By Peggy Shinn | May 06, 2020, 11:01 a.m. (ET)

Steven Holcomb poses for a portrait during the Team USA PyeongChang 2018 portraits on April 27, 2017 in West Hollywood, Calif.

 

Steven Holcomb was considered a legend even while his bobsled career was nowhere near complete. The first American to pilot a four-man bobsled to Olympic gold in 62 years, Holcomb followed up his 2010 feat with two silver medals at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.

But as he prepared for the PyeongChang 2018 Games, the unthinkable happened. On May 6, 2017, the 37-year-old bobsledder who had already surmounted so much—a degenerative eye condition that was rendering him blind, a suicide attempt, injuries and the vagaries of a sport that’s far off the radar—was found dead in his room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York. A toxicology report found sleeping pills and alcohol in his system. 

“It was such a shock,” said Curt Tomasevicz, who was Holcomb’s brakeman for a decade. “I don’t know my story without Steve Holcomb.”

Within the bobsled and Olympic community, Holcomb left behind a legacy not just as a bobsledder but as a person. His kindness rubbed off on everyone he encountered, and those who knew him best have carried that forward. His death inspired the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s Athletes’ Advisory Council to address mental health. And he even inspired a film, “The Weight of Gold,” where Holcomb’s story moved other Olympians to tell their stories as well.

On the anniversary of his death—and during Mental Health Awareness Month—we take a look at how his openness around mental health inspired others.


Kindness And Compassion Count

The legacy that Holcomb left behind as a human being—his kindness and compassion—is what his closest friends and teammates remember the most. 

An affable, approachable athlete in public, Holcomb was actually quiet and introverted and managed to hide his struggles from his fans for most of his long bobsledding career. Then in 2013, in his autobiography, “But Now I See: My Journey from Blindness to Olympic Gold,” he disclosed his battle with depression and confessed that he attempted suicide in 2007. His failing vision, he said, led to the depression then. A cutting-edge surgery saved his eyes, and then he appeared to live a storybook tale of Olympic glory, winning Olympic gold at the 2010 Games, and becoming one of a handful of U.S. athletes at the 2014 Games to win more than one Olympic medal (two silvers). The man who often wore a Superman shirt beneath his speed suit, and often performed super-human feats on the bobsled track, had confessed that he was not always invincible—a rare admission for an athlete.

To his teammates, Holcomb was a rock—a kind, caring rock. And he made everyone feel like they mattered.

“He was very observant and compassionate to the point that most people when they sat down to speak with him, they felt like they were the most important person in the room,” said his best friend Katie Uhlaender, a four-time Olympian who knew Holcomb from the start of her skeleton career in 2003. “He understood and heard everything they had to say.”

In the ruthless world of sport, Holcomb’s compassion was keenly felt by all his friends. He was often just there, in good times and bad. But especially the bad times. As Uhlaender said, “He just let people know that he cared and that he was there.”

For Katie Eberling, another of Holcomb’s closest friends who now lives in Chicago and works at LinkedIn, she was drawn to his kindness, goodness and compassion from the start of her bobsled career in 2011, and he was a source of comfort in what was sometimes a tough sport.

Most of Eberling’s fondest memories of Holcomb happened away from the bobsled track. They were small gestures that showed Eberling that Holcomb understood her—CDs and videos that he knew she would like, etc. Holcomb had a high degree of emotional intelligence, she explained, and not only understood others’ needs but went out of his way to meet them. 

“So many of us leaned on him because his care was so genuine,” added Bree Schaaf, a 2010 Olympian who competed for USA Bobsled & Skeleton from 2002-2014 and is now second vice chair of the Athletes’ Advisory Council. 

“You take someone like that for granted because they’re so consistent, and they’re always there,” Schaaf added. “Losing him was so gutting because we realized how many of us leaned on him.”

For Emily Azevedo, a 2010 Olympian who was on the U.S. bobsled team from 2006 through 2014, Holcomb made her feel as if she was a part of the team—even though she sometimes felt like an outsider. He was also the first person she knew who discussed mental health and depression. His book was published in 2013.

