PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Grown men do not often cry, especially guys as big and tough as bobsledders. But USA Bobsled & Skeleton has had a very tough year.
First, there was the unexpected death of Steven Holcomb, the legendary bobsled pilot who broke the United States’ 62-year men’s Olympic gold-medal drought by winning four-man gold in Vancouver, then four years later, won two bronze medals in Sochi, breaking another 62-year drought with his two-man medal.
The team has had to soldier through the Olympic season with heavy hearts — bringing memories of Holcomb to every starting line. Emotions, they knew, would be especially tough in PyeongChang, where they had all hoped to come with Holcomb.
But then, things got worse.
On Monday, Feb. 5, Justin Olsen developed a stomachache. Perhaps it was a gastrointestinal issue, he thought, although it felt different.
Still, he went to the gym in the athlete village and hopped on a bike to see if he could spin it out. The pain got worse, so he soon returned to his room. Evan Weinstock, Olsen’s two-man brakeman, suggested that Olsen see a physical therapist.
Within hours, the 30-year-old American bobsledder was on his way to the hospital. En route, he texted Weinstock.
“Hey man, I’m going to be out a few days,” read the text.
“Whatever you need,” Weinstock texted back. They might miss the early bobsled runs on the PyeongChang track this week, thought Weinstock. But surely they would be ready for official training on Feb. 15 — 10 days away — and the two-man runs on Feb. 18 and 19.
In the PyeongChang World Cup test event last March, Olsen — who won a gold medal in four-man as a push athlete for Holcomb, then switched to the driver’s seat three seasons ago — finished sixth in two-man (the best result for the U.S.) and finished in the top three several times in four-man training.
On Monday night, head bobsled coach Brian Shimer, along with team leader Ashley Walden and the team doctor soon came to the eight-person suite that Weinstock and Olsen are sharing with other push athletes and driver Codie Bascue in the athlete village during the PyeongChang Games.
They had bad news. Olsen was having surgery for acute appendicitis and was doubtful for the two-man race.
“What are we supposed to do?” thought Weinstock. “My head was scrambling at the time.”
Carlo Valdes felt as if the floor had dropped from under him. The 27-year-old push athlete became a bobsledder after the Sochi Games. Over the next three seasons, he finished on the world cup podium a half-dozen times pushing Holcomb’s two-man and four-man sleds. Like everyone on the USA Bobsled & Skeleton team, Valdes was crushed when Holcomb passed away.
This season, Valdes moved into Olsen’s sled in the four-man event. Then in January, Valdes was named to his first Olympic team. If Olsen couldn’t compete in PyeongChang, Valdes’ Olympic dream was about to become a nightmare.
“I thought I’ve worked hard for the past four years for this moment,” said Valdes, choking up. “To have it equate to nothing would have just devastated me. With Steve gone, and now Justin maybe not being able to compete, it’s just like man, can we catch a break please?”
That break came in the hands of Olsen’s surgeon. He managed to remove Olsen’s appendix laparoscopically. It looked like Olsen would recover more quickly than expected. He spent a couple days in the hospital, then moved to a local hotel room to recover.
On Wednesday, he tweeted a video showing him hammering out pushups.
“That’s who Justin Olsen is,” said Weinstock. “He’s a strong guy. He’s motivated. There’s nothing that is going to stop him. As soon as the doctors gave him a little bit of wiggle room, he took all of it.”
“Knowing Justin, he’s going to be back,” echoed Valdes. “I’m fully confident that all that hard work that we put in is going to be finally paying off.”
In fact, the team sees this latest setback as fuel.
“The type of team we are now with everything that’s happened, we’ve rallied around each other,” said Valdes. “Everything is becoming motivation for us.”
Especially Holcomb’s memory. The team wears red rubber bracelets as a constant memory of their former teammate.
“I know that he wants us to do really well here,” said Valdes. “He’s looking, watching from above. We just have to keep going for him and try to accomplish that medal for him.”
As for Olsen, he sees surgery as a curve in his path, not a hurdle.
“I know that having surgery 12 days before a competition probably isn’t ideal to most athletes,” said Olsen in a statement. “But due to some great conversations with my girlfriend and mother, I am reminded that nobody’s path is the same, and I don’t feel sorry for myself in the slightest. I have no doubt that I will be ready to compete.”
After Olsen was released from the hospital, Walden asked if she could cut off Olsen’s hospital ID bracelet. He said no. He wants to keep it on for the duration of the Games as a reminder.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.