LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Hundreds gathered in the Olympic Conference Center in Lake Placid to celebrate the life of bobsledder Steven Holcomb. But there were as many tears as smiles.
With a giant photo of Holcomb pulling off his speed suit to reveal his favorite Superman shirt serving as the backdrop, a who’s-who of U.S. bobsledding — from USA Bobsled & Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele to Olympic Sports Complex general manager Tony Carlino to IBSF president Ivo Ferriani — shared memories of the legendary bobsled pilot who died unexpectedly five days ago.
John Morgan, who has been in bobsledding his whole life and is best known as a sportscaster, led off the celebration. For decades, Morgan watched the European bobsled teams crush the Americans. He dreamed of the day a USA sled would win gold.
“We’re never going to win an Olympic gold medal in my life,” thought Morgan.
Then along came Steven Holcomb. Morgan was in the booth calling Holcomb’s four runs during the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010. In the lead with one heat to go, Steve and his three push athletes had the weight of a nation’s 62-year gold-medal drought on their shoulders. All they had to do was keep the sled upright through the 50/50, a turn on Whistler’s lightning-fast track that Holcomb had named; with his dry humor, he noted that sleds had a 50/50 chance of getting through the turn without crashing.
Holcomb delivered that day in Vancouver — a gold medal for himself, his team and the country.
“Team Holcomb, thanks for taking that off my bucket list,” said Morgan. “I appreciate it.”
But that gold medal, along with the two bronze medals that he won in Sochi and the five world titles and overall world cup trophies — all on display at the service — never went to Holcomb’s head. The words humble, caring and kind were part of everyone’s remembrances. And skeleton athlete Katie Uhlaender remembered Holcomb telling a fan who asked to see his Olympic gold medal, “It’s not my medal, it’s America’s medal.”
Everyone who encountered Holcomb, from teammates to coaches to fans, was taken by his charm. He would look people in the eye and engage them, making everyone feel like a friend.
“He won gold, and he had a heart of gold,” said Mike Preston, who has worked at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid since 1985 and used to deliver Holcomb’s frequent UPS packages to his room (providing a light moment during the celebration, when Preston shared how much the bobsledder liked to shop online).
Sharing their memories, Holcomb’s coaches and teammates — many wearing Superman shirts over their dresses and suits — struggled to hold back tears.
His coach, Brian Shimer, struggled all week to find words to say at the ceremony — “trying to prepare something that could possibly be good enough for Holcomb,” said Shimer. “I think many of us were there. I sat for hours, for days, and couldn’t write a word. It just wasn’t good enough.”
But he did find words, remembering Holcomb has one of the most passionate, humble souls whom he had ever met. When he first met the young bobsledder back in 1998, Shimer — who was still competing himself (and would go on to win an Olympic bronze medal in 2002) — thought of Holcomb as the little brother he never had. But when Shimer became a coach, he thought of him as a son.
“That bond will never be broken, and love will never get lost,” said Shimer through tears. “I’ve never coached a season without Steve. We came a long way. He will continue to inspire our athletes to follow their dreams.”
Steele reiterated Shimer’s thoughts.
“Looking forward, that’s tough to do,” said Steele. “Are we going to be OK as an organization? As tough as it is, we have to be. We have to continue his legacy, and we have to continue the work that he worked so hard to start. We owe it to him. We will find success again. Where we are today would not have been possible without Steven Holcomb.”
Holcomb’s teammates shared their stories of love and admiration. Steven Langton — who won two Olympic bronze medals with Holcomb in the two-man and four-man bobsled in Sochi as well as two world titles — called Holcomb “one of the finest to ever wear the red, white and blue.”
“He raced with fearless passion, competed with unwavering confidence, and always carried himself with a humble poise,” said Langton.
Curt Tomasevicz, who helped push Holcomb at all three of their Olympics, remembered Holcomb for his silence.
“No one has the perfect words at a time like this,” Tomasevicz said. “Then it hit me that sometimes there is nothing to say. In fact, Holcy taught me that. He was good at a lot of things, and one of those things was he was great at silence. He knew that, sometimes, nothing needs to be said.”
Steve Mesler, who pushed Holcomb’s four-man sled that won gold in Vancouver, ended the celebration with a tribute to the dance that became a Holcomb trademark. The Holcy dance was an understated shuffle that Holcomb created while Mesler sang, and the two men created videos of doing the Holcy dance all over the world.
“We got to live our dreams together,” said Mesler. “We got to do the things that we never thought we would accomplish.”
In one of the most moving tributes, Holcomb’s parents spoke. His father thanked the Lake Placid community who embraced his 18-year-old son in 1998 when he made his home here.
“He was a boy when he came here and a man when he left,” he said, choking up.
Holcomb’s mother, Jean, read a Native American prayer for grieving that summed up the fearless, humble bobsled legend who was her son — a man whose legend will only grow larger in the coming years and who will be missed greatly by all who knew him.
I give you this one
thought to keep,
I am with you still,
I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds
I am the diamond glints
I am the sunlight on
I am the gentle autumn
When you awaken in the
I am the swift, uplifting
of quiet birds in circled
I am the soft stars that
shine at night
Do not think of me as
I am with you still,
in each new dawn.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.