Park City • Tears tumbled down each cheek, each droplet falling onto the lap of Katie Uhlaender. At the very mention of her best friend’s name, the wave of memories and advice and eventually heartbreak slams into her. He’s gone, and the grieving process continues for those surrounding the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation and all of Team USA.
At this week’s Olympic Media Summit, friends and athletes took turns discussing the loss of Park City’s Steven Holcomb and their favorite stories of the most-decorated bobsled driver in American history. Holcomb died in May at 37, leaving the Olympic community floored at his loss.
No one was as transparent as Uhlaender. They were the best of friends. They were connected over the last 15 years. Kindred spirits, each other’s escape when one needed it. When they were in the same room with teammates, they’d text jokes or insight to each another.
“Whenever you saw Steve,” said U.S. bobsled athlete Carlo Valdes, “you better believe that Katie is somewhere nearby.”
Uhlaender sat tall in her chair in the corner of the ballroom in Park City, letting some tears fall, wiping away others, reflecting about her loss. The three-time Olympian and former world champion skeleton athlete recalled the moment when she was bedridden in a Colorado Springs, Colo., hospital last World Cup season, battling an auto-immune disease that ravaged her liver and left not only her career in question, but also her life.
As her thoughts spiraled and her fever spiked in the midst of the crisis, Holcomb told Uhlaender that she couldn’t allow a bit of bad luck keep her down. “You need to be you,” he told her. While more tears form, she takes a long, deep breath. Holcomb, once again, had encouraged her when she was at her lowest point. Of course, it worked.
“What else would he have said to me?” she said. “So I have peace knowing that my best friend was an Olympic champion and believed I could be. And that just boosts my confidence and motivates me more.”
She revealed in her media session Monday that she was the first person to find Holcomb in his room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid on May 6. Uhlaender said she had to force her way into his room. She knew something was wrong. Holcomb hadn’t been in touch for two days, a rarity for those two.
“So I broke in,” she said.
A toxicology report provided to USA Bobsled & Skeleton this summer showed Holcomb had prescription sleeping pills and alcohol in his system when he was found dead. Valdes said he and other sliders on the team believe Holcomb’s death was a tragic accident.
Five months since his death, Uhlaender is implementing Holcomb’s advice. And by doing so, she’s decided that’s how she will honor him and her late father, Ted, a former Major League Baseball outfielder. She is dedicating the rest of her career to sticking to those words.
“That’s how I can continue their legacy by being me, by doing me to my best and continuing to live as they would want me to,” she said. “It’s not for them. I’m doing me to honor them.”
Uhlaender was one of the few asked to speak on Holcomb’s behalf at his memorial in June. Uhlaender tried to battle the tears, but relented on that warm, windy day at Holcomb’s home track at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City.
“In a way,” she said, “he isn’t gone. We’re just behind him like most of his competitors on the ice.”
Justin Olsen is one of the American bobsled drivers tasked with following Holcomb’s epic career. Holcomb, a three-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist, snapped a 62-year-long gold medal drought for the U.S. in the four-man bobsled event in 2010. He won 60 World Cup medals and was a six-time World Cup champ.
The mourning process continues, yet another chapter — perhaps the most important — comes in the coming weeks.
“The one thing that none of the sliders have done is we haven’t gone down the track yet,” Olsen said. “We haven’t actually started sliding with the absence of Steve.”
The team has explored the idea of being able to compete with decals this World Cup season dedicated to Holcomb, Valdes said. They ordered team bracelets commemorating Holcomb that say “Holcy,” his nickname. Valdes won’t wear one on his wrist this year, instead he’ll find an appropriate spot for it in the sled.
“I’ll put that somewhere where I can visibly see it on each run,” he said.
One of the first times Uhlaender and Holcomb hung out, she said, it was way back when she was brand new at the Olympic Training Center. After twisting his arm, she finally persuaded him to do something. So they grabbed Uhlaender’s small plastic practice push sled and rode it around the hallways of the center before eventually taking it into the parking lot.
Holcomb, she remembered, was in heaven, pushing faster and faster. Until he came across this pothole in the parking lot. “Everything exploded,” Uhlaender said. Holcomb tumbled off, and the two laughed hysterically.
“We named the pothole Holcomb’s Hole,” she said. “I think they filled it in now. It was there for a long time.”
It was that day, Uhlaender said with the tears now dry, the two gelled forever.
“From that day on,” she said.