Park City • At long last, the darkness has turned to light for Katie Uhlaender.
Mired "in a really dark place, for a long time," the skeleton slider from Colorado has finally put a series of crippling injuries and the death of her father behind her, winning the second World Cup race of the season Friday at the Utah Olympic Oval and emerging as one of the top contenders for gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.
World Cup bobsled and skeleton
At the Utah Olympic Park
Gold » Katie Uhlaender, USA, 1:40.93
Silver » Elizabeth Yarnold, Great Britain, 1:40.94
Bronze » Anja Huber, Germany, 1:42.21
Gold » Steven Holcomb and Curtis Tomasevicz, USA, 1:37.40
Silver » Cory Butner and Charles Berkeley, USA, 1:37:43
Bronze » Francesco Friedrich and Gino Gerhardi, Germany, 1:37.50
Gold » Kaillie Humphries and Chelsea Valios, Canada, 1:39.49
Silver » Sandra Kiriasis and Franziska Bertels, Germany, 1:39.77
Bronze » Cathleen Martini and Stephanie Schneider, Germany, 1:39.81
"I feel like finally I was able to let go of the fact that my father’s no longer here, which has brought me closer to him and has motivated me even more to keep his legacy alive," she said. "This is all he wanted. He just wanted me to win."
Somewhere, then, Ted Uhlaender is "jumping in his boots."
His emotionally transformed daughter won on an unseasonably mild day that also featured Park City’s Steven Holcomb winning the two-man bobsled with brakeman Curtis Tomasevich and up-and-coming teammates Cory Butner and Charles Berkeley finishing second for the second straight race — though the Americans failed to medal in women’s bobsled.
Having finally recovered from four knee surgeries (and one hip surgery) to repair damage from a snowmobile accident, Uhlaender "broke the curse" and won the world championship last season, before trying to qualify for the London Olympics in weightlifting.
She didn’t make it, but she raced to victory Friday with one of her father’s baseball cards taped to her sled, and the National League championship ring that he won playing for the Cincinnati Reds in 1972 on a chain around her neck.
"My father was my foundation," she said.
He died from cancer in 2009, on the day Uhlaender won silver at a World Cup race here and almost exactly a year before she limped through the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, finishing a disappointing 11th and bitterly complaining about a lack of support from the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation.
"It was a combination of things," she said. "I went from winning 50 percent of the time and being in phenomenal condition to not being able to walk down stairs. … I was so beat down mentally, on top of physically, that I just couldn’t come out of it. I was really bitter, really angry."
Uhlaender roared into the lead Friday with the penultimate run of the day, then had to sweat out the final run by world bronze medalist Elizabeth Yarnold of Great Britain.
Yarnold started faster than Uhlaender and was ahead of her splits most of the way — Uhlaender clocked 1 minute, 40.93 seconds for her two runs, combined — but gradually lost time until crossing the line just 0.01 seconds behind the American.
"It was almost like watching a scary movie and not wanting to really look," Uhlaender said.
Uhlaender became part of an American team making waves early this season.
It won six medals at the World Cup opener in Lake Placid last weekend, and has three so far this weekend, with two races remaining on Saturday.
The female skeleton sliders are hopeful they can qualify a third sled for the world championships in Switzerland and the Sochi Olympics — the top four ranked teams in the world earn that privilege — even though Park City’s Kimber Gabryszak slipped at the start of her second run and wound up 15th on Friday.
She could have started over if she had stopped before triggering the timing eye and started again within a 30-second time limit, "but I thought I was running out of time, so I just kept going," she said. "It’s kind of heartbreaking on my home track."
Gabryszak will rotate with Noelle Pikus-Pace — the former World Cup champion from Orem is making a comeback, nearly three years after retiring to motherhood following the Vancouver Olympics — and possibly Annie O’Shea for the rest of the season. The sliders will take turns at the World Cup races while the others compete on the lower-level circuits to earn ranking points.
"As part of our strategy for getting a third sled, we’re switching around a little bit," Gabryszak said. "I think it’s going to be positive."
If not, only two Americans will have places at the Sochi Olympics.
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