She’s a tough competitor, no bones about it


She wears her father’s World Series ring around her neck and his initials on her custom-made sneakers.

Even as he was dying of cancer 18 months ago, Ted Uhlaender was coaching his daughter, Katie, on life and on giving the sport of skeleton her all.

The former major league outfielder who played for three teams, “had a Gran Torino way of looking at things, where actions mean more than words,” said Katie, 25, referring to the Clint Eastwood movie. “I’m trying to live up to that.”


It’s a tough order, but Uhlaender -- like her father -- is a tough customer.

On Friday, the first anniversary of her father’s death, Uhlaender will march in the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympics with her teammates. Six days later, the former world championships silver medalist and two-time World Cup champion will try to put aside the lingering emotional emptiness and the physical pain of a kneecap still mending after a snowmobile accident to take her place on the podium in Whistler.

“I’d like another year to heal and recover, and not just physically, but emotionally,” she said. “He was my best friend. He was the man in my life and there’s nothing like knowing that he won’t be there to walk you down the aisle or be there for those other big moments of your life. But he prepared me for them and that’s what matters.”

Other athletes marvel at her tenacity.

“She just keeps pushing and pushing. She doesn’t know what quit means,” teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace said.

“That girl is fearless,” said Steve Holcomb, bobsled driver of USA 1. “In a confrontation between Katie and a brick wall, bet on Katie.”

For the longest time, Ted Uhlaender was always there, at Katie’s track meets in junior and senior high school in Colorado and as she began working her way into the elite level of skeleton.

He urged her to fight her fears, recalling his own first at-bat in Yankee Stadium, his knees shaking, Mickey Mantle in the outfield, 60,000 spectators in the stands.


“There’s only one thing you can do. Hit the ball,” he counseled his daughter.

The lone U.S. representative in skeleton at the 2006 Winter Games, Uhlaender finished sixth. The next season, she won five World Cup gold medals. The 2007-08 season was more of the same, with Uhlaender again earning the overall World Cup title.

Then in 2008, Ted was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Stem cell transplants and chemotherapy followed.

Katie made plans to quit the U.S. team before the 2008-09 season to care for him, but Ted wouldn’t hear of it.

Away from home and miserable, the young athlete struggled. Around Christmas 2008, the old pro called.

“Why aren’t you winning?” Katie said her father asked.

“I miss you. I don’t want to be here. You’re dying and I want to be with you,” Katie said she replied.

“He said, ‘You need to get that out of your head and do what you need to do because it’s your responsibility as the No. 1 athlete in the country to compete.’ ”


It wasn’t easy.

The two talked again Feb. 12, 2009, less than an hour before the World Cup finale in Park City, Utah.

“You need to quit trying,” Katie recalled her father saying. “You need to dance on the start line, chase gravity, do what you know how to do and be Crazy Katie. Be the girl I know you are. Stop worrying about me, there’s nothing you can do for me. What you’re doing is competing for me.

“I felt great. He told me he loved me about seven or eight times, which was really odd, because he was so old school. I feel lucky about that because I did get to say goodbye.”

Before she could take her face-first runs down the track, Ted had a heart attack and died. Katie was told afterward.

She decided to compete in the world championships to honor her father. Shaky and sleepless, she couldn’t attack the track with her usual ferocity. After finishing seventh, she broke down and sobbed on the finish deck, consoled by her older brother, Scott.

Her toughness was tested again in April, when Uhlaender shattered her right kneecap in a snowmobile accident. The injury required four surgeries and months of rehabilitation. She was unable to practice the explosive starts needed to compete at the highest level.


But again, she leaned on her father’s lessons.

“I was a bit bitter at skeleton because I competed and I wanted to stay home and be with him,” she said as she played with the ring around her neck. “When I shattered my kneecap it forced me to get my priorities back in order. I think that was my dad’s subtle way to give me a two by four to the knee to snap out of it.

“That’s what my dad taught me. Never give up. Be the athlete you know how to be and suck it up. So I’m not going to make excuses and I’m not going to complain. I’m going to do the best I can and try to represent my country and my family and do what I know how to do.”