Holcomb Opens Up About His Darkest Days
Steven Holcomb poses during a photo shoot at the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team Media Summit on Sept. 11, 2009 in Chicago.
NEW YORK – Two weeks ago, most of Steven Holcomb’s story was well known.
Promising ski racer in Park City, Utah, graduates from high school and makes the cut for the U.S. bobsled team at 18, on his first try. He is passed over for an older athlete so he enrolls in college. Six weeks later, he’s called up so he drops out, learns to push a sled, and injures his hamstring in 2001, right before his hometown Olympics. Just to be a forerunner, he must pilot a sled 100 times down the Utah Olympic course without crashing. He has one month to do it and succeeds. Four years later, in Torino, he drives a four-man sled to sixth place. The Olympic silver and bronze medal-winning pilots from the U.S. retire and Holcomb becomes the face of USA bobsledding.
He goes on to win World Cup season titles (in both two-man and four-man), four World Championship crowns, and the 2010 Olympic gold medal (in four-man) – making history every step of the way.
Leading up to the Vancouver Games, however, Holcomb reveals that he had nearly gone blind due to rapidly thinning corneas, a condition called keratoconus. Twelve specialists said he’d need cornea transplants, which would have ended his bobsledding career. Miraculously, he finds a doctor who not only stops the progression of the disease but, in 2008, restores Holcomb’s vision.
What Holcomb had never shared, until now, was that his deteriorating vision led to depression and, finally, a suicide attempt in the summer of 2007.
The revelation is chronicled in Holcomb’s biography, But Now I See, to be released December 4, but his family and teammates had no idea about the incident until it was mentioned in the Salt Lake City Tribune on November 16. By Wednesday, he still hadn’t discussed it with his family when he met with TeamUSA.org in New York City to promote the book.
How long did it take to write the book, and why did you decide to release it now?
I’ve read other biographies, and I didn’t want my story to be a quick pump-and-dump. It took about two years. I wanted make sure it was well done. We started in the fall of 2010 when I met with my writer, Steve Eubanks.
The book includes some great nuances about driving and fun details like taking Tristan Gale (the eventual Olympic skeleton champion) to the prom, but it ends after you won Olympic gold in 2010. A lot has happened since then. You had to find a new push athlete after Steve Mesler retired, BMW is now working on a design for the U.S. sleds, and this year, you’ve already won the first three two-man races of the World Cup season.
Three races in two different sleds, and with two different brakemen. Two-man is still my elusive [Olympic] medal. I finally won the two-man world championship title this year but I still need to figure out how to be fast in the two-man. Steering is different. Four-man sleds are heavier, longer, faster, not as maneuverable, and there’s less room for error in four-man because the weight is carried differently down the track. [Two-man] is like driving a sports car versus a Greyhound bus.
What’s the status of your vision now?
It’s 20/20. I don’t even wear contacts. It’s been five years [since the operations] and I’m still blown away. It’s hard to remember what it was like. I was basically looking at the world as if I was underwater. Underwater, you can tell someone’s standing there and wearing orange shorts, but you don’t know who it is. On December 22, 2007, I had the first operation [that stopped the deterioration of keratoconus]. On March 6, 2008, I had the second one [that restored my vision].
You kept your blindness a secret from everyone – coaches, teammates, sponsors, even your family – out of fear. The first person you ultimately told was your mother, but only after discovering that she had the disease herself. How’s her vision now? Did your doctor do the same two-part operation on her?
My mom had the first part of the “Holcomb C3-R.” Because of her age, [the doctor] was concerned about the implants. He didn’t want her to develop cataracts so he stopped there. She’s in contacts.
In the book, your depression is tied closely to your loss of vision, but at what point did you recognize it was full-blown depression?
My vision was 20/30 when I met the guy to do Lasik surgery [in 2000]. I was nearsighted and I thought I’d get rid of contacts. Sweet! Lasik surgery accelerated the process tenfold. I had to change contacts every six months. At first, it was a nuisance. I’d literally wake up one day and say: Oh, my contacts don’t work again. I’d have to go to the doctor and get a new prescription, but insurance wouldn’t cover contacts because it’s aesthetics. So I had to do glasses and glasses are $400 a pop. And then it became every three months and: Holy cow! This is terrible! Two years after Lasik – I saw the doctor and he was like: Oh, didn’t I do Lasik on you? I said, ‘Yeah, I called you, and you kept telling me to put eye drops in.’ We went to the local optometrist and he did a scan. He said you have keratoconus. That was the initial moment. It was past 2002. But he said, don’t worry. You’ll have 20 to 30 years until your eyes gets worse. But then I got to the point where you’re at the end of your contacts. My prescription was negative 18. Most people are negative 4, negative 5. Negative six is bad. They were like: we don’t make them any stronger. As far as I knew, there was nothing more I could do except a cornea transplant [and bobsledding would have been forbidden because of its violent nature.] Depression comes on slowly. Things get miserable, you get lazy, it’s physically painful, and once you start to go down and down, it almost feels good to feel bad. It’s confusing.
