American skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender was sound asleep in Whistler, British Columbia, early Wednesday when her phone began ringing nonstop. Exhausted and annoyed, she switched the phone to silent but finally gave up when she saw a call from her coach Tuffy Latour. It was 6 o'clock in the morning.
"Look at your phone!" Latour said.
"I'm on my phone!" Uhlaender replied. "What do you want?"
Latour explained that overnight, the International Olympic Committee had sanctioned four Russian athletes from the Sochi Games, including skeleton racer Elena Nikitina, who edged Uhlaender by .04 seconds to win bronze in Sochi. The IOC's decision likely means that after an appeals process has run its course, Uhlaender, the daughter of former major league outfielder Ted Uhlaender, will be awarded her first Olympic medal.
"I just couldn't comprehend it," said Uhlaender, 33. "I was half asleep. I said to Tuffy, 'Am I dreaming? Is this real?' And then I got emotional."
She thought back almost four years to that night in Sochi, the tears that poured out of her after the race, knowing the injuries and concussions she had gone through only to come an eyelash short. She thought about teammate Noelle Pikus-Pace, who won silver that night. And how amazing it would have been for them to share the podium. And she thought of bobsledder Steve Holcomb, her good friend who died this past year. How thrilled he would have been for her.
"My heart is broken in so many ways and yet I'm also filled with this feeling that like, you know what? Sometimes the good guy wins.
"I've cried 8 million times. I've paced back and forth all morning. I don't know what's going on. I wish Steve was here. He would be so elated. He would have broken into my room and woken me up. I miss him so much."
Uhlaender, who plans to compete at the Olympics in South Korea in February, has finished eighth and sixth in the first two World Cup races of this season. In both races, Nikitina, who is still able to compete on the World Cup tour, broke start records. In Park City, Nikitina won.
"It's hard to watch that happen," Uhlaender said. "But I just try to focus on what I believe, and I'm going to enjoy this season. Even though it's difficult to see her competing, I'm going to focus on my integrity and my honor. That's how I honor my [late] dad and my late best friend and my country."
Uhlaender said she and all the other competitors were drug-tested in Sochi. And the IOC's decision has helped restore her faith in the Olympic movement and refocused her heading into what could be her last Olympics.
"I've got this new fire," she said. "Now I know I can do it. I'm healthy. There's this huge weight lifted off my shoulder. Now I want to get on that podium and have my moment that I missed."