November 16, 2012

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) -- Katie Uhlaender was a bundle of nerves as she stood in the finish area at Friday's World Cup skeleton race, waiting for one final challenger to cross the line.

"It was like watching a scary movie and not wanting to really look," said Uhlaender, the reigning world champion.

When she did, she almost couldn't believe her eyes.

She had won gold, edging Britain's Elizabeth Yarnold by one-hundredth of a second, her combined times in two heats down the 15-curve course 1 minute, 40.93 seconds. Yarnold was second in 1:40.94. Germany's Anja Huber (1:41.21) took bronze.

"I'm telling you I broke the curse when I won worlds," Uhlaender said of February's competition in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Before that the two-time Olympian was dealing with so much emotional upheaval, she had a hard time coping.

"I was in a really bad place for a long time," the 28-year-old Uhlaender said Friday.

She shattered her left kneecap in a snowmobile accident after the 2008-09 season - about the same time she was dealing with the loss of her father, former major league outfielder and scout Ted Uhlaender. He had spent eight seasons with Minnesota, Cleveland and Cincinnati as a player, and died of cancer in February 2009.

After losing what she called her "foundation," she persevered through even more operations and a lengthy rehabilitation.

In May she was still in tears, telling her coach that she feared she'd never be the same again.

"I didn't have strength in my left leg, I couldn't do a single-leg squat, then all of a sudden in June, I started hitting the numbers I hit in 2007," said Uhlaender, who dominated the World Cup circuit with five golds during the 2006-07 season.

As Friday's race showed, she is back and building momentum.

"I'm finally healthy. I have no hip pain, no knee pain," she said.

The 5-foot-3, 136-pound Colorado resident also has no more pain in her heart.

"When I won worlds, I felt like I was finally able to let go of the fact that my father is no longer here. It's motivated me even more to keep his legacy alive," she said.

That she does by wearing his 1972 National League championship ring around her neck, taped to her sports bra during races but visible along her collar as she accepted a bouquet of flowers atop the podium.

What would his reaction be to Friday's down-to-the wire win?

"He'd be jumping in his boots," Uhlaender said with a huge smile.

Uhlaender finished a disappointing fifth last week in Lake Placid, N.Y., in the season's first World Cup event.

But she hadn't participated in the team selection trials by virtue of her world victory, and wasn't familiar with the three-heat format.

She was primed Friday, and was second after the first run, then held on as Yarnold couldn't match her speed.

"It's so close right now, it could be anyone's day," Uhlaender said.

Canada's Sarah Reid, who won the World Cup opener in Lake Placid last week, had a poor first run and finished 11th overall.

Park City resident Kimber Gabryszak was hoping racing on her home course would be a boost.

But she slipped on her first step on her second run and could have stopped and re-started, but continued on and finished 15th.

Afterward her eyes were filled with tears.

"I tried to relax and recover, but it just didn't happen on my home track. Obviously I'm a little upset," Gabryszak said. "People think it's easier to race on your home track, but the pressure actually is higher. ... I'll just have to grieve a little bit and it will be time to move on to the next race."

She won't race next week in the third World Cup in Whistler as the team mixes in fellow Utah resident Noelle Pikus-Pace, who is making a comeback nearly three years after retiring and the birth of her second child.

Uhlaender acknowledged she and Pikus-Pace didn't have much in common when they were younger racers.

"I'm all about baseball, boys and cows," Uhlaender said, noting she works her father's cattle ranch in eastern Colorado during her down time.

"She's got kids now and I'm approaching 30 and I feel like we're looking at the bigger picture of team USA. I'm looking forward to competing with her next week."

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