the love. I’m looking forward to building from there. And it’s my mom, man. I’ve been waiting.”
Uhlaender didn’t want to say why she had been estranged from her mother, Karen. A reporter asked Uhlaender where in Colorado her mother lived, and Uhlaender didn’t know. North of Silverthorne? “I’m not really sure,” Uhlaender said.
But what Uhlaender did say is that, with her Olympics now over, she would try to talk with her mother. They have a lot of ground to cover. In the last four years alone, Uhlaender has gone through concussions, surgeries and an autoimmune illness that in 2016 almost killed her. She has lost her closest friend, former Olympic bobsledder Steve Holcomb, from a toxic combination of alcohol and drugs. She has so bonded with Holcomb’s mother, Jean Schaefer, that Uhlaender lived with her for a while, adopting her as a second mom. Schaefer was in the crowd, too, on Saturday, and what she said about Uhlaender was this: “She has been through so much.”
Maybe this weekend’s skeleton race was the last of Uhlaender’s career. She still isn’t sure, but she kind of thinks it might be. She is 33. She has gone into debt to fund her career. She has participated in four Olympics, finishing sixth and 11th and fourth and now 13th. She never won a medal, but she nearly did: in Sochi, she was 0.04 seconds shy of the bronze finisher, Elena Nikitina, a Russian who was later accused of doping. For a while, Uhlaender felt like she might claim third place retroactively, with the International Olympic Committee stripping Nikitina of her medal. But just as Uhlaender arrived in South Korea, a sports arbitration court cleared Nikitina of her Sochi disqualification, and the bronze remained in her hands.
“When I was almost dying, I had pretty much accepted it,” Uhlaender said Saturday, and this was her way of talking about the medal and the decision and how she felt. “I had given up to a certain extent. I remember being at peace and thinking, I’ve lived a great life. But I wasn’t thinking, oh I’m a three-time Olympian. I was thinking of the people I love and the people that love me. The experiences I had standing on top of a mountain and it’s totally quiet. I thought about all the moments. It wasn’t the results. It was the moments going down the track where my stomach is in my throat. Whether or not the bronze ends up mine, that is not what it’s about.”
And then, this weekend, she had one more moment to think about. She had known her mother would be coming to PyeongChang; she just hadn’t known that her mother would find her way past security, and take a spot right near the coaches, and choose a moment seconds before a race to begin their reunion. But that’s what happened. A British racer, Lizzy Yarnold, won gold. A German racer, Jacqueline Loelling, won silver. A British racer, Laura Deas, won bronze. And Uhlaender, who had finished almost two seconds behind them, was feeling something approaching joy.
“I want to walk away knowing that I have tons of people that love me,” Uhlaender said, and here her voice rose. “The journey,” she said, “is crazy.”