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Katie Uhlaender, skeleton World champion, becomes track cyclist

Katie Uhlaender

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 14: Katie Uhlaender of USA completes her run in the Women’s Skeleton Final on Day 7 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Sliding Center Sanki on February 14, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

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Katie Uhlaender, a three-time Winter Olympian and 2012 World champion in skeleton, plans to compete at the U.S. Championships in track cycling in August.

Uhlaender, who entered the 2012 U.S. Olympic weightlifting trials but didn’t make that team, began serious track cycling training in January. She plans to make her competitive debut in the sport at Nationals in Carson, Calif., in three months.

“The whole thing seems sort of crazy,” Uhlaender, a 30-year-old who slid at the last three Winter Olympics with three different hairstyle colors, said in a phone interview Friday.

On Feb. 14, 2014, Uhlaender finished fourth in skeleton at the Sochi Olympics, missing her first Olympic medal by .04 of a second in combined time over four runs. She competed with hip and ankle injuries that would require surgery and following a preseason concussion.

After Sochi, Uhlaender underwent surgery on her left hip, which had bothered her since 2010. She planned to return to skeleton last fall, but then came the left ankle surgery in September to shore up a problem area since 2005.

Uhlaender announced she would miss the 2014-15 skeleton season and rehabbed at a U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she started doing stationary bike work. A professional cyclist there noticed Uhlaender’s wattage statistics and suggested she give the sport a try.

Uhlaender, though, had decided to move to Texas, without a job lined up, and share a bed separated by a pillow named Berry with her best friend. She learned a velodrome was nearby, so Uhlaender decided to continue cycling.

“The worst that could happen is I fail,” Uhlaender said. “I thought, I’m kind of chubby from two surgeries and not [skeleton] training. I feel like it would be more of an insult to deny the opportunity. I’m established as a skeleton athlete. For me to go ride a bike when I can’t slide anyways, this is perfect cross training until my ankle’s ready.”

Uhlaender rides on a borrowed green 1992 Cannondale bike nicknamed Dumpster that she renamed Oscar, in honor of the “Sesame Street” character Oscar the Grouch of the same color.

“It’s refreshing to do something when I can’t go sledding 90 miles per hour head first,” she said.

USA Cycling invited Uhlaender to take part in a camp in Colorado Springs in April, she said..

“They thought I had really great potential,” Uhlaender said.

Track cycling, where riders compete on 250-meter wooden ovals banked up to 45 degrees with one gear and no brakes, includes several disciplines.

Uhlaender is focused on one of them -- the team sprint. The women’s team sprint, which debuted at the Olympics in 2012, includes two cyclists from one nation racing two laps in about 33 seconds. One rider peels off after the first lap, with the second rider’s time crossing the finish after two laps as the nation’s overall result.

“For the first 125 meters, I was competitive,” Uhlaender said of her performance at the USA Cycling camp. “The issue is I’m going from doing a five-second sprint [on the ice at the start of a skeleton race, running and then jumping onto the sled] to a 19-second sprint [the time it takes to do one lap in the velodrome].”

Uhlaender, boosted by her skeleton and weightlifting careers, believes she has the strength to contend as that first-lap rider with more seasoning, to become competitive with national-level cyclists for 19 seconds.

“I don’t think there’s many women more powerful than me,” said Uhlaender, who clean and jerked 216 pounds at the 2012 U.S. Olympic weightlifting trials in the 127-pound weight class and failed in all three attempts to snatch between 175 and 180 pounds.

Uhlaender said she was seeking a partner to compete with at the U.S. Championships in August.

It’s very possible the U.S. will not qualify a berth in the team sprint at the Rio 2016 Olympics. It did not qualify for the London 2012 Games, which included 10 nations. It is currently ranked No. 18 in the world by the International Cycling Union. Nine nations will qualify for Rio 2016 based on the rankings next Feb. 29.

After Uhlaender finished fourth in Sochi, she saw Dan Jansen, the speed skater who missed Olympic medals in 1984, 1988 and 1992 before winning gold in world-record fashion in his final Olympic race in 1994. Jansen told Uhlaender his story of enduring defeat and tragedy (his sister died of leukemia the day of his first race at the 1988 Olympics).

Uhlaender asked Jansen how he persevered for so long.

“He said, don’t think about it as four years or the overwhelming goal at the end,” Uhlaender said. “Just focus on each day and each step.”

Uhlaender plans to continue skeleton. Even if she impresses at the U.S. Championships in August and continues competing in track cycling in the fall, she wants to also compete on the 2015-16 World Cup skeleton tour this fall and winter.

She plans to retire from skeleton after the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, which could be her fourth Olympics.

Watch: Noelle Pikus-Pace shares skeleton stories in emotional TEDx Talk

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