The last time she had raced in a World Skeleton Championships at Lake Placid, N.Y., back in 2009, Katie Uhlaender was mourning the death two weeks earlier of her father, Ted, the former major league outfielder who had urged her to keep competing even as she wanted to stay at his side during a year-long battle with bone marrow cancer. She finished seventh.
"Unfortunately, there was no cure for his cancer or my torn heart," Uhlaender said at the time.
Friday, after she had won the world gold medal on the same Lake Placid track, Uhlaender showed everyone the touchstones that had carried her through a four-year struggle with grief and serious injuries.
After hugging her mother, Karen, a tearful Uhlaender reached into an equipment bag and pulled out a baseball card of her father, who had played eight seasons with the Twins, Indians and Reds. Then her mother handed her daughter the amulet Katie wears on a chain around her neck when she is not racing or training: Ted Uhlaender's ring from the 1972 World Series, which the Reds lost to the Oakland A's.
Uhlaender, 27, would have little time to celebrate becoming the second U.S. woman to win the skeleton world title since a women's race was added in 2000. Noelle Pikus-Pace took gold in 2007.
Even before the tears had dried - actually, even before her last of four runs - she was thinking of the next challenge, trying to make the 2012 Olympics as a weightlifter in U.S. trials that begin Mar. 4 in Columbus, Ohio.
She has been in two Winter Olympics on the skeleton sled, finishing sixth in 2006 and 11th in 2010. The latter was especially disappointing, since she had won a bronze medal at the 2007 worlds and silver in 2008 (more impressively, both came on European tracks in a sport where home track knowledge is a significant advantage) and the World Cup season titles both years. But that was before her dad died, before two surgeries on the kneecap and one on a thigh bone, all damaged in a snowmobiling accident near her home in Colorado. The last surgery came just 11 weeks before the 2010 Winter Games.
“Honestly, this race was for me about breaking the curse,” Uhlaender told reporters Friday. “This is my moment. This is the way the Olympics should have been. I finally wasn’t bitter anymore."
Building on her fast starts in every run, Uhlaender took a lead of .18 seconds over 2006 Olympic bronze medalist Mellisa Hollingsworth of Canada in Thursday's second run. Being first overnight turned out to be discomfiting.
"I was freaking out last night," Uhlaender said Friday. (Steven) Holcomb (the Olympic four-man bobsled champion driver who won the world two-man title Sunday) was basically my rock, and the coaching staff has been amazing. Holcomb told me to just stay calm and do what I had to do on the track. He just gave me confidence in what I was doing. I did not do this alone today."
Uhlaender lost .01 to Hollingsworth in the third run but flew down the track early in the last and finished .17 ahead overall. Elizabeth Yarnold of Great Britain was third.
"My last thought on the line (for the final start) was to run like I was going into Olympic trials, because that's where I'm headed next," she said.
Uhlaender's chances to make the Summer Olympics are much smaller. She finished third in her weight class last year, and the U.S. has qualified for just two spots total in seven weight classes.
But she now has lifted a heavy weight from her mind.