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In espnW on September 10, 2015 at 2:43 pm
Photo courtesy of Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Photo courtesy of Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The 250-meter indoor track at the VELO Sports Center in Carson, California, is steep — banking at 45 degrees — but Katie Uhlaender isn’t fazed. It’s early August, the first day of the USA Cycling National Championships. Uhlaender is a three-time Olympian and the 2012 world champion in skeleton – the sport where athletes hurl themselves down (face down!) a frozen track at speeds of 90 mph. She has ridden a bike for only four months, and she’s competing against veterans who have cycled since childhood. But she loves to ride.

With a 1992 green Cannondale named “Oscar,” after Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street,” she aims to crack USA’s Oympic cycling team. Though the odds are against her, the 31-year-old with fire-truck-red hair isn’t afraid of failing. Not after sustaining a concussion when her front tire popped off in May. Not after overcoming 10 surgeries because of skeleton. Not after the death of her father, the late MLB player and coach Ted Uhlaender, who always urged her to go for it. “Do it right or don’t do it at all,” he often said.

The race begins. Uhlaender enters “the flow,” a state she also occupies in skeleton competitions. “You start going down the track. You get the butterflies in your stomach and you start thinking, ‘I don’t know if I want to go any faster.’ Then you realize you don’t have any brakes,” she said. “You have two choices at that point: embrace it or freak out. If you just embrace it, you end up enjoying the ride.”
Katie Uhlaender found herself on a bike rather than a sled by chance. Rehabbing hip and ankle injuries at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado in January, she was completing stationary bike work when onlookers asked for her wattage and suggested she try cycling. Uhlaender had no intentions of abandoning skeleton, but moved to Dallas and gave cycling a shot. Having spent months out of competition, she hoped the new sport would provide the thrill she craved. “The only reason I’d say no is fear of failure,” she said.

Uhlaender, who also entered the 2012 U.S. Olympic weightlifting trials but didn’t make the team, embraces fear. At 19, she walked up to a woman in a gym and dared her to race. The woman was a bobsledder and suggested Uhlaender try skeleton. Uhlaender was terrified but dove in. “Anything that scared me, I had to face it,” she said. So while others asked, “Why cycle?” Uhlaender countered, “Why not?”

Uhlaender had natural ability, but she was raw on the bike. “She didn’t even know how to put her feet into the pedals,” said Nelson Li, a track monitor at the Superdrome in Frisco, Texas, who helped coach her. (READ MORE).


In SB Nation on April 15, 2015 at 11:24 am
Photo courtesy of Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Photo courtesy of Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Marreese “Mo” Speights wasn’t a star. He wasn’t a starter. He wasn’t mentioned for more than a couple sentences in opponents’ scouting reports, either. For the first month and a half of his freshman season at Florida, Speights served as a punching bag for a bunch of upperclassmen bangers named Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Chris Richard.

The two eventual NBA lottery picks and second-round selection dunked on Speights daily, posting him up and out-hustling him during practice. But Speights didn’t sulk. He sought the trio out for advice and challenged them during drills. “Mo didn’t care who he guarded,” Richard said. “He took on everybody.”

Embracing his backup role for the national-champion Gators, Speights seized the moment no matter how fleeting. He ripped down six boards in five minutes against Arkansas in the title game of the SEC Tournament and poured in 16 points in 10 minutes against Jackson State in the NCAA first round.

“He was always ready,” said Rockets guard Corey Brewer, a former Florida teammate. “He came off the bench and he gave us a spark. He worked his butt off, that was the main thing. He got better and better each day.”

After Horford, Noah and Richard departed for the NBA, Speights was thrust into the spotlight for the Gators the following season. His coaches relished his offensive gifts—the way his soft touch and size could stretch a defense—but they wanted more defensive intensity and competitive drive. Coach Billy Donovan demanded more out of Speights toward the end of the season.

“I think (Donovan) just felt this guy really needs to be pushed to his limit and beyond, more than he even thinks he can give,” said former Florida assistant Larry Shyatt, who is now the head coach at Wyoming. “You’d leave practice and Mo would be laying on the floor exhausted.”

“Mo’s attitude was phenomenal,” Shyatt added. “He kept fighting through it.”

Echoes Donnie Jones, another former assistant, who is the head coach at the University of Central Florida, “He knew everything was about learning. I think that’s the theme of why he’s been able to grow as a player. He’s always about, ‘How can I get better?'” (READ MORE.)


In SB Nation on January 15, 2015 at 11:42 am
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Gordon Hayward’s body ached.

There was the smack of Carmelo Anthony’s shoulder on the block, pump-faking him into the air for the and-one. There was the sting of getting popped in the eye by Pablo Prigioni on a drive. There were the elbows that swung at his gut when he darted into the key.

Though an undeterred Hayward responded with a season-high 33 points against the Knicks, these are the nightly hits that come with being Utah’s go-to player. These are also the non-calls that come with being a budding No. 1 option that has yet to garner the respect.

“I’m kind of more of an offensive focus for other teams,” Hayward said prior to Utah’s Dec. 29 game against the Clippers. “It’s been a process learning how to handle that.”

Heavier than the physical contact in the lane, though, is the burden of leading the rebuilding Jazz up the ladder in the stacked West. Hayward is blossoming with career-high averages, but is the fifth-year swingman finally ready to seize the franchise’s reins?


Standing 5’11 and 155 pounds of skin and bones, Hayward wasn’t his team’s first option as a freshman at Indiana’s Brownsburg High School. He wasn’t the second, third or fourth option, either.

Instead he zealously played StarCraft video games. He sat with his parents and twin sister rather than his teammates at varsity football games. He smoked his teammates at ping pong, foosball and pool.

But on the court? No one expected much.

“I didn’t even notice him until he started raining threes on us,” said Grantland’s Mark Titus, a former high-school teammate. “Just a tiny, tiny dude who could shoot.”

He was more fit for tennis than hoops. With his slight frame and superb agility, Hayward spent hours training with a private tennis coach in hopes of succeeding long-term in that sport. But a sudden growth spurt altered his plans, skyrocketing him to 6’8 and 185 pounds by his senior year. The combination of Hayward’s ball-handling, outside shooting and athleticism allowed him to dominate along the perimeter and in the post, leading Brownsburg to the state title.

He also morphed into one of the top tennis players in Indiana, reaching the state singles quarterfinals. But as college basketball coaches began to watch him play, it became clear Hayward’s future lied on the hardwood.

“If he played tennis year round, he had a strong chance of probably playing professional tennis,” former Brownsburg tennis coach Eric Esterline said.

Still, Hayward wasn’t a five-star basketball recruit and garnered three scholarship offers before deciding on Butler. Not one to seek attention, he made the right plays at the right times, quietly coming into his own as a lead-by-example kind of player for Brad Stevens’ club.

“Whether it was him getting a big-time block, a steal against Murray State, he wasn’t somebody who needed to say a whole lot,” former Butler teammate Willie Veasley said. “Just somebody who went on the court and did what coach asked for when we needed it.”

He wasn’t the one anyone imagined would lead a Cinderella Butler team all the way to the title game against Duke in 2010. But there Hayward found himself, an unlikely star thrust into the ring with the highest of stakes. A few years before, he almost traded in his high-tops for a racquet. On that night, his half-court hurl at the buzzer almost broke the Blue Devils and almost made him an instant legend. (READ MORE.)


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