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Uhlaender Overcomes Tragedy, Injury to Make US Skeleton Team

  • David Byrd

USA's Katie Uhlaender slides down the start ramp at the women's Skeleton World Championships at the Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid, N.Y. Thursday, Feb 26, 2009. (Photo/Todd Bissonette -

USA's Katie Uhlaender slides down the start ramp at the women's Skeleton World Championships at the Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid, N.Y. Thursday, Feb 26, 2009. (Photo/Todd Bissonette -

U.S. Skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender has known both triumph and tragedy in her career. Since the last Olympics, she has won the World Cup title twice, but also lost the biggest influence in her life - her father Ted. She has also had to overcome a devastating knee injury that nearly ended her Olympic hopes. Uhlaender recovered and made the U.S. Olympic team, where she hopes to proudly represent her family and her country.

Katie Uhlaender wears a large ring around her neck. It is far too large for the petite slider to have ever worn. But she keeps it close to her heart and periodically touches it or twirls it in her hand.

The ring belonged to the man who had the most influence on her life and career - her late father and former Major League Baseball player Ted Uhlaender.

Katie told VOA Sports her dad was the one who instilled in her the values she needs to compete in the Olympics - perseverance, determination, honor and respect. The ring she wears is a World Series Ring he and his Cincinnati Reds teammates won in the mid 1970s.

Katie followed in her father's athletic footsteps, and even played baseball as the only girl on the McGregor High School team in Texas. Uhlaender says that her dad always urged her to do her best in everything.

"You know, if you are going to represent the Uhlaender name ... what did he tell me one time, I remember I was doing something and he stopped me and said, 'do it right or don't do it at all.' And I was like 'I've got to do it, so I might as well do it right,'" said Katie Uhlaender.

Katie took her dad's values and hard work and turned them into World Cup success. She dominated the women's skeleton World Cup tour during the 2006-2007 season, winning five gold medals and claiming the overall World Cup crown. In the 2007-2008 season, Uhlaender once again placed first in the World Cup standings. She placed second in the 2008 World Championships.

But 2008 was also the year her father - who was working as a scout in the San Francisco Giants organization - was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer (multiple myeloma).

He fought the disease, with stem cell transplants and medication, but died just days before Katie was set to compete in the 2009 World Championships in Lake Placid, New York. Katie was not with him when he died - she was instead on a track in Park City, Utah, winning a silver medal in the last World Cup race of the season.

Katie and her family had to prepare for Ted's funeral at the same time she had to prepare for the World Championships. A special funeral at Colorado's Coors field had more than 200 people - including several Major Leaguers show up after only a couple days' notice.

Katie told VOA Sports that the tributes showed a side of her father that she did not always know was there.

"It really showed me that soft side of my father that I rarely saw," she said. "I thought I was the only one who knew [that]. But it was obvious that he had made an impact on a lot of people's lives in a similar way to mine and it really made me want to do the same."

Katie finished seventh at the 2009 World Championships, and finished the World Cup season third. She planned to spend some time mourning her father.

But in April, Katie was riding a snowmobile when she wrecked and shattered her knee cap. It could have ended her Olympic dreams. But she was able to recover in time to compete on the World Cup circuit this season.

Dr. Peter Millett is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in knee, shoulder and sports injuries at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Colorado. He says injuries like Uhlaender's usually take a year to heal.

"It's a remarkable recovery that would allow somebody to compete at the Olympic level in such a short time," said Dr. Millett. "It's a testament to a motivated patient, good surgical treatment and excellent rehabilitation."

Katie Uhlaender says without the excellent treatment she received, her Olympic dreams - like her kneecap - would have been shattered.

"For my knee to go from being in nine pieces to having three pins, two screws and wire [in it], to then back into four pieces and having four screws in it - I was on crutches in mid-September! I think I have come a lot farther than I thought I would in this amount of time and I am extremely grateful," said Katie Uhlaender.

Katie Uhlaender was able to overcome her injury to finish seventh on this year's World Cup circuit. Her best finish was a fifth place in Cesana, Italy. But it will take all her skill and determination to challenge the twisting Whistler track near Vancouver.

Teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace told VOA that the Whistler track allows for no mistakes - if a slider is off by just a few centimeters it can mean disaster.

"This track is really crazy, " said Noelle Pikus-Pace. "It is super fast, it's the fastest track in the world. And the turns are just so close together that it makes it really dangerous. It makes it dangerous for us because we can flip very easily. If you are maybe six inches higher than you need to be [coming out of a turn] you are going to come out on your back."

Katie Uhlaender has written in her weblog that facing the Olympics without her father is going to be difficult. Opening Ceremonies are on the first anniversary of Ted Uhlaender's death, and Katie says she will be emotional. But she writes she will also walk in "as the daughter of Ted Uhlaender, American athlete, and ambassador of what the U.S. represents - strength, honor, perseverance, and the Olympic Spirit." In her words "It is game time."