It was really crazy, but I think just continually focusing on the positive, and one step at a time, that’s what brought me out of it. —Katie Uhlaender
PARK CITY — Katie Uhlaender was prepared to die.
An autoimmune illness caused the three-time Olympian’s liver to swell, making everything, especially breathing, excruciatingly painful. When doctors asked for her next of kin, she realized the gravity of her situation.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I’m dying,'” she said at the Olympic Media Summit in September. “I couldn’t drink, couldn’t eat, couldn't breathe, couldn’t sleep I was hallucinating. Every time I took a breath, it was like someone stabbed me or punched me, so I was having to breathe really shallow. That’s why I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”
She’d been suffering nearly two weeks, so when she was asked about family members who should be notified, she said she felt a kind of surrender.
“I had already submitted,” said the 33-year old, who will be in Park City this weekend competing in the third World Cup of the Skeleton and Bobsled season. “I was like, ‘OK, cool. I’m out.’ But one of my friends was like, ‘You can do this.’ He just had me focus on the moments I had the slightest relief of pain. The pain wasn’t going away, but if I had a moment where I felt some relief, I could meditate on that.”
A lot of athletes talk about focusing on one particular moment at a time, but Uhlaender broke time down into the smallest increments she could, and then she found those seconds that didn’t scare or hurt her and she clung to them.
“It was kind of like focusing on the positive for just a second, and then you just have to keep doing that,” she said. “Eventually I was able to sleep for like 30 seconds. And then I figured out how to take a shower, how to breathe. I literally just took it one moment at a time. It was really crazy, but I think just continually focusing on the positive, and one step at a time, that’s what brought me out of it.”
Eventually, she realized she would not only survive, she’d be able to return to the skeleton track.
“I showed up in Altenburg (Germany), and I hadn’t slid in six weeks, I’d lost 25 pounds, I was falling onto my sled,” she said. “They gave me a sled I’d never used before, runners I’d never used, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to do the best I can. I just knew I had to take each day as it was. I had to let go of my ego, and let go of the results.”
Uhlaender didn’t come to these realizations all at once.
“I think I drove my teammates a little crazy because I had to talk about it,” she said. “I realized I had to take a step back, and that I couldn’t continue to push myself as hard as I normally do. For me, humor has a lot to do with that. You can’t take things too seriously. You can’t focus on the results or what any of that means. Just focus on what you’re doing and what that means to you.”
Just as Uhlaender was getting her feet underneath her, tragedy struck again when she lost her best friend, Park City native Steve Holcomb, the most successful U.S. bobsled pilot in history. This weekend's World Cup will be the first hosted since the city's native son passed away last May. His shadow may loom over the team, even the sport, but brings nothing but inspiration to those who loved him most.
“This is the second time in my Olympic career I’ve had to deal with a death this significant,” she said referring to losing her father, Major League Baseball player and coach Ted Uhlaender, who died in February of 2009. “So I am, unfortunately, slightly prepared and know how I’m going to respond, knowing that going through day to day life is going to be different, knowing that he’s not someone I need, but it’s just especially sad that he’s not here to share these moments with me because we’ve done it my whole career together. I haven’t gone to a Games without him.”
She said that when she was in the hospital, lying in what she thought would be her deathbed, she started to struggle with how adversity and heartbreak have plagued her life and career. From losing her father in 2009 to missing out on an Olympic medal in Russia by .001 second.
“I was getting down on myself, saying this stuff always happens to me, this negative stuff keeps happening to me, and it just started this negative snowball,” she said. “He said, ‘Look, you need to be you. You’re getting into this negative thing that happened to you when you lost your father. You’re not your father. You need to be you; you need to do you. And be the fierce woman that he raised.”
Tears fall often for Uhlaender, but laughter comes easily.
She said she will not compete for a spot on her fourth Olympic team for her father or Holcomb. She will compete for herself, something that she feels will allow her to honor her own potential and the men she misses. That began with this World Cup season, and Uhlaender isn’t the only athlete looking to shake a history of heartbreak. Track athlete turned bobsled push athlete Lolo Jones will compete with 2014 Olympic gold medalist Elana Meyers Taylor Friday night as she chases a medal that has eluded her through summer and winter games.
Schedule of events:
Friday, Nov. 17
Noon: Women's skeleton 3 p.m.: Four-man bobsled race #1 6 p.m.: Women's bobsled
Saturday, Nov. 18
Noon: Men's skeleton 4 p.m.: Four-man bobsled race #2
Jones didn’t participate in the 2017 track season, opting instead to train with the bobsled athletes hoping it would give her an edge in what she said will be her last attempt at Olympic glory.
Ulaender isn’t sure what her future holds, but she knows that when she competes, it will be with a focus on the joy the sport brings to her life, and not on proving something, winning something or honoring someone.
“I don’t go too far into that mental state where I feel like I have to do this for them,” she said. “That’s not the right way. You have to do it for yourself. And in that, you honor them. When I think like that, I’m even more motivated. I lost by .004 (of a second), whatever. I’m here to fight today.”
Uhlaender is as competitive as she ever was, finishing ninth last weekend in a weather-shortened event at Lake Placid. But results are not what drives her — not even that elusive Olympic medal.
“It’s all about self-discovery,” she said. “It’s all about not being scared to face your demons, not being scared to face any challenges that come your way. And when you come out on the other side, it’s a whole new world.
If Uhlaender’s season has a theme, she said, it’s letting go. And when she says she is letting go, she means she’s constantly releasing that which keeps her from the joy of her journey.
“But I’m going to do my best and see what happens,” she said. I”ve learned that any time I make plans or I invest too much in something, it doesn’t tend to work out. So I am just in the moment. Each day, it’s not perfect, but I’m bringing what I have in that day. And when I step on the line, it’s all coming out.”