For Uhlaender, the distance between comeback and disappointment: .04 second

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 14, 2014 

— Four one-hundredths of a second.

That’s what separated Katie Uhlaender from achieving her dream of winning an Olympic medal in the women’s skeleton event here Friday night.

That’s the time that allowed Russian Elena Nikitina to capture a bronze medal to share a podium with American silver medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace, and Great Britain’s Elizabeth Yarnold, who won the gold medal.

The time between bronze and nothing was miniscule for Uhlaender, but it reflected the journey she’s traveled and the tragedy and physical injuries she’s overcame to nearly fulfill her Olympic dream.

“I feel like I slid my heart out,” she said with a smile on her face and tears in her eyes after the competition. “I don’t think there’s anything else I could have done. I slid the best I could.”

But the loss still stung.

“I think I’m suffering from the baby who had the candy ripped out of its hands,” she said. “Elena’s run was so bad, I thought I had her, I don’t even know where the four-hundredths came from. I’m just grateful for the support I had going into it. It just makes me so much more sad that I couldn’t come home with a medal for my country.”

Going into Friday’s competition, Uhlaender was poised to be one of the feel-good stories of the Winter Games. She was sitting in fourth place after two runs, just 0.14 second out of medal contention and redemption.

She finished a disappointing 11th at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver while still grieving the death of her father, former major-league baseball player and coach Ted Uhlaender. He suffered a fatal heart attack on his Kansas farm in February 2009.

Katie Uhlaender was a daddy’s girl and Ted Uhlaender was no ordinary dad. He was an old-school ballplayer who hammered athletic toughness into his daughter.

Nothing was given to her: He never let her win a race; he taught her to take responsibility for her failures and her successes, and never make excuses.

He was drill sergeant tough. She loved it. She loved him. And he loved watching his daughter compete, routinely waiting for her at the end of a run.

Uhlaender carries her father in her heart and around her neck: She wears a chain with his 1972 Cincinnati Reds National League championship ring with a little ball on it that contains his ashes.

Ted Uhlaender’s death created a void in his daughter, a space that was often filled with darkness, despair, anger and a reckless streak. In April of 2009, she wrecked a snowmobile and shattered her kneecap, which required two surgeries to repair.

Uhlaender vowed to rebound after her performance in Vancouver. She captured the 2012 women’s world championship and was third in 2012-13 World Cup standings. She appeared well-situated for Sochi, then she suffered a severe concussion last October on a training run at Lake Placid, N.Y.

“I started sliding, I blacked out, I woke up and I just had the best dream I ever had,” she recalled of the accident.

She had lingering symptoms — sensitivity to light, lethargy and blurred vision. Aggressive therapy, including the type that helped Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby come back from his severe concussion, got Uhlaender back on track and pumped for a medal run in Sochi.

Only to be dashed by four one-hundredths of a second.

“Right now I’m just really heart-broken,” she said. “I want to apologize that what I did wasn’t enough. I know I made a mistake in the nine (curve), I hit, and I flopped off, but I came back. No one’s run is perfect. I got it together for the rest of the run. But that’s racing.”

Uhlaender’s Olympic dream isn’t over, though her skeleton career probably is. At 29, she’s training to compete in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as a weightlifter.

“The one thing I learned is you never know what’s going to happen: concussions, four-hundredths,” she said. “I’m just going to go with life, do the best I can. I chase my dream and hope something comes out of it.”

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