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).