Slider deals with grief and a steep learning curve in return to skeleton
American Katie Uhlaender finished seventh at the women’s skeleton races at the BMW International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation World Cup on Saturday.
It wasn’t the result she was hoping for, but it was progress after taking ninth in Lake Placid a week before, and it’s a step in the right direction in a season when Uhlaender has significant hurdles to overcome. She is coming back after a break from the sport during which much has changed, all the while coping with the death of her best friend and Park City native, Steve Holcomb, who died in May.
Uhlaender told reporters at the Team USA Summit in September she was one of the people that helped her through an autoimmune disease that could have been deadly.
After completing her run as the highest placing American at Saturday’s races, she said she has a lot of adjustments to make.
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To help her tackle the technical changes, she is drawing inspiration from Noel Pikus-Pace, who took time off after the birth of her first child, then rejoined the sport to take fourth at the Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010.
“This new sled is amazing,” she said following her second run. “It drives with just my eyes.”
She had christened her new sled Elle, in honor of its nearly supernatural abilities. It reminded Uhlaender of the character from the Netflix television series “Stranger Things” who has telekinetic abilities, and whose name is a shortening of the number 11.
It was her father’s number too, when he played for the Cincinnati Reds, and her first number when she played little league.
“So I have number 11 on a lot of my things,” Uhlaender said.
The sled so sensitive that she has had to essentially relearn the sport. No more steering with her knees and elbows to guide the sled.
“This morning I was so conservative and then in the second run I’m like ‘Sending it!’ And it turns out I probably could have sent it harder,” she said.
She said the challenge will to be finding the right balance, both on the sled and off.
“I’m writing everything down, keeping my inner circle close,” she said. “It’s just going to take a minute. It’s getting easier but I feel his presence more and more. You just have to let go first.”
One positive of this season is her health. Uhlaender said she has been able to train in a way that she hadn’t before previous Olympics due to injuries, such as surgeries before the 2010 Winter Games and a concussion in 2014.
“This is the first time in a long time that I am training through the season and I’m peaking for the right moment,” she said. “It’s hard because in the past the starts were not as competitive as they are now, or the equipment, so it’s going to take a minute to find my rhythm, but Noel is giving me hope, and Holcomb’s family being here.”
She said they will also be in Whistler, British Columbia, where the next IBSF World Cup event will be help on Nov. 24.
“I think this first half is going to be tough,” she said, “just getting used to him not being here. It’s just going to take a minute, because this first half in North America. Especially, because these are places we 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.”
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It’s going to be at least another month before Summit County’s high school athletes have any chance of getting onto the field again.