LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — If Steven Holcomb is in heaven — and if it exists, he surely is — the legendary American bobsledder smiled down on Lake Placid today.
In the first IBSF World Cup race of the 2018 Olympic season (and the first since Holcomb died unexpectedly in May), his former teammates finished second and third in the two-man race. Nico Walther from Germany won.
For 32-year-old Nick Cunningham, his second-place finish was his first world cup podium in three years. Cunningham was pushed by brakeman Ryan Bailey, a 2012 Olympian in track and field who took up bobsled last season and was competing in his first world cup race.
For Codie Bascue, a 23-year-old who began sliding on the Lake Placid track when he was 8, it was his first world cup podium finish ever. Bascue was pushed by Carlo Valdes, who is in his fourth year of the sport and had won six world cup medals with Holcomb.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Bascue. “It was a little bit of an emotional race. My first race without Holcy. But I just took that and used the emotion.”
Cunningham had said all summer and fall that the best way to honor Holcomb’s legacy would be to win medals.
“Codie stepped up huge, and [Justin] Olsen is right there,” Cunningham said. “We’re all stepping up to the occasion to honor that legacy week in and week out, and I think this is just the start of something great this year.”
Justin Olsen finished sixth, only 0.06 seconds off the podium. Olsen and brakeman Steve Langton, in his first world cup since winning two bronze medals at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, had the fastest start first run, just 0.01 seconds off the track start record. They were also fourth after the first run.
“The start record would have been nice, but Justin did a great job today, and it’s a good sign of what’s to come,” said Langton, who described being back in a bobsled like riding a bike.
Walther’s victory was consolation for American Jamie Greubel Poser, who was disappointed after she finished 0.01 seconds from the women’s podium today. Greubel Poser’s husband, Christian Poser, is Walther’s brakeman, and today is Jamie’s birthday.
With their silver and bronze medals, Cunningham and Bascue kept a six-year Team USA tradition alive. The American men have finished on the podium in every Lake Placid world cup or world championship two-man event since 2011. Holcomb won six times, and Cunningham now has four podium finishes here dating back to 2013.
For Cunningham, it was a redemptive race. Over the past three years, the two-time Olympian has struggled. Last year, he did not even make the world cup team and instead raced on the North American Cup circuit.
“Last year was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “Even though I was on a lower circuit, one, it made me re-love the sport. I was having some of the most fun I’ve ever had in the sport. Two, it got me re-motivated knowing how easy it is to be left back at the house. It’s hard watching my teammates go compete on the world cup circuit.”
Bascue also found some redemption in the race. Second after the first run last year, an error in the second run left him just off the podium. For the rest of the season, he languished in the teens and 20s on results sheets.
His goal over the summer was to come into this season lighter and faster. He lost 15 pounds, and did indeed get faster. Second run, Bascue and brakeman Carlo Valdes had the eighth-fastest start time.
Watching the race was Bascue’s grandfather, Alan Bascue, who taught the sport to his grandson. When Codie was 8, Alan started a bobsled club in their hometown of Whitehall, New York — about an hour and change south of Lake Placid. Every Sunday, Bascue and 11 schoolmates came to Lake Placid to slide on the track. They kept the club going through high school.
At the time, Holcomb was becoming America’s top bobsled pilot, and young Codie looked up to him.
“It’s hard to be in the sport and not hear about how great Holcomb was,” said Bascue, who resembles Holcomb in stature and demeanor. “He was the guy I looked up to and the guy I wanted to be.”
Holcomb was always nice to Bascue as he grew up in bobsledding.
“If I had any questions, he always had something for me,” Bascue said. “He always wanted to pick the rest of the team up instead of being at the top by himself.”
Are there any questions that Bascue wishes he had asked Holcomb?
“So many, so many,” he said, glancing toward the sky. “There’s been so many times already this season I’ve been struggling in a curve or something and I just think, ‘God, I wish Holcomb was here, and I could ask him about this.’”
Asked if the team felt pressure to perform at the Lake Placid World Cup because of Holcomb’s legacy, especially on this track, Cunningham said no.
“I don't think it’s we need to perform for Holcomb,” he said. “It’s more we want to [perform] for him.”
Tomorrow, the 2017 Lake Placid World Cup concludes with men’s skeleton and another two-man race. After the warm weather this fall, the track cannot support four-man racing.
“If Holcomb had anything to do with [our podium finishes today], he would have tried to make this another clean sweep,” said Cunningham. “But we’re working on it for him.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.