Go For The Gold


Steven Holcomb poses for an NBC/U.S. Olympic Committee
promotional photo shoot in April 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Gathered around their start coach, Stuart McMillan, the U.S. men’s bobsled team was listening to him explain the physics of optimal sled loading.

The track at Sochi’s Sanki Sliding Center is technical. With three uphill sections, there are few places to gain speed and plenty of opportunities to lose it. Steven Holcomb and his four-man bobsled crew — likely a combination of Curt Tomasevicz, Steve Langton, Justin Olsen and Chris Fogt — know a good start will be key to defending their Olympic gold medal.

Sliding in a black bullet of a bobsled dubbed the Night Train in 2010, Holcomb piloted his four-man bobsled to Team USA’s first gold medal since cigarette-smoking Francis Tyler drove USA-1 to Olympic gold at the 1948 Olympic Winter Games.

At the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Holcomb would also like to claim the two-man gold medal. The last time the U.S. won this event was 78 years ago when Ivan Brown drove to victory in the 1936 Olympic Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany — with his goggles perched atop his helmet rather than over his eyes.

Not much has changed for Holcomb since he and his Night Train crew won gold in 2010 — or since the debut of his book, “But Now I See: My Journey from Blindness to Olympic Gold,” highlighting his struggles leading up to victory in Vancouver. Now 33, he is still one of the most gifted bobsled pilots on the FIBT World Cup circuit. His collection of medals from the past three world championships, including golds in both the two- and four-man in 2012, attests to this. But he has only garnered a small measure of fame.

“I’m famous to an extent,” Holcomb said. “I get a lot of people staring at me like they should know me.”

Holcomb is perhaps better known among ophthalmologists after Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler named the cutting edge procedure that he developed — corneal collagen crosslinking — after his gold-medal winning patient (Holcomb C3-R). The procedure treats keratoconus, the degenerative eye disease that once rendered Holcomb blind.

Holcomb has had no recurring problems from keratoconus. But winning Olympic gold again at the 2014 Games will not be an easy slide.

First, Sochi’s track is slower than Whistler’s and does not suit Holcomb’s driving style.

“It’s not going to be dangerous like Vancouver where it’s hard to get down, and there’s a lot of crashes,” Holcomb explained. “It’s easy to get to the bottom, just not fast. It’s hard to get down fast.”

And Holcomb likes fast tracks — “fast, blinding speed, difficult tracks,” said coach Brian Shimer. In 2010, Holcomb dominated on the Whistler track, where his top recorded speed hit 85 mph.

At the FIBT World Cup in Sochi in February 2013, Holcomb’s fastest recorded speed was closer to 78 mph.

“High pressure, high speed work best for a feel driver,” said Shimer. “His story with his vision, he had to learn (to drive) by the feel of the sled. When you feel those pressures, you know it’s time to steer.”

Team Night Train in Park City
Steven Holcomb drives USA-1 to a silver medal in four-man bobsled
at the Park City World Cup on Nov. 17, 2012 in Park City, Utah.

Shimer described the Sochi track as more of a “light pressure track,” with more “waving” than high G-force turns — “so you don’t get that feel through the seat of your pants,” he said.

The U.S. team will have a training session on the Sochi track during November and also before the Games. Shimer hopes Holcomb can start to feel the lighter pressures of the track.

Holcomb will also be driving two new and different sleds in the two-man and four-man events this coming season. In two-man, he will pilot a carbon fiber BMW sled that debuted in January at the Igls World Cup. The bobsled’s body has a very low profile, and the use of carbon fiber allows designers to balance the weight where it can provide optimal driving control and speed.

Then in March, Bo-Dyn debuted the Night Train2, a carbon-fiber four-man bobsled that Holcomb and his crew tested on the Lake Placid track.

On the Sochi track, Holcomb knows superior driving and a great start will be as important as these high-tech sleds.

“The Russians are going to have brand new sleds that are going to be really fast, and I guarantee the Germans have something up their sleeves,” said Holcomb. “The Latvians are starting to come around with their sleds. This isn’t the Olympics of years past where one team has dominant this, who’s going to win because they have a dominant that. Everyone is coming to the table with all three (fast sleds, mistake-free driving and a great start).”

Until the snow flies, Holcomb and the rest of the team will work on their starts at the at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center’s new dry-land push track. McMillan noted that the Latvians, who won the Sochi World Cup, have perfected their starts by practicing hundreds of times before the season begins. He wants the U.S. to do the same.

Holcomb is all for it. He knows that pressure comes from lack of preparation.

“I’ve got the best sleds, I’ve got the best runners, I’ve got the best push crew, and I’m a great driver,” he said. “What pressure do I have? We’re going to be fast.”

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.