SOCHI, Russia — With a heavy heart and a distracted mind, U.S. skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender pushed through her final training runs earlier this week.
It was the fifth anniversary of her father’s death, an event so devastating that she contemplated quitting her sport. Her two practice runs that day were among the slowest she had posted since arriving here nearly two weeks ago.
“She tried to push through it, but it was an emotional day,” U.S. coach Tuffy Latour said. “(Thursday) we can focus on the race.”
And Uhlaender did that. She put together two solid runs and found herself in fourth place heading into Friday’s final. Currently ranked 15th in the world, Uhlaender suffered a concussion earlier this season and was not expected to be in the medal hunt here.
Despite her success in the first two runs, Uhlaender saw flaws and vowed to correct them during her final two heats. She is .14 seconds behind Russia’s Elena Nikitina, who is far more familiar with the Sanki Sliding Center track.
“I had a pretty big mistake on my second run and I had too much speed at the top,” Uhlaender said. “I wasn’t able to get it back together. I just hope tomorrow we can pull off a U.S.A. miracle.”
American teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace sits in second place behind Lizzy Yarnold of Britain. Yarnold set a track record as she built a .44-second lead over Pikus-Pace, who is nursing a back injury.
It’s a substantial advantage heading into the finals, but Yarnold warned against overconfidence.
“This is where races can be won and lost,” she said. “Everything changes so fast.”
Pikus-Pace acknowledged that Yarnold’s lead will be difficult to overcome, but she insisted a medal of any sort would be a victory. It would be an even bigger win, she said, if she could share the podium with Uhlaender, with whom she is close.
“That would be a dream come to true if Katie and I could both be up on that podium together,” Pikus-Pace said. “I’m proud of her for what she’s been through this season and coming back.”
Uhlaender paid homage to her father — former major-league outfielder Ted Uhlaender — during the race by wearing his 1972 Cincinnati Reds National League championship ring and a tiny baseball pendant containing some of his ashes on a chain around her neck. Ted Uhlaender died of a heart attack in 2009 at his Kansas ranch in Rawlins County, while his daughter was away competing on the World Cup circuit.
“He made me feel like a warrior with a purpose,” she said before the Games. “And when he passed away, I didn’t have a purpose.”
Without that motivation, Uhlaender finished 11th at the Vancouver Olympics four years ago.
In the years since those disastrous Games, however, she regained her footing with help from family members and her father’s old baseball pals, who shared stories countless stories from Uhlaender’s playing days, most of them serving as inspirational tales about the importance of determination and a strong work ethic.
In her dad’s friends, Katie Uhlaender said, she found the support system she once thought had disappeared with her father's death — and that support spurred her resurgence. She won the 2012 World Championships and finished second at a World Cup event here last year.
And now an Olympic medal is within her reach.
“Not to get all dark, but it's been a long road back,” she said. “I'm finally able to embrace those tools my dad gave me.”