This was supposed to be Katie Uhlaender's season of Olympic redemption. And it still might end up that way.
For now, though, it's looking like the former world skeleton champion's path to the Sochi Games will be accompanied by physical, mental and emotional struggle, just like her trek to the Vancouver Games was four years ago.
While most of the world's elite skeleton athletes have been training in Lake Placid to prepare for this weekend's World Cup stop at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, Uhlaender has spent the first part of the week in Dallas, meeting with doctors about her ongoing recovery from a concussion that she's been dealing with for more than a month. Doctors have cleared her multiple times to race, and her average finish in two World Cup races so far is a disappointing-for-her 13th.
"I went from being in the best shape of my life, ready to dominate, to not even on the radar and just going down the hill for points to keep my Olympic spot," Uhlaender said.
Uhlaender's road to Vancouver was filled with pratfalls, from coping with the death of her father to dealing with a twice-broken left kneecap that required multiple operations. Her Olympics were teary, and she was determined that this season would be different. So she entered this season healthy and happy, eager for the Sochi Games, with coaches saying she was as fit and strong as ever.
And then, Turn 7 happened.
It was in a training run in Lake Placid this fall when Uhlaender somehow smacked her head midway through what they call the Devil's Highway portion of the Mt. Van Hoevenberg track. For the next six weeks, she pretty much did nothing — no training, no sliding, no competing.
"We're trying to make sure we're doing the right thing," U.S. skeleton coach Tuffy Latour said. "We sat her out for a long, long time. She hasn't slid. She hasn't had a lot of runs down the track. She's not feeling 100 percent confident. She's on a brand-new sled. We're trying to make sure that she's feeling 100 percent. Calgary was frustrating for her, Park City was frustrating for her, the two races in Lake Placid will probably be frustrating for her."
Uhlaender is planning to train in Lake Placid on Thursday, her first runs down that track since getting hurt. There are two World Cup women's skeleton races this weekend, one Friday and one Sunday, and her plan is to race both of those. The U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation is planning for Uhlaender to take one race off when the series shifts to Europe, just out of an abundance of caution.
"The long-range plan for her is to be 100 percent at the Games," Latour said. "She's got to be process-oriented."
Uhlaender spent time this week at the Carrick Brain Center, and some of the exercises they suggested at first left her more than a bit skeptical.
"I was like, 'OK, so I stare at a dot and my vision's going to come back to where it was? Sure, buddy,'" Uhlaender said Wednesday before flying from Texas to upstate New York. "And then today I woke up, and for the first time in a long time, things were really crisp. I'm doing better than I was. I'm not quite 100 percent yet but the goal is to be there before the second half of the tour."
She's still dealing with some vision issues, along with some neck pain, though things are greatly improved from where they were a few weeks ago. Her sliding right now isn't aggressive. It's mostly based on her memory of how to get down the track. For someone like Uhlaender, who thrives off competition, it's tough to accept that right now she simply cannot be anywhere near her best.
There's still plenty of time to get there before Sochi.
"I'm going to bust my (butt) to get back," Uhlaender said. "I'm just being real. My confidence is I'm going to bust my (butt) every day to get back and I'm going pray that it's enough."