When the IBSF World Cup comes to Lake Placid, New York, this week, it will be the first bobsled world cup since Steven Holcomb’s untimely death in May.
It was the legendary bobsledder’s home track, and over the decade-plus that he led the sport, Holcomb finished on the podium in every world cup and world championship held in Lake Placid, except one.
For Holcomb’s teammates at USA Bobsled & Skeleton — and for many people in the international bobsled family — it will be an emotional event.
But for Holcomb’s teammates, it’s the perfect place to start the world cup.
“It will definitely be emotional,” said Steve Langton, 34, who returned from retirement in February 2017 for a chance to compete in his third Olympic Winter Games. “It’s probably the best place to start [the season]. Steve is an enormous part of the bobsled community, bobsled history, a huge part of my career. Most of the pivotal moments in my athletic career were with Steve, and we had so much success [in Lake Placid]. It’s fitting to start there.”
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At the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, Langton won two bronze medals as brakeman in Holcomb’s two-man and four-man bobsleds. The two men also won two world titles in 2012 together and two world bronze medals (2011 and 2013, both in four-man). Of Holcomb’s 62 world cup podium finishes, Langton pushed in 19 of those sleds, claiming 11 wins together.
In the 2017 Lake Placid World Cup this weekend, Langton will be Justin Olsen’s brakeman in two-man.
Olsen is the only athlete from Holcomb’s Olympic gold-medal-winning four-man bobsled crew in 2010 who’s still competing. The 30-year-old bobsledder switched from a push athlete to a driver two years ago — on Holcomb’s advice.
“It’s going to be weird because I don’t know my sport without Steve,” said Olsen. “I’ve asked Steve so many personal questions outside the sport and related to the sport.”
From an emotional standpoint, Olsen sees Lake Placid as the best place for the world cup to start this season.
“We’re going to have so many resources available if we need them, it’s one less uncontrollable variable,” he said. “When you’re surrounded by things that you know, it’s a little easier to feel good.”
The men have a steep challenge ahead of them in the 2018 Olympic season. Of U.S. bobsled pilots still competing, only Holcomb finished consistently on the podium in the past four years.
Nick Cunningham, 32, has five world cup medals on his resume, but none since 2014. Four of the five came on the Lake Placid track. But he failed to make the world cup team last season — “the deepest darkest moment of his life,” he said, of walking away from the track after national team trials last year.
Instead, Cunningham competed on the North American Cup tour last season, winning six of 16 races. He’s now back on the world cup team.
Olsen and Codie Bascue — a 23-year-old who started sliding when he was 8 — each had a fourth-place finish on the world cup last season, both mere hundredths from the podium. But they struggled with consistency. Bascue ended the season ranked 16th in four-man and 17th in two-man. Olsen was 19th in four-man and 15th in two-man.
Only three countries will qualify to send three four-man bobsled crews to the 2018 Games. Without Holcomb in the mix, Germany and Russia will likely lead qualifying, with their three pilots ranked no lower than ninth last season. Bascue, Cunningham and Olsen will duke it out with Latvia and Canada, among other countries, for the third spot.
But the good news: Should the U.S. finish fourth in the four-man rankings, they would qualify to send three two-man crews in addition to two four-man sleds.
With similar results in the past two seasons, Olsen, Cunningham and Bascue will compete for the helm of USA-1. It was an honor held by Holcomb for over a decade.
Cunningham won the four-man national team trials, with Bascue second. Olsen was training on the 2018 Olympic track in PyeongChang, South Korea during four-man trials. Earlier in October, Bascue won two-man trials, with Olsen second and Cunningham third.
“It’s definitely going to be a different experience having a new driver take the lead,” said Evan Weinstock, a former Brown University decathlete in his third season of bobsled. “But I think that’s a task that everyone is up for, and we’re all going to have to learn from each other because Steve was always an example. Now we’re going to have to figure out together what is the best line because Steve figured it out faster than everybody else.”
Asked if he feels pressure to step up as a driver, Cunningham said yes. Holcomb was a threat every time he stopped onto the ice — even when he had finished out of the top 10 the previous week.
“To honor that legacy, we need to be that threat,” said Cunningham. “We need to carry the USA Bobsled torch and make sure that we are contending for that position.”
The team is lucky in that Holcomb shared his bobsled knowledge.
“He wasn’t one of those guys who was like, ‘Hey, you stay down there,’” explained Olsen. “He was like, ‘Come on up here with me.’ That’s why Steve was a winner.”
During the PyeongChang World Cup last February, Olsen had fun figuring out the new Olympic track with Holcomb. Olsen finished sixth in the two-man race, eight places ahead of Holcomb.
“It was probably the only time I could shed some knowledge on Steve,” he said.
The men acknowledge that it will be impossible to fill Holcomb’s shoes. As Langton said, there is only one Steven Holcomb. He had a gift for driving — with as much feel as technical skill. And the season ahead will be a challenge, emotionally and physically, for his teammates.
“I will always miss my friend and teammate,” said Langton. “But he wants us to go to the Olympics, and he would want us to win medals, and we’re going to do everything we possibly can to make that happen.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.