Posted: Friday February 17, 2006 11:24AM; Updated: Friday February 17, 2006 1:20PM
American Katie Uhlaender finished a disappointing sixth in the women's skeleton competition.
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CESANA PARIOL, Italy -- U.S. skeleton athlete Katie Uhlaender will tell you that one of the biggest keys to success in her sport, in which one slides headfirst on a little sled down an icy, curving track at about 75 mph, is the ability to resist the urge to "freak out" during a run.
"Mentally you have to be able to handle chaos," she says. "You have a lot of stuff coming at you."
As has been well-documented, Uhlaender and her fellow U.S. sliders Eric Bernotas, Kevin Ellis and Chris Soule have been handling chaos off the track all season. There was the horrific injury to the team's top female slider, Noelle Pikus-Pace, whose leg was broken when she was hit by a bobsled in October, followed by her dramatic but ultimately failed comeback attempt.
There were two accusations of sexual harassment against team coach Tim Nardiello, who was eventually fired. And there was the plight of top male slider Zach Lund, who failed a drug test in November for using a hair restoration product that was on the banned-substance list. After his public warning by the United States Anti-Doping Agency was successfully appealed by the World Anti-Drug Agency in an arbitration hearing just hours before the Opening Ceremonies in Turin, Lund was banned from the sport for a year and sent home. He was replaced on Sunday by one very jet-lagged Soule.
But that wouldn't be the end of the distractions for Uhlaender, a 21-year-old Olympic rookie who competed in Thursday's women's skeleton competition. There would be, as her dad, former major league baseball player Ted Uhlaender, would tell her, the chaos of her first "at bat."
When Ted made his major league debut for the Minnesota Twins as a pinch-hitter to lead off the seventh inning against the White Sox on Sept. 4, 1965, his legs shook, and he struck out. Her first official runs on the skeleton track at the Olympics would be like his first at bat, he told her. Things like crowd noise and nerves would conspire to break her concentration at the start.
"He warned me about the first at bat," says Katie. "He told me I had to just concentrate on hitting the ball."
Instead she heard people in the crowd yell, "Go, Katie!" and 2002 Olympic gold medalist Jim Shea Jr., yell, "Win!" ("No pressure there," Uhlaender says wryly.) And she was aware of the clock counting down the seconds before she had to push off from the start line.
"A lot of things were going on, the clock started going, and I wasn't ready," she says. "And I just took off. I think it would have been smarter to step back and take a breath and know that I had 20 seconds and know that it wasn't the end of the world, but that's part of experience. It's hard because I know I could have been on the podium."
Uhlaender, the lone U.S. representative in the women's skeleton competition, was disappointed with her sixth-place finish (out of a field of 15), but U.S. assistant coach Lea Ann Parsley, the '02 silver medalist, was not.
"It's unbelievable pressure here at the Games," says Parsley. "Katie has been a World Cup athlete for a whopping two seasons, and she's competing against women who have been doing this for 10, 11 years. So what she did today was really good."
In Friday's men's competition, two other U.S. Olympic rookies -- 34-year-old Bernotas and 32-year-old Ellis -- will have their first at bats. Bernotas, who finished third in the World Cup rankings this year, and Ellis, who finished fourth, both had strong performances in their training sessions at Cesana Pariol. In the final two heats of training runs earlier this week, Bernotas finished first among 27 competitors, making him a strong contender for a medal.
"Eric has a real chance," says Parsley. "His training has looked phenomenal, and he is one focused individual."
Bernotas, a former high school multi-sport athlete who had battled problems with alcohol, depression and the effects of Tourette's syndrome as a college student at West Virginia, happened upon the sport of skeleton four years ago, when he took a wrong turn on his way to Vermont and ended up in Lake Placid. There he ran into a skeleton coach, whom he pestered into a training camp invite.
"He was always looking for something," says Bernotas' dad, Al. "Skeleton has made him more focused, it's made him a stronger person." Bernotas's rise in the sport has been swift. This past season he finished third in the World Cup rankings.
"Eric found out he has a natural ability in this sport and he is running with it," says Parsley. "He kind of stumbled into it, but he has been in love with it ever since. He follows his workout regimen to a tee, he watches his diet. Everything is focused on this day coming up tomorrow. This is a very technical track, and he has been picking it up very well. He doesn't have quite the start that Kevin Ellis does, but he knows how to drive."
Ellis, a former hurdler who competed in the '96 Olympic track trials, has posted some of the fastest start times during training runs. Both he and Ellis will threaten Olympic favorite Jeff Pain of Canada, the two-time World Cup rankings champion.
The 33-year-old Soule, who arrived in Sestriere several days after his teammates, is a longer shot for a medal. He was seventh at the Salt Lake City Games and won the World Cup title the following year. But when he got the call to join the Olympic team, he hadn't been on a sled for three weeks.
Medal or not, he knows he will get something out of this Olympic experience. A part-time stunt man who has jumped out of helicopters 30 feet in the air, rolled down hills and run through fire, Soule says no stunt compares with the thrill of sliding.
"Anytime I get off the sled after a run, it feels like the first time I went down a track," he says. "I'm thrilled."