LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Since he won two bronze medals at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Steven Holcomb has struggled in bobsled.
Coming to Lake Placid, the 36-year-old bobsled legend had only slid to two medals in the last 34 world cup races: a silver in St. Moritz, Switzerland, last February, and a gold last year on his home track in Lake Placid.
Back on home ice, Holcomb put those struggles behind him — as well as a stomach bug that took him out of practice for most of the week. On a very cold day, he drove to victory with brakeman Sam McGuffie in 1:49.47 on the Lake Placid Olympic Sports Complex track.
“Does it ever get old winning on your home track?” Holcomb asked, repeating a question he had been asked earlier. “No. Does it ever get old winning? No. Everyone wants to win, every single person out here wanted to win today. But to have a victory, to win again, to be on the top is nice no matter where it is.”
This was Holcomb’s fifth win on the Lake Placid track in a world cup two-man race. His first run, he came within 0.05 seconds of the track record (set in 2003 by Olympic two-man gold medalist Pierre Lueders from Canada on an extremely cold day like today).
“I never thought we’d be this close to the two-man track record,” said Holcomb, who was disappointed after his run, thinking he had made too many mistakes on the cold, fast track.
Canada’s two teams rounded out the podium in the two-man race. Justin Kripps and Jesse Lumsden finished second in 1:49.74, with Chris Spring and Lascelles Brown in third, another hundredth back in 1:49.75.
The men benefitted by the absence of the German team, which opted to skip the Lake Placid World Cup to test equipment at home.
Behind Holcomb, Justin Olsen — in his first full season as a pilot racing on the world cup — had a superb race. With brakeman Evan Weinstock, Olsen finished second in the first run, then fell to eighth second run.
A former brakeman who won an Olympic gold medal in Vancouver in the four-man sled driven by Holcomb, Olsen tried driving after the 2010 Olympics, but then wanted to continue pushing for Holcomb. Last season, the coaches asked him to switch to the driver’s seat full-time. He’s learned quickly, thanks to Holcomb who taught him what a fast sled feels like. He finished seventh in the Whistler World Cup two weeks ago.
It’s been a tough few years for Holcomb, the bobsled pilot who broke the Olympic gold medal drought for U.S. bobsledders at the 2010 Vancouver Games, winning the first gold in 62 years. He was a regular on world cup and world championship podiums through the 2014 Games. But he has suffered from a run of injuries that started when he partially tore his Achilles tendon at the Sochi Games.
Recovery from that injury took well over a year. Then last November, Holcomb strained his quadriceps muscle in the season’s first world cup, an injury that would bedevil him all season. He and his team are still unsure what he did to it, but it led to other injuries and imbalances as his body tried to compensate for the quad muscle that had shut down. But he worked hard over the summer and is managing the injury.
“I don't know if I’m every going to have the same starts I did before,” Holcomb admitted. “But McGuffie, he stepped up and pushes as hard as he can and keeps me in the mix. I do my thing and drive down the hill, so it’s a good combination.”
“I don’t know if we’ll see the Steve Holcomb from 2014 or 2010,” added coach Brian Shimer, who knows what it’s like to compete as an older athlete. Two months before his 40th birthday, Shimer drove to a bronze medal in the four-man event at the 2002 Games in Salt lake City.
“We’ve all been there in our careers,” Shimer continued. “I certainly, at 39 years old, didn’t quite have what I wished I’d had. But I was able to win a medal, and there’s no reason why Steve can’t do that for us in Korea. We just got to get him in the mix and close at the start.”
In addition to injuries, Holcomb has worked with a crew of new brakemen. The guys who pushed him to gold in Vancouver and bronze in Sochi all retired.
“It takes at least a quad to reach their potential,” said Shimer of the brakemen. “They continue to get better.”
Then in November, two of the brakemen on Holcomb’s crew came up lame on the eve of team selection. Ryan Bailey hurt his back, and McGuffie strained a hamstring. Had he missed selection, Holcomb would have had to race his way back onto the world cup, unfunded, through the lower-tier North American Cup.
It was not where he wanted to be at this point in his career. He tweeted that he was on the verge of retirement.
Then former brakeman Casey Wickline and Nic Taylor stepped in to help, and Holcomb made his 19th national team.
“That was huge,” Holcomb said.
The bobsledder hopes that this victory is the beginning of more to come.
“We just have to get back to that mentality of winning again,” he said. “It is a mentality, and you have to realize and understand and get that feeling of what it takes to put two runs together. it’s not easy.”
McGuffie gave perspective on Holcomb’s outlook on racing: “I think every race he expects to win. He’s an Olympic gold medalist for a reason.”
Holcomb and Olsen race in the four-person event tomorrow, along with Codie Bascue, who finished tenth in the two-man, and Elana Meyers Taylor.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.