Katie Uhlaender crouches in the left-turn lane of W 58th St. and makes eye contact with the driver next to her. She cracks a smile, motioning toward the intersection to initiate a race. The driver declines the challenge, and Uhlaender sprints past—a red tangle of hair flying down the street.
It’s an 80-degree afternoon in New York City. Uhlaender, a three-time Olympian in skeleton who has her sights set on PyeongChang 2018, is midway through a recovery week that has conveniently fallen over the July 4 holiday. She’s in town for a job interview, but that won’t keep her from a workout.
The hotel parking garage was too cramped, though, so Uhlaender and her impromptu cameraman—a friend she made during hip surgery, the ninth operation of her career—find themselves on the sidewalk. It’ll do.
Uhlaender, who turns 33 on July 17, only travels during recovery weeks these days. It’s a grind now, just seven months away from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Her life has been based out of the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., since the 2016–17 Skeleton World Cup ended in March. There’s structure there, along with food and housing. But with a new $15,000 sled on the horizon, Uhlaender is in town for a job interview at a advertising and production company.
But that’s not until Thursday. Today is Wednesday, and Uhlaender is just a veteran Olympian who has a very real shot at qualifying for the 2018 Winter Games.
Uhlaender, the daughter of former MLB player Ted Uhlaender, has segmented her Olympic training into four-week sections this year. She steadily builds for three weeks, then takes the fourth week at a reduced volume. These recovery weeks are often based on “perceived effort,” she says, where the intensity is there but not necessarily strict sets and programs.
"I'm going by feel,” she explains. “My hip was kinda strained after a hard few days so my goal is to get that to go away. I'm just gonna do enough this week. Normally I'd lift, but I'm going to maximize my recovery."
This workout begins with a 30-minute warmup of stretching, short sprints and some yoga. Then she takes to the sidewalk (and turning lane) for two sets of strides at sub-maximal effort.
She challenges a handful of construction workers to races. They decline, including one who is hauling bricks down the sidewalk. Uhlaender is disappointed. She thrives on the competition.
"Most people are scared to come work out with an Olympian,” she says. “Well, first of all, I'm not a track star. I'm far from it, just ask Lolo [Jones]. But I love running with people that are extremely fast. I'll run with all the guys, with Lolo, with Lauryn Williams—who crushed me—because there's something about pushing myself to be the best I can be. Even if I don't beat them, I feel really good running with them.”
In lieu of a challenger, Uhlaender decides to have some fun with her workout in the city.
"I put my headphones on and I start dancing, I start enjoying what I'm doing,” she says. “If I have to listen to music and dance my way through it, I'm doing it. If I talk to random people for motivation, I'm doing it … I guess the best time to do something is when we most don't want to.”
She begins the final segment: Six, eight-second hill sprints at maximal effort. She decides to cut it two sets short, saying her form is deteriorating and her hip isn’t feeling all too great. It’s probably a good call, seeing as it’s 3 p.m. and all she’s had today is some coffee.
Skeleton, for those uninitiated, is a winter sport that features a lone racer going headfirst down an icy track at 80 miles per hour. Women have been competing in the sport at the Olympic level since 2002, and Uhlaender has been in every Games since 2006.
One of skeleton’s complexities is its running start, which adds a training complexity.
"You want to be as lean as possible, as fast as possible and as strong as possible—all the things,” Uhlaender says with a laugh. “You want to be fast sprinting, but you have to be strong because you run bent over. It's like doing a bear crawl at top speed.”
Uhlaender is aiming to lose 10 pounds by the time the 2017-18 season starts in October. That means dietary changes (she says she’s learned that carbs are no longer the devil) and intense training (brushing her teeth at the end of an average day can feel like “a chore”).
Because speed and quickness are key for skeleton racers, Uhlaender says she always follows a slow exercise like squats or deadlifts with something quick. She explains that she wants her brain to understand that everything is supposed to be fast and powerful.
Over the years, Uhlaender has found success in a plethora of sports. She’s branched out to compete at the international level recently in both weightlifting and track cycling. Through those experiences, she has been able to incorporate wide-ranging lessons into her Olympic preparation.
“Olympic lifting is great for functional strength and movement,” she says. “It's something that works really well for me. I don't squat as much anymore because I have a great strength base. I've been training for 15 years.”
Most workouts, however, aren’t like this New York City street adventure. Uhlaender calls herself a perfectionist in her fitness regimen, recording everything and training at a high, consistent level—especially during the three weeks of steady building. It’s all part of a plan to stay healthy on her way toward the 2017-18 season and Olympic qualification.
The 2014 Winter Games were devastating for Uhlaender. She came up empty-handed, losing out on a bronze medal by four-hundredths of a second. She’ll admit that she’s still grappling with that loss to this day (the third-place winner remains under investigation for doping allegations, which has left just enough uncertainty to allow the issue to linger for years), but she says the result has served as a powerful motivator.
If she’s healthy, though, watch out. Uhlaender, a competitor in every sense of the word, isn’t about to slow down anytime soon—and she has a podium in sight.