Go For The Gold

(Front-back): Steven Holcomb, Justin Olsen, Steve Langton and
Curt Tomasevicz celebrate after the four-man bobsled final heat
of the IBSF Bobsled & Skeleton World Championship at Olympia
Bob Run on Feb. 3, 2013 in St Moritz, Switzerland.

Obscurity, in many ways, is the heart of Olympic romance. Save for a few exceptions, our Olympians are nameless, faceless strangers who come from places we’ve never been to, and yet for a few weeks, or even just a few minutes, every four years we stop what we’re doing and turn our undivided eye to them. We see the name on the front of their jersey. Feel the excitement. It doesn’t matter that in many cases they’re playing sports we’ve never played, or sometimes sports to which we hardly even know the rules.

Sports like, say, bobsled.

Next year, the USA-1 four-man bobsled team, otherwise known as The Night Train, will surely be one of the favorites at the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Led by pilot Steven Holcomb, USA-1, which recently posted a record-breaking final run en route to a bronze medal at the World Championships, is stacked from front to back. There’s Justin Olsen. There’s brakeman Curt Tomasevicz. But this story is about the man who sits between Olsen and Tomasevicz. Steve Langton. Because Langton, you see, is the only one of the four who’s yet to win an Olympic gold medal.

While the aforementioned Holcomb, Olsen and Tomasevicz were winning gold at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Langton wasn’t yet a part of the USA-1 crew. He was still relatively new to the sport and rode with pilot John Napier on USA-2, which crashed on its second run. It was disappointing for sure, and Langton, who’d already missed a year of competition in 2009 due to a hip injury, says he actually thought of moving on from bobsledding after Vancouver.

“I was thinking about going back to grad school,” he said. “But there was something pulling me back. Something unfinished.”

Once Langton decided to stay in the game and continue his pursuit of a gold medal, he was a no-brainer for a promotion to Holcomb’s USA-1 team. He’s a brute of an athlete. Built like a brick. Which comes in handy when you have to get a giant sled moving, from a dead stop, in the freezing cold, and accelerate it as fast as possible with nothing but pure human energy.

Steven Holcomb, Justin Olsen, Steve Langton and Curtis Tomasevicz
compete during the four-man bobsled heat three of the IBSF
Bobsled & Skeleton World Championships at Olympia Bob Run on
Feb. 3, 2013 in St Moritz, Switzerland.

Every year, having to re-earn their way onto their respective teams by way of a comprehensive and highly competitive tryout, pushers are put through an NFL-style combine measuring all things speed and power, and Langton kills it every time. He’d hardly been bobsledding for a year when he won the first of his four national push championships, and in 2011 he won the inaugural push world championship by rocking a sled on wheels down a 50-meter ramp inside an icehouse.

“Bobsledding, and certainly pushing, is different than any sport I’ve ever played,” Langton said. “It takes speed and power and all that, but there’s an X-factor. You can either do it or you can’t. There are a lot of fantastic athletes who can’t.”

Which raises an interesting question: How do you know if you’re one of the ones who can?

After all, it’s not like kids grow up bobsledding on family vacations where their talent can be noticed. There aren’t any Little League or high school or college bobsled teams. The closest most of us have ever come to a bobsled is in our living room watching the movie Cool Runnings.

“Most everyone comes to bobsledding by way of other sports,” Langton said. “A lot of guys are former football players. Big, strong, athletic guys. In my case, I come from a track and field background.”

More specifically, he was a sprinter. Ran the 100-meter at Northeastern University. But at 6 feet 2 inches and 225-230 pounds, Langton was, in his own words, “almost obese for that event.” It must be noted that using the word obese in the same sentence as Steve Langton, who appears to be cut from something not too dissimilar to granite, borders on the absurd. But you get the point. He was a big guy in a smaller man’s game. His track career had run its course.

“But I knew I was too good an athlete to just be sitting around doing nothing,” he said. “Like every young athlete, I grew up wanting to win an Olympic gold medal, and I skied a lot as a kid. But I’d never thought about bobsledding.”

Until he watched the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, that is. That’s when he learned more about bobsled and the types of athletes doing it.

Pilot Steven Holcomb (far right) celebrates winning the bronze medal with his
teammates Steve Langton (far left), Justin Olsen (second from left) and
Curt Tomasevicz after the final run of the men's four-man bobsled world
championship on Feb. 27, 2011 in Koenigssee, Germany.

“These were big guys who were quite fast for their size,” Langton said. “I knew it could be right in line with my strengths. So I reached out to Steven Holcomb and he passed my info along.”

And so it happened. A world-class push-man was born. There was an admitted learning curve and more than a few bumps along the way, which will happen when you’re doing just south of 100 mph down an ice chute of near vertical banks and hairpin turns. But now an Olympic medal, very possibly of the gold variety, is in reach.

“And ultimately, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “That’s why you move to Lake Placid to train year round. That’s why we do this. To represent our country on the biggest stage.”

Which, as it turns out, is the same reason we’ll all be watching.