LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — It’s been two years since Steven Holcomb stood on a world cup podium. In fact, it’s been since the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games that the legendary bobsled pilot has won a world medal of any kind.
But on his home track in Lake Placid, Holcomb drove to victory.
“I’m happy with today, I’m ecstatic, it’s overwhelming,” said Holcomb, as he choked up and looked at brakeman Carlo Valdes to take over.
“We wanted to come out here and make a statement,” continued Valdes. “Winning gold, that’s a huge step in the right direction for us.”
It’s been a tough two years for 35-year-old Holcomb, who won two bronze medals in Sochi and four-man gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games. For many years, he was a podium regular.
But he is still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in Sochi. Then earlier this season, he strained the quadriceps muscle in his left leg.
Until this Lake Placid World Cup, he had not finished better than fifth in two-man and sixth in four-man in the past two seasons.
“I just started the season off bad,” he said, referring to his strained quad. “And 2015 wasn’t my year, so I’m really glad to put that behind me and to start off 2016 pretty well. Hopefully we’ll keep it going. Today is overwhelming emotionally. It’s been tough.”
Holcomb’s struggles began before he won his bronze medals in two-man and four-man at the 2014 Olympics. He partially tore his Achilles tendon during one of his four-man starts in Sochi and could not train at all the following summer.
“We know Holcomb’s always been a great pilot,” explained head coach Brian Shimer. “He just came on as one of the best pushing pilots in the world (in Sochi). It came with a price.”
“It’s been a battle since then to get him back,” continued Shimer. “It takes time. It’s got to be done slowly. The years keep coming though, the next winter and the next winter after that. There’s not a lot of time to heal properly.”
Holcomb came into last season with no training whatsoever — he couldn't even jog. This past summer, he continued having treatments on his Achilles and still could not train at full speed.
Then on the long start of the track in Altenberg, Germany, in late November — the first world cup this season — he strained his quad because he wasn’t yet strong enough.
But during the holiday break, he finally began to feel healthy again.
“We’ve overcome that hurdle,” said Holcomb, referring to his strained quad. “As you can see today, I’m getting back into pushing again. We can go pretty hard. We’re still way behind. But these guys have stuck with me, and it’s pretty motivating.”
In addition to the injuries, Holcomb and the other U.S. bobsled drivers have been training a new group of rookie brakemen. Holcomb’s crews from Vancouver and Sochi retired.
“We had Curt (Tomasevicz), (Steve) Langton, and (Chris) Fogt and (Steve) Mesler for a decade before we started really winning medals,” explained Holcomb, “so it’s going to take some time. But these guys are stepping up. They’ve had some great pushes in training. They pushed me pretty well considering I was injured.”
In Lake Placid, with Carlo Valdes — a collegiate football player, decathlete and javelin thrower at UCLA — Holcomb finished third in the first run, then outdrove everyone on the second run, passing German Nico Walther and Jamie Greubel Poser’s husband Christian Poser, and the Korean team of Won Yun-Jong and Seo Young-Woo.
“Like I told Carlo yesterday, if we can get in the top six after the first run, I think maybe we can get on the podium and win a medal,” said Holcomb. “Top three really helped.”
Valdes pushed Holcomb to three top-eight finishes in last year’s world cup.
“Coming here, you know you have Holc in front of you driving the sled, you have a chance to win every time,” said Valdes.
Then he probably again spoke for Holcomb when he said: “To win this gold medal really means a lot, especially being my first one in Placid in front of the home fans. It feels really good.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.