Mere seconds away from competing in her fourth Olympics, after four years of surgeries, debt, controversy, a near-death experience and the passing of one of her best friends, Katie Uhlaender probably thought she had seen it all.
Then she looked up.
She was at the starting line of the skeleton track in PyeongChang, preparing to hurtle through frigid Korean air at dangerously high speeds. She stole one last glance at her coaches.
And there, sitting beside them, was a woman she hadn’t seen in four years. There was her mom. Crying.
“It felt like I fell through the floor,” Uhlaender later said. “I’m not going to lie. I almost started crying. I blew her a kiss.”
Uhlaender knew that she would see her mother, Karen, at some point during the Olympics. She knew that they would talk for the first time since a “falling out.” But she expected that reunion to come after the race on Friday, or perhaps the following day. Not with her mother apparently having snuck past security to join Team USA staff near the start of the course.
It might not have been the best time for such a surprise. “It was a lot to take in in that moment,” Uhlaender said of the unexpected sight. “I was kind of busy. I kind of wish she had waited.”
The 33-year-old finished 13th, the worst of her four Olympic finishes. Her first two runs, on that Friday, had more or less put her out of medal contention.
But she certainly wasn’t complaining.
“Really, can I be upset that my mom flew I-don’t-know-how-many thousands of miles from Colorado to be here?” Uhlaender said. “I just saw nothing but love. The fact that she’s here, that she is showing me all the love she has, that is huge. I want to accept the love. I’m looking forward to building from there. And it’s my mom, man. I’ve been waiting.”
Uhlaender declined to divulge too much information about their fractured relationship. She also simply doesn’t know too much about what her mother has been up to since it fractured. She wasn’t sure where she was living or working.
Uhlaender — whose father died nine years ago — has had enough going on in her own life since the falling out. Concussions. Five surgeries. A dreadful auto-immune disease to which she nearly succumbed in 2016. And when she fought back from it, rebuilding her body, aiming for what would likely be her last Olympic run, she spent her way into debt on skeleton equipment and travel.
Then, less than a year before the Games, she forced her way into her best friend’s room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York, to find him dead. Steven Holcomb, a U.S. bobsledder, had, according to a toxicology report, overdosed on a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol. His teammates grieved, and none more so than Uhlaender, who said she spent part of the past year living with Holcomb’s mother.
Oh, and at various points throughout the past four years, she thought she might have an Olympic medal. She finished fourth in Sochi in 2014, 0.04 seconds back of Russia’s Elena Nikitina. After the Games were over, Nikitina was accused of doping. The IOC stripped her of her bronze, which put Uhlaender in line for a retrospectively awarded medal. Not until earlier this month, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned Nikitina’s ban, did Uhlaender find out she no longer was.
So unless she comes back for a fifth go at age 37, or unless another appeal overturns CAS’s decision on Nikitina, Uhlaender’s Olympic career ended medal-less on Saturday night.
It did not, though, end without a special moment.
“There’s so many good things coming out of the race,” she said, referencing the reunion with her mother, and proving once again that the Olympics are about far more than sport.
More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Team USA hints at bad sportsmanship, bad play by O.A.R. in lopsided loss
• Mikaela Shiffrin pours heart out on social media
• The story behind the famous Olympic escalator stunt
• Ester Ledecka celebrates surprise gold medal with trip to KFC
• Swiss father bikes 10,000 miles to watch son ski in Olympics