Annie O'Shea

The genuine Katie Uhlaender

It had been nearly three years since an American woman managed so much as a top-three finish in skeleton, the sliding sport on the bobsled track where it's just you and the sled and you rocket down the track face-first. All of that changed a few days ago high in the French Alps, on the twists and turns of a course at La Plagne. Annie O'Shea, a Long Island 24-year-old in her second year on the tour, had never before finished higher than seventh. She took second, just 37-hundredths back of Canada's Mellisa Hollingsworth after both runs -- a breakthrough performance.

And then here came Katie.

The one and only Katie Uhlaender.

The last American to win a medal in a World Cup race, in February, 2009, Uhlaender swept down the track in La Plagne a mere 18-hundredths of a second behind O'Shea to take third.

If this was the signal of a comeback, then this is a comeback to be welcomed because, to be plain, the Olympic scene is way more interesting with Katie Uhlaender around in a meaningful way.

Katie Uhlaender is a ferocious competitor. She's a two-time Olympian in the skeleton and a two-time World Cup overall champion. As well, she's trying to make the 2012 Summer Olympic team in weightlifting.

But that's not all. She's genuine. And enormously interesting.

She once worked on the reality-TV show "Survivor."

She does skateboard videos, racing down the Malibu mountains in California at speeds up to 45 miles per hour. "Dude, this chick can skate," says the guy with the shades and scraggly goatee -- what else? -- accompanying her in the video.

She works on the family cattle ranch in western Kansas.

Her father, Ted, played for the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s and early 1970s; he served as an Indians coach in the early 2000s. His death in early 2009 deeply affected her. Indeed, as she admits now, "All my dreams were crushed. Everything was crushed."

Six weeks after his death, her kneecap was cracked in a snowmobiling accident. That set off a string of injuries -- knee and hip -- and, she said, "The last two years of my life have been some of the hardest."

Along the way, she said, she had an epiphany: "In order to truly succeed, lose the ego of victory and focus on the journey. I know and have won before. Now it's the process that matters most."

And this, too -- it can be extraordinarily empowering not only to acknowledge but to confront your deepest, darkest fear.

"Fear," she said, "is an emotion that gives power. The minute you stop feeling it you invite injury or complacency -- you kill the essence of your being, who you are."

It was a conversation after the Vancouver Olympics with Carl Lewis, the sprinter, that helped considerably. He had lost his father, too, and told her the key "was to let go."

"He said once I let go I had everything I needed, and maybe more than I would ever know to prepare me for life and competition, and it was obvious I had everything I needed. I burst into tears. It's why I can take the ring off sometimes," her father's 1972 National League championship series ring, which had become her link to him.

"… It's just weird because when he said it -- I understood it. It's what I needed. I didn't understand it yet. It's like when you read a poem when you're young and you go, oh. But then you read it again when you're more experienced and you have an epiphany and you go, oh -- that's what that meant.

"I knew I was hearing wisdom but I didn't know how to conceptualize or experience it yet. When I heard it, I was, like -- he was so right."

Getting physically healthy, again, was the next step. "When I won a medal this past weekend -- of course I wanted to win the race itself -- I was ecstatic. I'm pretty happy with the results, and I think there's more to come. There's plenty more in me."

Of course there is. There's way, way more in Katie Uhlaender, who now can take in the grand sweep of all there is and say, "The key is to live life happy as you are and to embrace the challenges and fear that come with it. Otherwise," she said, "you are fighting the nature of living."