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Ramsey: Skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender learns to live, race without departed father, Ted

October 22, 2013 Updated: October 22, 2013 at 7:12 pm
Caption +
United States Olympic Winter Games skeleton participant Katie Uhlaender poses for a portrait at the 2013 Team USA Media Summit on Monday, October 1, 2013 in Park City, UT. (AP Photo/Carlo Allegri)


Ted Uhlaender taught his daughter Katie how to thrive in solitude. You compete as part of a team, he told Katie, but in a deeper sense you walk alone. And walking alone requires fearless imagination.

Katie follows the words of her father, an outfielder for the Twins, Indians and Reds who played in the 1965 and 1972 World Series. When she leaps on her sled for skeleton competition, she savors her lonely, face-first rides on an ice missile that travels 75 mph. She's fearless.

But she's struggling. That's obvious.

Ted died in 2009 of bone-marrow cancer, leaving Katie by herself. She still battles to escape the confusion and rage that crashes into the lives of those left behind.

She's sorting through the pain as she prepares for her bid to compete on the skeleton in the Sochi Winter Olympics. She's sorting even as she discovers a hard-won, fresh peace. Ted, though he's gone, remains her anchor.

"He made me feel like a warrior," Katie said this month in Park City, Utah. "He gave me purpose, and when he passed away, I lost that purpose."

She paused to wipe away tears.

"Not to get all dark," she said.

It was dark for her. For years it was dark. Her father taught her to savor being alone, to use those moments to dig into her will and discover surging power.

But she never imagined a life without her hero.

Uhlaender was raised in Breckenridge, where she's still based. Her parents met on the slopes, and her mother, Karen, worked as a ski instructor for three decades at Copper Mountain and Breckenridge.

Her father refused to pamper her. He preached self-reliance and demanded constant improvement.

"I don't remember him ever complimenting me," Uhlaender said. "Or him ever putting me down. He always told me how to get better. . He never gave me anything. He made me work for it."

She played baseball, with her father's support, on a team otherwise filled with boys. She competed in skiing. Her competitive flames were blazing, but she struggled to find a sport that fully revealed her strength and daring.

In 2003, a friend suggested Uhlaender try the skeleton. The sport, invented by English tourists in Switzerland in the 1880s, is primal. A competitor hops on a sled and speeds down the same courses used by bobsled racers. This was an ideal match of sport and athlete. Within a month of her debut, Uhlaender ranked in the world's top 10. She finished sixth in the skeleton in the 2006 Games and 11th in the 2010 Games.

Her father quickly saw a connection between a solitary ride on a sled and standing alone in the batter's box. He told Katie about the first time he walked to the plate for the Twins in 1965. He was at Yankee Stadium. Mickey Mantle stood watching in the outfield. His knees shook.

"You can get in that batter's box, cross yourself and all that, but you're on your own," Ted told the Associated Press in 2006. "Same thing with skeleton. When you get on that sled, the team ain't helping you."

In the tense minutes before skeleton races, Katie called her father. His voice, as flat as the Midwestern town where he grew up, soothed her, pushed her. He called her Crazy Katie and demanded she do her best.

In 2008, her father was fading, and her times were rising. Ted called her, asked what was wrong. She said she didn't want to ride a sled. She wanted to be by his side.

In one of their final phone conversations, Ted commanded his daughter to keep pushing herself, to keep competing and to quit worrying about him. He died Feb. 12, 2009.

A year later, almost to the day, Katie walked into a stadium in Vancouver for the Winter Games opening ceremonies. On Feb. 13, 2010, the full impact of her father's death descended on her.

"I had no purpose," she said. "I had ton of passion and no place to put it."

She slowly made her way back. She found solace in working in the peaceful, wide open spaces of the family farm in northwest Kansas. She turned to weightlifting, seeking - and failing - to earn a spot on the U.S. team for the London Olympics.

She knows she never can replace her father, but she has discovered, through all the searching and the questioning, she can be happy.

"I was shattered," she said. "I had to create a mosaic. I found those pieces, but people helped me put it together. It's just given me an overwhelming sense of responsibility. To not let those people down who helped me get there."

Uhlaender was easy to spot in a room filled with reporters and athletes. She has broad shoulders and the strong, sandpaper hands you find among farm workers and weightlifters. Her hair is dyed fiery red.

And then there's the hefty ring hanging from a chain around her neck. This is Ted's ring from the 1972 World Series. While she talked, she often massaged the ring.

In the months after Ted's death, his daughter was enraged and lonely and lost.

"I was stomping my feet," she said. "I was saying, 'I want my dad, I don't want to do this by myself.'"

It's taken time, but she realizes the father she so adores remains with her. In a way, she's alone on that sled as she roars down the course, but in another way, a better way, she's never truly by herself. She hears the voice of her departed father.

The father who never will depart.


Twitter: @davidramz

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