LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Three Olympic medals and five world titles don’t give bobsled pilot Steven Holcomb any free passes. Since winning two medals at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, the three-time Olympian has been working “from scratch” to lead a new generation of U.S. sliders.
This year’s U.S. men’s bobsled team had nine new push athletes, seven of whom had never been in a sled before.
The green hue to the U.S. bobsled team doesn’t deter Holcomb, though.
“I still love it, it’s still a passion,” Holcomb said during a 45-minute interview with TeamUSA.org at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid last week.
Although he’s getting older — Holcomb turns 35 on April 14 — he believes he has one, maybe even two, Olympic Winter Games left in him. The challenge now is staying among the world’s elite while also helping mold the next generation of U.S. bobsledders who can help him do so.
|Pilot Steven Holcomb reacts after a run during the men's four-man bobsled at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Sliding Center Sanki on Feb. 23, 2014 in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
That challenge is particularly pertinent following the first season since 2005-06 in which Holcomb didn’t earn a world cup medal. But he says he’s up for both challenges, even if being a vocal team leader is a less than familiar role.
“I think I have a lot to share and a lot to give these guys with my experience,” said Holcomb, who’s been a driver for 15 of his 17 years in the sport. “But I’d say I’ve been more of a hands-off leader. It’s definitely challenging to change that all of a sudden.”
He rubs his hands through his beard and jokes it’s more gray from the last 12 months.
There’s basically full turnover on USA 1, something not witnessed in decades. Holcomb took over the top U.S. sled in 2006, and the push crew remained intact. After driving Team USA to its first Olympic bobsled gold medal in 62 years in 2010, Holcomb’s sled kept two of its three push athletes, and brakeman Curt Tomasevicz stayed with Holcomb in all three Winter Games, from 2006 through 2014.
Holcomb qualified for the Sochi Games in both the two-man and four-man races. With veteran brakeman Steve Langton, he won the two-man bronze medal, ending another 62-year medal drought in U.S. Olympic two-man competition, and he also finished third in four-man with Chris Fogt, Langton and Tomasevicz.
But Holcomb is still looking for a two-man Olympic gold medal after finishing sixth in 2010 and 14th in 2006. That's what keeps him striving for more.
This winter — one in which he was coming back from an Achilles tendon injury that occurred in Sochi and leading a group of new teammates — was not the best build-up to that goal. The lack of team success during 10 weeks in Europe created some inward tension, and he said he dreads looking “washed up” as he soon begins the process of negotiating deals with sponsors.
Now recovered from the injury and one year into the new quad, however, he is feeling better and is eager to continue leading his teammates.
Justin Olsen (part of the four-man gold team in 2010) is back, along with driver Nick Cunningham. It’s otherwise a group that wasn’t even familiar with all facets of what Holcomb calls “Basic Bobsled 101.”
He notes that finding the “right mix” athletically is a major work in progress. The U.S. team has recruited fast, and strong. Melding the two is critical in upcoming years, but Holcomb is optimistic.
“Just seeing some of the talent we have on this team, and the motivation we have, it’s going to be a quick four years,” he said. “I think we can definitely build a team that can be competitive.”
Before he takes a six-week offseason training break, Holcomb will have an opportunity to observe and teach. Some of his teammates will learn how to drive. “So they can understand what’s going on in the front seat,” he says. Meanwhile, Holcomb is focused on becoming a faster 20-meter sprinter. He notes that last winter in Austria, there was a race when the U.S. sled was 25th fastest coming out of the gates but fifth at the finish line.
The lines he navigates in leadership are as complicated as the tracks. Giving advice — from gear to training and preparation — is critical. But doing too much that it is tuned out, or used against him by fellow U.S. sleds that are also his competition, is also of concern.
Certainly there are frustrations in learning the sport, just as there are tough days while being the leader of the pack. Holcomb wants to make sure there’s a daily focus on getting better and keeping up with the world. No excuses. He believes so many new faces have the competitive spirit in their DNA.
“This is about medals, being the best in the world,” he says, leaning forward in his chair.
Holcomb knows it can take time. His original plan was to be part of the 2002 Winter Games in his native Utah, then call it a career. But he was an alternate for that team and didn’t find his groove until future winters. Over that time he has picked up much wisdom, however, and now he's ready to share it with those just beginning their journey.
“We’re just trying to get these guys some experience,” he said. “But it’s kind of cool, too, because you can mold these guys how you want.”