Dad’s cancer battle rocked Breck champion sledder | SummitDaily.com

Dad’s cancer battle rocked Breck champion sledder

DEVON O'NEIL
special to the daily
Summit County, CO Colorado
United States' Katie Uhlaender celebrates her run in the World Cup women's skeleton race Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009, at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah. She finished in second place. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)
AP | AP

When Katie Uhlaender was a little girl, she did not harbor dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. Nor did she want to be a fashion designer or a beauty queen like the other girls. She wanted to be a big-league baseball player.

She would tell her parents, Karen and Ted, that someday she was going to be the first woman to play in the major leagues. Never the softball major leagues ” always baseball.

She held that belief into her teenage years when, according to her mother, she became the first female member of the baseball team at the high school she attended in McGregor, Texas.

Katie’s inspiration? Her dad, an eight-year big-league veteran who played in the 1972 World Series with the Cincinnati Reds.

“He was her idol,” Karen said in a phone interview Monday.

Last Thursday, Katie Uhlaender ” a Breckenridge resident and Summit High School graduate ” sat in a hotel room in Park City, Utah, preparing for the final skeleton race of this year’s World Cup circuit.

It had been a disappointing season for the two-time defending World Cup champion. She had yet to crack the podium, finishing fourth three times.

In a sport where slivers of time can be traced to minuscule errors in technique, the roots of her slump were much simpler. She missed her dad.

Her mind had refused to leave Ted, who was fighting bone-marrow cancer as she traveled around Europe in search of World Cup medals.

“I wanted to be with him, and he wanted me to compete,” she said. “Honestly, I’m not sure I ever felt good about not being there.”

As Uhlaender sat in the hotel room preparing for her World Cup finale, the phone rang. It was Katie’s brother; he was crying. He asked to speak with Karen, who took the call in the hall.

The news was bad. Ted had died.

“And I couldn’t tell her,” Karen said, “because I knew she wouldn’t be able to race if she knew.”

Instead, Karen watched as Katie, chiseled and brash and powerful ” a born athlete if ever there was one ” schussed down the icy track to a silver medal, the best finish of an otherwise gut-wrenching season.

Shortly after the podium ceremony, her mother delivered the news. Her father was dead.

Ted Uhlaender was a baseball lifer. After his playing career ended, he bounced around the bigs filling various roles. He worked for the Diamondbacks and Yankees, coached first base for the Indians. He was employed as a scout by the Giants up until the day he died.

“He’d go to spring training in February and come home after the World Series in November,” Karen said. “He wasn’t around much.”

And yet he never missed one of his daughter’s major races. He watched her take bronze at the 2007 World Championships in Switzerland, then silver at last year’s Worlds in Germany. At the 2006 Olympics in Italy, he calmed Katie’s nerves by relating in detail his first at-bat at Yankee Stadium, with Mickey Mantle patrolling center field.

“We all have to go up there and hit the ball,” he told her. “That’s all you can do.”

Katie, a tomboy growing up, always responded well to her father’s perspective.

When she talked to him over Christmas, his first words to her were: “So, why aren’t you winning?” She told him she was worried about him.

When he called her before last Thursday’s race, the tone was more solemn. He understood how stressed she had been, trying to compete with an empty heart.

“He told me he missed me,” Uhlaender recalled in an e-mail Sunday night. “He wanted me to stop trying to win and to just go do what I always do. He said: ‘That’s the problem, you need to go out there, put your head phones on, dance, sing, and go fast. Stop trying and just go do it. I know you can. I love you. And I’ll see you soon.’

“We told each other we loved each other three or four times before hanging up,” Uhlaender said. “He seemed to not want to get off the phone.”

Whereas all season she had struggled to find a rhythm on the ice, this time she had it. Her pride swelled.

“He finally made me feel as though that’s where I was meant to be,” she said.

As she prepared to push off, Uhlaender spoke out loud to her father through the falling snow: “Here we go, Dad. This is for you.”

She admitted later that she already knew he was dead, even if she hadn’t been told. “I wanted to be the best I could be for him,” she said.

When it was over, only one slider had beaten Uhlaender’s two-run time ” Marion Trott of Germany, the new World Cup champion.

Uhlaender flew to New York shortly after her father’s death to spend the weekend training for the upcoming World Championships, set for Feb. 26-27 in Lake Placid. She returned home on Monday to prepare for Ted’s funeral, set for Wednesday at 1 p.m. at Coors Field.

Despite not finishing as the No. 1 skeleton racer in the world this year, Uhlaender remains the best America has and figures a sure thing to represent the United States at her second Olympics next year in Vancouver.

If all goes as planned, she’ll be joined in spirit by an old ballplayer on the starting line.

“My Olympic dream was just as much of a dream for him as it is for me,” she said of her dad.

Now, though, she can hardly look people in the eye without losing it. It’s difficult to even breathe, she said.

“The only time I feel normal is when I slide, and that’s because I feel like my dad is there with me.”


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