“It was when people weren’t really talking about it as much,” she said. “I think that took a lot of courage.”

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Steven Holcomb and Carlo Valdes compete at the IBSF Bobsleigh & Skeleton World Cup on Feb. 27, 2016 in Koenigsee, Germany.


The Importance Of Showing Up

In caring for his teammates, family and friends—and even members of the media who showed up trackside to follow his and his teammates’ careers—Holcomb taught them as much about being athletes as being human beings.

“One of the best things I learned from Holcy was to see people, to really see them, and maybe equally important, to let them know that you see them with kind words or random details about something you like about them that they might not be aware of,” said Schaaf. “He was especially good at that, and that’s why he had so many friends from such a wide range.”

But one of the most important lessons Schaaf learned from Holcomb was the importance of showing up—“especially now more than ever, it’s worth the risk to reach out.”

Eberling learned this at the end of the 2017 season. Teammate Brent Fogt was being promoted in the Army and a ceremony was planned at the Olympic Training Center. Holcomb had a busy day preparing for a speaking event and performing end-of-season sled testing. But he made sure to attend Fogt’s promotion ceremony. When Eberling asked him why he had come, she remembered him shrugging and replying, “It’s important to show up for people.”

But she had also seen it for herself. In 2014, after the U.S. Olympic bobsled team was named and Eberling was not on the roster, despite winning three world cup medals earlier in the season, Holcomb did not go out and celebrate. He comforted Eberling the entire evening.

Holcomb was there for Uhlaender many times, as well. But one of the most important was after her father, Ted, passed away in February 2009. They were at the world championships, but Holcomb just sat with Uhlaender, even though he had his own races to focus on.

“I just needed someone there, there’s nothing you can say, there’s nothing you can do when you’re suffering from a loss like that,” she said. “But he would just come in and stay in my room.”


Staying Connected And Reaching Out

After Holcomb died in May 2017, many of his teammates realized the importance of staying connected and reaching out to each other, particularly during the offseason—a time when everyone finally has time to catch up on life or ponder what might come next. Without the distraction of the next athletic goal, these times can be tough on athletes, especially Holcomb.

“It’s the quiet time that becomes difficult because you’re forced to just deal with yourself,” pointed out Uhlaender, who learned much about depression from Holcomb and after a tough three years of struggling, with Holcomb’s loss in particular, she is aiming for her fifth Olympic Games in 2022.

It’s especially important to reach out to people who do not seem to need any help. While Holcomb cared deeply about his friends, he did not want to burden them with his troubles.

“That made it tough,” said Tomasevicz, “because if he would have reached out, we would have jumped out of our seats and tried to help him.”

“It’s especially important for all of us to keep an eye on highly sensitive people,” encouraged Schaaf. “They might be affable, but they are also going to be more sensitive to the world and potentially struggle a bit more.”

 

Steven Holcomb and Samuel McGuffie celebrate after winning first place at the 2017 IBSF World Cup Bobsled & Skeleton at Lake Placid Olympic Center on Dec. 16, 2016 in Lake Placid, N.Y.


Mental Health For Athletes

After Holcomb’s death, Azevedo, who finished law school in December and is now assistant athlete ombudsman for the USOPC, encouraged the Athletes’ Advisory Council to gather mental health resources for athletes. With depression long stigmatized in sports, Holcomb showed the even athletes who do super-human feats have a vulnerable side. And that side needs as much care as an athlete’s physical attributes.

“It's something that generally a lot of athletes struggle with, and the more we normalize it, the easier it will be moving forward for people to ask for help when they need it,” Azevedo said.

The struggle can happen even to the most optimistic athletes. Injuries can derail careers, as can unexpected events like pandemics.

“So many things can happen in the athlete’s life cycle that you don’t anticipate,” explained Schaaf. “Rarely does someone have a very clean cut-and-dried path to Olympic glory with injuries, or it’s taking longer than you expected, so many different setbacks. Especially at those times, it’s important to have access to help and resources.”

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.