Katie Uhlaender may not realize what cheaters stole from her during the 2014 Olympics, but her bobsledding teammates do.
“Nothing can describe that feeling of finishing, that moment of coming up the braking stretch (of track) and seeing your teammates jumping up and down,” said Alpine native Chris Fogt, who won bronze with the late Park City bobsled pilot Steve Holcomb in the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. “That feeling of elation that all that hard work paid off, it’s indescribable. I don’t think they can match that if they just give you the medal after the fact.”
That’s what may happen for Uhlaender, who missed earning her own bronze in Sochi by a fraction of a second — .04 to be exact. Last week, the IOC announced it was disqualifying four Russian Winter Olympians for life after they were “found to have committed anti-doping rule violations,” the statement said. “The four athletes are declared ineligible to be accredited in any capacity for all editions of the Games of the Olympiad and the Olympic Winter Games subsequent to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi 2014.”
Uhlaender woke up to the news last Thursday as she prepared to compete in a World Cup at the site of the 2010 Olympic Games — Whistler, Canada.
“To wake up that morning and hear I was a bronze medalist was surreal,” said Uhlaender, who has already been struggling to deal with the absence of Holcomb, who was her best friend for nearly 15 years. “Everyone kept hugging me; I had over 60 text messages; I had 54 voice mails. Honestly, I just started crying. Holcomb and I talked about this so much. He was really upset for me. He told me, ‘I’m really pissed for you more than anything. That was your first Olympic medal. That was your moment.’ But I’ve never been on the podium. I don’t know what I missed out on.”
I’ve never stood on an Olympic podium either.
But I know that officials and athletes who orchestrated and participated in what investigators confirmed was a systematic, state-sponsored doping conspiracy by Russian officials stole more than hardware from athletes like Uhlaender.
To say the path to an Olympic Games is fraught with challenges is a gross understatement. It is especially difficult for winter sports athletes as they struggle not just to find ways to be the best at their sport, but to support themselves while dealing with the unique realities of international competition.
They are, as a group, among the most dedicated, resilient and passionate people on the planet.
They have to be.
There is little fame and fortune in sports like bobsled and skeleton. They compete, on behalf of their countries, for that moment.
And government-orchestrated cheating stole that from Uhlaender.
I stood in the finish area when Fogt and Holcomb won their four-man bronze medal, and I saw that scene Fogt described. In their tearful grins were commitments to each other, like Holcomb’s promise to Fogt that they wouldn’t leave Russia without a medal. Fogt was the only member of the Night Train II without Olympic hardware.
On the last day of Olympic competition, they won that bronze. They held the U.S. flag aloft, talked about the communities that supported them, and dedicated the medal to the families that loved them and the soldiers with whom several of them served.
People like me were acutely aware that we were watching history unfold, that we were watching the culmination of relentless hard work, of deep dedication and of unwavering devotion.
Fogt said that even during the 2014 Games there were rumors of Russian doping. And even though recent disqualifications by the IOC, which are being appealed by the Russians, would upgrade his bronze to silver, he knows he is one of the lucky ones. “It is frustrating not to have a fair race in the first place,” he said. “But at least we won a medal. I got to come home, and I had a parade. People like Katie, they didn’t get that. Unfortunately there is no way to replace that.”
Uhlaender’s moment would have come a week earlier than Fogt's, on the same night that another Utah native, Noelle Pikus-Pace won silver. Russia’s Elena Nikitina won bronze, edging Uhlaender off the podium she should have shared with her U.S. teammate.
It was Feb. 14, 2014, and Uhlaender’s grace in defeat was stunning. She wept openly as she talked at length with reporters, but she was as hopeful as she was heartbroken.
And she responded similarly to this week’s news that she would likely earn that Olympic medal thanks to IOC decisions that come nearly two years after a report that confirmed the state-sanctioned doping program that resulted in more than 100 Russian athletes being disqualified from the 2016 Summer Games and could result in the entire delegation being barred from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
“This has little to do with me,” she said. “They conspired to cheat the Olympic movement. The IOC has kind of restored some of my faith in the system. It makes me feel like I’m not alone anymore. I can go into South Korea with a slightly cleaner feeling.”
She doesn’t want to debate or point fingers. She wants to be able to trust the system. She wants what any competitor wants — a fair playing field.
“These allegations aren’t for me to prove or disprove,” she said, noting that she doesn’t have bad feelings towards Russian athletes. “I’m trusting in the IOC to clean it up. I think this is a huge step in the right direction, regardless.”
Uhlaender will keep her focus on competing for that moment in 2018. The IOC's decisions, she said, aren't about any one athlete. They're about protecting the integrity of the games.
“This is about the Olympic movement,” she said. “I feel inspired to know that my fellow competitors and I are going into South Korea with cleaner competition. I wouldn’t have changed the way I raced. That medal belongs to my country. It’s America’s. It’s everyone’s who helped me get there.”