PARK CITY — Every day on the skeleton track is a heartbreaking reminder of what Katie Uhlaender has lost.
But every trip down the ice is also so envigorating and challenging, that it’s propelled her through a 14-year pursuit of Olympic glory.
“I think this first half is just going to be tough,” the 33-year-old Colorado native said after finishing seventh in Saturday’s Skeleton World Cup at the Utah Olympic Park. “Just really getting used to him not being here.”
That "him" is late Park City bobsled pilot Steve Holcomb, who was Uhlaender’s best friend. She’s never competed on the World Cup without easy access to his support, advice and affection.
In his absence, however, Uhlaender has been encircled by Holcomb’s family, her teammates, and former Olympians, who understand the unique challenge of pursuing such an elusive and lofty goal while dealing with life-altering loss.
“I’m writing everything down, and I’m keeping my inner circle close,” she said. “(Speedskater) Dan Jansen was talking to me all week and helped me a ton. (Skeleton silver medalist) Noelle (Pikus Pace) and Holcomb’s family it’s just going to take a minute. Especially the first part of the tour in North American because these are the places where he spent a lot of time. But it’s getting easier, and I feel his presence more and more. It’s just, you have to let go first.”
In the moments after her second run in Saturday’s World Cup, she is alternatively effusive about her new sled, analytical about her new training program and introspective about the unexpected cruelty of grief.
“I mean, there’s no way to have expectations with grief,” she said, wiping away a tear. “Or just with anything. I’m really having fun figuring out the sled. I just wish I wasn’t so extreme with my decisions. Like this morning I was so conservative, and then the second run I’m like sending it! And it turns out, I probably could have sent it harder. It’s just finding the balance.”
Uhlaender was disappointed with Saturday’s result, even as she said it did keep with the progression she planned for herself this season. She finished ninth last week in Lake Placid, New York, and earning seventh, as the top U.S. woman, was in improvement. She is in the midst of new training, and she’s using a new sled that is much more sensitive to movement than those she’s used in the past.
“This new sled is amazing,” she said, grinning. “It drives with my eyes, so I’m having to break habits of steering with more aggressive moves like with my knees or shoulders. I’ve got some things to figure out, but I think we’re doing it. The team atmosphere is good, and I have hope.”
She looks forward to competing in Whistler next week, calling it her "kind of track." She said Holcomb’s family has been at every competition this season, even offering her hugs before her runs.
Uhlaender’s teammate Kendall Wesenberg, who finished 12th with a time of 1:41.52, had her own personal cheering section. A group of her college friends and some family from California crowded around the track, and, for many of them, it was the first they’d seen her compete in the sport.
“It’s absolutely insane,” said Paige Scigliano, who played soccer in college with Wesenberg and introduced her to the sorority that brought many of the others around the track into her life. “I can’t believe she actually does that.” Whitney Bergren, at the same times, says, “It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
And then, Scigliano adds, “It’s one thing to watch at the front of the race, but at the middle when they’re going around ”
And then Scigliano, Bergren and Kimmy Romine say in unison, "That turn!”
“That turn is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” Scigliano said.
Bergren even stayed up late to draw a portrait of Wesenberg on to posterboard that they carried with them as they cheered.
“I think it’s been an incredible experience I think for all of us to come out here and support her,” Bergren said.
Added Scigliano, “We’ve been listening to her and following her on social media for the past five years, but we’d never seen her do it.”
The group bought Team USA beanies and gloves from the Utah Olympic Park gift store, and they said they’re all going to South Korea if Wesenberg makes the Olympic Team.
“I mentally felt really good,” Wesenberg said. “I feel like my starts were where they should be. The second one could have been a little cleaner, but it’s a tough field out here. You know, you just come out and you do your best every day and sometimes it’s just not quite where you want it to be, which is frustrating. We’ll keep fighting from here and see where it goes.”
Russia's Elena Nikitina won the gold with a combined time of 1:40.49.
In the second men’s bobsled race, Team USA pilot Codie Bascue, and his crew of Nathan Weber, Carlo Valdes, and Samuel McGuffie earned a silver medal with a time of 1:35.49. He was just .05 seconds off the pace of gold medalists Johannes Lochner, Germany, and his crew. Great Britain’s Bradley Hall and his crew were third with a 1:35.56.
Alpine native Chris Fogt earned 15th place with pilot Justin Olsen and push athletes Steve Langton and Evan Weinstock (1:36.07). They earned the fastest start times in both heats.
"It's minor mistakes, and it's killing me right now," Cunningham said. "My guys are pushing really well, and I know I'm not delivering. It's a hard pill to swallow. They definitely deserve to be in the medals week in and week out. Luckily, it's a long season, we're going to forget this week existed and move on. It's over now; we're going to focus on our next course of action."
U.S. pilot Nick Cunningham and his crew finished in 1:36.08 for 16th place.