After surprise reunion with estranged mother, Katie Uhlaender finishes 13th

Ed Stoner
Special to The Aspen Times
Katie Uhlaender, of United States, starts her third run during the women's skeleton competition at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Saturday, Feb. 17. The local sledder finished 13th.
Wong Maye-E | Associated Press file photo | AP

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Katie Uhlaender had to overcome so much to reach the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The death of her father, former Major League Baseball player Ted Uhlaender, in 2009.

Multiple surgeries stemming from a 2009 Vail Pass snowmobile accident.

Finishing fourth in the Olympics in 2014, and waiting for months to find out if she would be awarded bronze after the third-place finisher was stripped of it in the Russian doping scandal (the Russian’s medal was later reinstated).

An autoimmune attack on her liver in 2016 that left her on the brink of death in a Colorado Springs hospital.

The death of her best friend, the gold medal bobsledder Steven Holcomb, in 2017.

Despite all of that, she finally made it to the starting line of the women’s skeleton competition Friday, aiming for the medal that had eluded her in Torino, Vancouver and Sochi.

She looked up at the starting line to find another surprise: Her mother, Karen Uhlaender of Breckenridge, who she had not seen or spoken to in four years after a falling out. She knew her mom was coming to the race — she welcomed the gesture — but didn’t expect to see her standing beside her coach at the starting line.

“It felt like I fell through the floor, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “And I almost started crying.”

After Friday and Saturday’s competitions, Uhlaender — who was born in Vail, lived in Breckenridge and graduated from Summit High School — finished a disappointing 13th, unable to get a strong push off the start and lacking the clean runs she needed.

“I just wish I had pushed faster,” she said.

After her finish, she found Jean Schaefer, Steven’s mother, and Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, the surgeon who treated Steven Holcomb’s eye disease, and gave them a hug, posing with the American flag.

Uhlaender struck an optimistic tone after her last heat.

“I have friends, family — so much love and support,” she said. “I couldn’t have made it this far without them. And I think I just need to absorb that and be grateful.”

At 33 years old, Uhlaender is not sure if she will return to the Olympics. She has already incurred substantial debt in pursuit of her Pyeongchang moment.

“I think I want to walk away knowing that I have tons of people that love me that have supported me,” she said. “And the journey is crazy. There’s going to be peaks, there’s going to be valleys, and I just I don’t want to walk away being bitter or upset. I’m doing the best that I can and I want to be not just an Olympian but a really great human and inspire others to do the same.”