When Justin Olsen arrived in upstate New York for his first bobsled season in 2007, he quickly identified where he wanted to go.
“Because Steve was the best, I wanted to race on Steve’s team,” he said.
Indeed, Olsen made pilot Steven Holcomb’s team that next season, won a world title the year after that and in 2010 took home a historic Olympic gold medal in Vancouver, the first for an American sled since 1948.
Now 11 years later, and three years into his transition to the pilot’s seat, Olsen wants the next generation of push athletes to feel the same way about his sled.
At 30, Olsen is now one of the old men on the U.S. men’s bobsled team. His 2010 teammates Steve Mesler and Curt Tomasevicz have both retired, while Holcomb died unexpectedly in May at age 37. So as the team goes into this week’s IBSF World Cup in Park City, Utah, Olsen is not only a team leader but also one of the leading contenders to take over Holcomb’s USA-1 sleds at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
He’s embracing the challenge.
“I like driving,” he said. “I think it’s opened my eyes; I feel like a rejuvenated athlete.”
Olsen, born in Lubbock, Texas, and raised in San Antonio, has always been a star athlete, and he’s always wanted to represent his country in some way. That’s how he found himself as a freshman tight end on the Air Force Academy football team.
But after one semester in Colorado, he was back home and getting in shape to join the Marine Corps in early 2007. Instead, Olsen’s mom heard about a bobsled recruitment event coming up in the area, so he tried out, made the world cup team that fall of 2007 and won an Olympic gold medal in 2010.
The urge for military service never went away. In 2011, Olsen joined the New York Army National Guard, and he competes now as a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program. But since that fall of 2007, Olsen has been primarily a bobsledder.
Like most bobsledders, Olsen began the sport as a push athlete — one of the powerful runners who get the sled moving as fast as possible, then jump inside, duck and hold on for their lives. And for much of his career, he’s been one of the best push athletes in the world.
For Olsen, who’s not naturally grandiose and admits he can be “a little rough around the edges sometimes,” this was the perfect fit.
“You just eat, you lift, you run and you push,” he said. “That’s it.”
Just once, briefly, did Olsen consider a switch to the front seat. Shortly after the Vancouver Games he began lobbying for a move, but rebuffed by coaches, who already had some up-and-coming drivers in the mix, Olsen went back to Holcomb’s team and decided pushing one of the fastest sleds in the world wasn’t half bad.
“I was having so much fun with our team and with Steve and with winning,” Olsen said. “And I never thought about driving again.”
Two events, neither of which he planned for, changed his trajectory.
First was in the summer of 2015, when he got an email invitation to join a conference call with the U.S. pilots.
“I’m like, if I’m just getting on there to listen I’m going to be upset, because I’m not a driver,” Olsen recalled.
It turned out the coaches did want him to make the transition this time, and after a disappointing experience in Sochi — coming off injuries, Olsen pushed for Nick Cunningham and finished 12th — he decided to take up the challenge.
Over the past two seasons, Olsen has been quietly progressing as a pilot, moving up to the world cup circuit last season and finishing 11th in both two- and four-man events at the 2017 world championships.
Then came the second shock: Holcomb was found dead at his Lake Placid, New York, U.S. Olympic Training Center home on May 6.
A larger-than-life figure in Olympic circles, Holcomb’s standing in the U.S. bobsled community was even bigger. To most, he was U.S. bobsledding — not just the best pilot in this country’s history, but also a charismatic ambassador for the sport.
Holcomb’s death left a giant void in the U.S. men’s program.
“I think it’s impossible to fill Steve’s shoes,” Olsen said.
So Olsen isn’t trying to replace his friend; instead he’s trying to build upon the foundation Holcomb set during his 19 years in the sport.
For Olsen, that means stepping forward as a team leader, and stepping up as a driver.
So far, Olsen has shown struggles and signs of great potential as a driver, finishing as high as fourth and as low as 29th on the world cup circuit last year, while also setting a Lake Placid track record with Evan Weinstock.
Now he has a loaded push team going into the Olympic season, with a rising star in Weinstock and two Olympic medalists in Steve Langton and Chris Fogt.
“Watching his evolution myself, just in the three years I’ve known him, he’s come a long way from being that driver who wasn't really sure what he’s doing to now he’s a potential medal favorite,” Weinstock said in September.
It won’t be easy.
Olsen, along with Cunningham and Codie Bascue, all showed well in last week’s two-man world cup opener in Lake Placid. While Olsen finished sixth with Langton and third with Weinstock, the latter being his first world cup podium, Cunningham finished second and fourth, with Bascue taking third and first.
Strong results could earn the U.S. a third sled in each race in PyeongChang, but for now the three drivers are competing for two Olympic spots. They’ll have their first world cup four-man races on Friday and Saturday in Park City.
No one on the U.S. team can match Olsen’s résumé, with an Olympic gold medal and two world titles to his name. But all of that success came as a push athlete.
He’s motivated to build a new legacy as a pilot.
At 30, he’s no longer one of the kids on the team, but he’s not the oldest either — both Fogt and Langton are 34.
“It’s my 11th year,” he said, “but it’s really only my third year of driving.”
That’s another way of saying he’s not planning to retire any time soon. And he’s not shy about his expectations, either. They’re the same as they were when he arrived as a 20-year-old in 2007.
“Everyone is here for a different reason,” he said, “but I think the majority of us are here to win.”
Whether or not Olsen can achieve that goal and win another Olympic medal, that’s not totally in his hands. But he can control what impact he leaves on the program, just like Holcomb and other teammates did before him. And so when he’s confident in that, Olsen says, he’ll know it’s time to move on.
“I think as an athlete who loves his sport and his federation, you owe it to your federation to make sure when you leave it, it’s ready to stand on its own two feet,” he said.