Did you ever go on depression medication?
Yeah. I left it out of the book. I don’t know why. I wish I would have put it in there. I was a mess. I went on medication and gained 40 pounds. In 2005, I went from 215 to 245, 250 because of the meds.
That meant you also had to file Therapeutic Use Exemptions with the world anti-doping agency. Some depression meds are considered legal outside of competition, but illegal in competition. It’s not easy to figure out how to manage the condition within the rules.
It’s one of those things where you just want to kick the anti-doping world and say: Look! The guy I worked with said what I want to give you is illegal so we have to find a different way to get the same result with a different medication that’s legal. That’s where we kind of got stuck. Everything I took was legal. There’s a list of about 10 things that are not banned, so you’re basically picking and choosing. [And each has side effects that affect performance.] It’s really messed up.
Are you still on depression meds?
No, I stopped in 2008 or 2009 – after my vision was saved and, all of a sudden, I had a second chance. I remember realizing I don’t need them and stopped. Then they were like: don’t just stop; you have to slowly wean yourself off.
Aerial skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, another 2010 U.S. Olympic medalist, also suffered from depression. Did you two ever talk about it before he took his life in 2011?
We were friends, but not to the point where he ever confided in me about it. It was kind of a shock. I thought he was on his way back. I was stunned.
I wasn’t going to put [depression and the suicide attempt] in the book. It wasn’t in the original. Steve Eubanks, my writer, said, ‘There’s more to your story, isn’t there?’ Then the whole Speedy thing happened. People need to know. It needs to be addressed. I think it’s extremely common in sports, but you don’t tell anyone because you’re basically writing your own ticket home by letting it out. If you tell a coach, then all of a sudden they’re like: Okay, you’re compromised; I’m going to focus on this other athlete. It’s a stigma. You don’t tell anybody.
The silence grows, and then the suicide attempt.
It was summer of 2007, in Colorado Springs. I decided I’m not going to tell anybody about this. It’s going to stay between me and that hotel room. Nobody does know, and nobody will know.
You hit a point where you’re just done. You give up. I was at a sponsor event and it kind of put me over the top. People were saying, ‘Go win the Olympic gold,’ and I’d be thinking, ‘I can’t even see your face right now’ and I’m talking this big game and hiding this big lie.
In the book, you say you took 73 sleeping pills and washed it down with a liter of Jack Daniel’s. Yet you woke up. You say you felt no ill effects, not even a hangover. Did you go to a hospital – just to get it out of your system?
I didn’t go to the hospital. I woke up in my hotel room. It was noon or 1:00. I slept about 12 hours. I felt great. It was a shock. At that point, I realized maybe I’m not supposed to die yet. I kind of went on with my day. I left for the next event.
How is it possible to survive that dosage? Was it prescription pills? Had you built up a tolerance? It’s important to clarify, but it’s not clear in the book.
Clinically, it seems like it’s impossible. It was a prescription sleeping pill. I had 90 because it was a 30-day supply. I didn’t take it all the time, but I had taken 17 throughout time, so maybe there was a tolerance. Why it didn’t work, I don’t know. But the intention was real.
What made you decide to open up and go public?
The whole thing with Speedy, for one. But then, my author/writer knew there was something else there. He kind of pulled it out of me and was like: people need to know this. It’s a huge issue everywhere. Tell people. I said: alright, put it in there. It was really tough. I remember sitting there with my finger on the computer ready to hit send to the publisher: Do I want to submit this?
How did you feel when you finally the hit “send”?
Um, not bad. It’s one of those things: okay, it’s out there. Nothing I can do about it now. I’ve moved on. If people don’t like it, they don’t like it. If they do, they do. I haven’t really looked back.
Did your teammates have any idea about this? What about your family?
There was a little bit of tension on the team because they didn’t know why I was so withdrawn or what was going on. At that point, I was depressed. There was speculation as to what I was doing.
My mom and everybody only found out through the article in the Salt Lake Tribune. It was a good article, but I woke up the next morning and was like: Whoa! It’s definitely out.
Has your phone lit up since the news came out?
Not really. The story came out two weeks ago l haven’t seen my family yet or been alone with them. I imagine they’re going to say something. But they’re not going to corner me mid-season and throw me off my game.
What’s the message you want people to take from the book and your experience with depression?
Don’t give up. There is always hope. And there is always help. I didn’t ask for help [at first], but look at what happened when I did. [Coach Brian Shimer helped Holcomb find the doctor who restored his vision and ultimately freed him from his downward spiral.]
I know what it’s like. I know you want to keep it bottled up and keep it to yourself. You don’t want to put the burden on other people. But trust me; they will appreciate the burden. Had I not said anything to Shimer, who knows where I’d be? Behind a desk right now, with two new corneas from some other person, and miserable – instead of in New York City talking about a book and a gold medal. I’ve learned to keep fighting. I’m lucky. I got a second chance.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.