PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The two newest U.S. men’s bobsled drivers were supposed to have a few more years to be, well, the newbies.
But when their leader, three-time Olympic medalist and bobsled legend Steven Holcomb, suddenly passed away last May, Justin Olsen and Codie Bascue had to step into the veteran role, along with Nick Cunningham.
Olsen won an Olympic gold medal pushing Holcomb’s four-man sled at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, then pushed Cunningham’s sled at the 2014 Games. But the 30-year-old bobsledder has had only three years in the driver’s seat. He began driving after Sochi.
Bascue, 23, has been driving bobsleds at age 8. Raised about an hour from Lake Placid’s Mt. Van Hoevenberg track in New York, he got his start in the sport after his grandfather, a recreational bobsledder who worked for the Whitehall, New York, school system, started a kids’ program.
But Bascue, who resembles Holcomb in demeanor and stature, is still relatively new to international ranks, and thus, international tracks, which take time to learn and a Jedi’s feel.
Olsen, Bascue and veteran bobsled driver Nick Cunningham, who’s 32 and has been driving since after he pushed at the Vancouver Games, and their push athletes came to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 hoping to live up to Holcomb’s legacy. But they fell short in two-man bobsled, with Olsen and brakeman Evan Weinstock finishing highest for the team in 14th Monday night — just two weeks after Olsen had an emergency appendectomy.
Bascue and Sam McGuffie — a former NFL running back and wide receiver who spent time with the Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots — were very disappointed to finish 25th.
“It was really an uphill struggle without Steve because of his experience and his ability to perform at the highest level,” said Olsen, who said he felt ready to race tonight and was only sore when he stretched his midsection.
“Evan and I knew that we only have three years of experience coming to the Games against some really good pilots and really talented people,” he added. “We just knew that we were going to have to be perfect if we were going to have a chance. Were we perfect? No, but we really gave everything we had to be as close to perfect as possible.”
After four runs on the Olympic Sliding Centre track, world cup leader Justin Kripps and Alexander Kopacz from Canada tied for the gold medal with Francesco Friedrich and Thorsten Margis from Germany. Their four-run time of 3:16.86 was 0.05 seconds ahead of bronze medalists Oskars Melbardis and Janis Strenga from Latvia.
After a tough first two runs on Sunday night, Cunningham and Hakeem Abdul-Saboor ended up 21st, just missing a fourth run (only top 20 get a fourth run at the Olympics).
“When you go into an Olympic race and you mess up curve 2-3 and you know that your Olympics are pretty much over at that point, it is hard,” said Cunningham. “Your confidence is shot. I came in here today to try to fix that portion of the track and build toward four-man.”
Cunningham actually fell back on advice that Holcomb gave him to figure out curve two and gain confidence going to four-man.
“That’s what helped me get through [disappointing runs] yesterday was how Holcomb always dealt with adversity,” he said. “He always brushed it off like nothing was the matter. He knew that once you got to the bottom across the finish line, you couldn't change it. Just try to not dwell on it.”
While all three American bobsled pilots were disappointed with the race, it’s important to note that Bascue and Olsen are in good company. In their first Olympic Games (as a pilot, in Olsen’s case), they performed similarly to two of the country’s best bobsled pilots.
The team’s current head coach, Brian Shimer, made his Olympic debut as an athlete in four-man at the Calgary 1988 Games. Tied for 19th after the first two runs, Shimer finished 14th. He went on to win an Olympic bronze medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games in four-man.
Even Holcomb had poor finishes before reaching the Olympic podium. His first Olympic appearance came in two-man in 2006, where he placed 14th. Four years later, he won Olympic gold in four-man, and in 2014, two Olympic bronze medals, including a two-man one that ended a 62-year two-man medal drought for the country.
“We didn’t train so long to come here and place 25th,” said Bascue, whose parents, sister and grandfather made the trip to PyeongChang. “But I think we can put this behind us. We came in knowing our better shot was in four-man, so I think we can go into four-man with some confidence.”
Bascue had five top-10 finishes in four-man this season, including a silver medal. And Olsen said that his focus has been on four-man as well this season.
“That was kind of the biggest goal today was to figure out curve two and try to use what we learned today to go into four-man with something to build on,” said Bascue.
After the two men’s bobsled races in PyeongChang, it is perhaps the start of a new era in U.S. bobsledding. An era in which they must forge a path without their friend/leader/mentor.
Holcomb helped the team in immeasurable and countless ways, a source of counsel when drivers were learning new tracks, and a steady, legendary force at the head of the U.S. team.
“Holcomb and I talked after Sochi,” said Olsen. “We said, What are we going to do? Because everybody retired. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I think it will all work out. And here we are, we do have some incredible pushers who have come on strong.”
“We had a winning formula and I don’t want to lose ourselves to that,” Olsen added. “You just have to continue to improve, continue to be more consistent and give everything you got every week.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, PyeongChang is her fifth. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.