I hugged (Steve) Holcomb’s dad just before I went, and I held back the tears. I’m trying to stay focused; don’t give up; each day just come back and improve a little bit. —Katie Uhlaender
It took bobsled pilot Brian Shimer five Olympics to realize his Olympic dream.
It took speed skater Dan Jansen four trips to the Winter Games before one of the best in the sport could stand on top of a podium. He lost his sister to cancer while he was competing in his first Olympics. He won the first and only Olympic medal of his Hall of Fame career in the final race of the 1994 Games.
Noelle Pikus-Pace began her skeleton career in 2001 and didn’t win a medal until 2014. She was a favorite when a bobsled hit her, breaking her leg, in October 2005 before the 2006 Winter Games. In 2010, she competed in Vancouver and missed a medal by 0.10 of a second.
She retired, had her second baby, and then returned to competition to win silver in Sochi in 2014.
Whatever it is that made those athletes, who compete in sports that most Americans ignore until the Olympic spotlight, persevere through heartbreak and disappointment, Katie Uhlaender understands it.
The 33-year-old is the human embodiment of resilience.
For 14 years, the Colorado native has sacrificed most of what passes for a normal life so she can chase her Olympic dream. During that time, she endured a dozen surgeries, lost her father Ted Uhlaender and her best friend, Park City bobsled pilot Steve Holcomb, and nearly died from an autoimmune illness that attacked her liver.
She knows the cruelty of sport.
In 2014, she came 0.04 of a second from a bronze medal in the same race where Pikus-Pace won silver.
She knows how a day can be beautiful and bleak, how a moment can be full of joy and gut-wrenching. One conversation with her and it’s clear, she doesn’t try to reconcile the contradictions. She doesn’t try to balance the pain with the joy.
She holds tight to her dreams, while letting go of expectations. She just accepts the tears as she clings to purpose.
It is an extraordinary thing to witness.
The challenges she’s faced would be daunting under any circumstance. But, in pursuit of an Olympic medal, it seems disproportionately unfair.
Still, she stands in the finish area, exclaiming her delight at the capabilities of a new sled. She laughs about the physical challenges of a new fitness program.
And she cries as she acknowledges there is no way to battle grief. But, instead of just soaking in the pain, she accepts the love offered by those who suffer with her, by those who care about her and by those who know the isolating, unique frustration of failing at something that only offers a handful of people an opportunity every four years.
“I hugged (Steve) Holcomb’s dad just before I went, and I held back the tears,” she said, letting them flow freely after the race. “I’m trying to stay focused; don’t give up; each day just come back and improve a little bit.”
She’s named her new sled El, which is short for 11, which was her father's number when he played major league baseball. She tells a story about getting the last jersey in the box as a kid, and just coincidentally, it happened to be No. 11.
She has developed a strong bond with Jansen, and she consults regularly with Shimer, who coaches the U.S. bobsled team. Before this weekend’s race where she finished seventh, she talked with Pikus-Pace, who reminded her that it takes time to adjust to changes.
When someone else rattles off the list of changes she is embracing this season, she doesn’t flinch.
“That’s life, right?”
It is life for the brave.
It is life for the resilient.
It is life for Katie Uhlaender.
Competition requires so much of us. That’s why it is so helpful in not just building strength and character, but also in revealing it. We learn about ourselves, about our capabilities, but maybe more importantly about how we handle failure and disappointment.
Many don’t even dare to compete.
Most of those will lose.
At the end of any season, at any level, only a fraction of those who play the games are declared champions. But it is people like Katie Uhlaender who remind us that there are more ways to win, more ways to inspire, and more ways to be a champion, than our much-revered scoreboards might indicate.