LAKE PLACID - Katie Uhlaender sat in the finish house at Mount Van Hoevenberg, snow swirling all around outside, and exhaled, a smile creasing her face after another challenge met.
Halfway through the women's race at the Skeleton World Championships, Uhlaender held the lead.
"I'm pretty happy with where I'm at," said Uhlaender, of Breckenridge, Colo. "This is a blessing for me because the doctors didn't know if I'd make it back. To be competing at this level, I've really been so blessed."
Katie Uhlaender of the United States pushes her sled to start the second run Thursday at the FIBT Bobsled and Skeleton World Championships in Lake Placid. The Breckenridge, Colo. resident jumped into first place after the run to carry a .18 second lead into today’s final two heats.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
Two shattered kneecaps, six months on crutches, eight surgeries. No problem for the two-time Olympian, who's trying to join an elite group of athletes. After this competition ends this morning, she'll have a week to get ready for Olympic trials in weightlifting in Columbus, Ohio.
Uhlaender finished third last summer in the women's 63-kilogram division at the USA Weightlifting national championships in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She remains optimistic she can make the U.S. team for the London Olympics, which start in late July.
"I've been working really hard on London and world championships," Uhlaender said. "It's been a mentally challenging season balancing both and trying to keep the big picture in mind. My coaches told me all season to stay present, stay in the moment and know where I'm supposed to be. That's what I was thinking the whole way down.
"I'm going to try to take that approach into tomorrow and Olympic trials, stay in the moment and not try to get ahead of myself. I think that's the key."
Uhlaender's skeleton career took a hit when she crashed her snowmobile after the 2008-09 season, leaving her with a shattered left kneecap and other issues. All that came while she was still struggling with the death of her father, former major leaguer Ted Uhlaender.
Though her dad probably never will be far from her mind, Uhlaender was back in top form again Thursday. She finished her two runs over the tricky 19-curve layout in 1 minute, 51.03 seconds and led Mellisa Hollingsworth of Canada by 0.18 seconds. World Cup champion Shelley Rudman of Britain was third, 0.45 behind, followed by teammate Elizabeth Yarnold. Marion Thees of Germany, seeking her third straight title at worlds, was fifth and Olympic champion Amy Williams of Britain was sixth.
After putting down a solid first run of 55.54 seconds, Uhlaender demonstrated the consistency that's needed in a four-heat race, finishing the second heat in 55.49 seconds, the second-best time of the day and only 0.11 seconds off the track record held by teammate Annie O'Shea.
Rudman, who held the top spot after an opening run of 55.48, faded to 56.00, while Hollingsworth had a second-run time of 55.57.
"This is a track where there's mistakes all the time," said Hollingsworth, who was second after three runs at the Vancouver Olympics two years ago, then faded to fifth with a bad final run. "Make minimal mistakes, you're going to be the fastest after four heats."
The top guns of World Cup opted during Wednesday night's draw not to slide first, and Uhlaender jumped at the chance. She responded to the challenge and held her arms outstretched in front of her in celebration as she slid to a halt after her opening run.
"I was so happy," said Uhlaender, her dad's World Series ring dangling from a chain around her neck. "I told (coach) Tuffy (Latour), 'I want the closest number to first off as possible. If No. 1 isn't taken, I'll take it.'
"I think it's a lot of pressure, but for me with no other times and only myself in the track, it's actually a beautiful moment to stand up there with a clean slate and knowing I've got the freshest ice possible."
Thees slid next and didn't come close to matching Uhlaender, finishing the first heat in 55.98 seconds. Thees won here at worlds in 2009, beating Williams by more than a half-second, and had plenty of time to make up the difference. Her second-run time of 55.75 was fourth-fastest and put her in the running for a podium finish.
Rudman was third to slide in the first heat and, after trailing Uhlaender's time for much of the way down, cruised past the finish in 55.48 to gain a slim lead of 0.06.
O'Shea had a brief lead after posting the fastest start of the opening run, then made an early mistake and finished 0.72 behind in 13th. She was 0.07 better the second time down, but 1.30 seconds behind her teammate in 12th.
"I'm baffled by my slowness," said O'Shea, of Port Jefferson Station. "I made a huge mistake at the top (on the first run), and with all these girls you just can't make a mistake. That really cost me because my run was amazing other than that. I can make up a little bit. I just have to have two more solid runs. I know I can do a lot better."
The first two heats of the men's skeleton race are tonight, and the four-man bobsled is on the weekend.