KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The last time a U.S. bobsled won a medal in the two-man event, Harry Truman was president and Elizabeth II had just ascended to the throne, becoming Queen of England.
That was 62 years ago.
At the Sanki Sliding Center, Steven Holcomb — a heavy favorite after winning the first four world cups this season — ended this medal drought, piloting his BMW two-man bobsled to the bronze medal along with Steve Langton. At the Vancouver Games, Holcomb drove his four-man sled to the United States’ first Olympic gold medal since 1948.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Holcomb. “This is my second 62-year drought, which is awesome. If anybody else has a 62-year drought they need to break, just let me know.”
With a home track advantage, Russians Alexander Zubkov and Alexey Voevoda dominated the two-man race to win the gold medal. Beat Hefti and Alex Baumann from Switzerland slid to silver. It was the first time since the 1994 Lillehammer Games that a German team was absent from the podium.
“Bronze might seem like a step down from what we were expecting,” said coach Brian Shimer, an Olympic bronze medalist himself in 2002 in four-man. “But considering the hurdles, it was a pretty great ending.”
The biggest hurdle popped up in the second heat on Sunday night. Holcomb and Langton had finished the first heat in second place, just 0.09 behind Zubkov. But on the second step of Heat 2’s start, Holcomb felt his left calf pop. He kept running, then jumped in the sled. His calf was cramping, so he tried to move his foot to ease the pain. Discerning eyes might have seen his sled wiggle in Heat 2.
“What sucks is you still have a minute to go and can’t just get out and be like ouch,” said Holcomb, able to smile about it now. “To sit there and try to focus on the drive, all you can think about is your leg hurts.”
Holcomb finished the heat in third place, and the 33-year-old bobsledder slipped off to the doctor, then tried to hide a limp. The diagnosis was a muscle strain.
“We didn’t want to make it known there was blood in the water for those behind him,” said Shimer.
They went to bed not knowing if Holcomb would be able to continue in Heats 3 and 4 on Monday. But at a morning meeting, the option of pulling out was, as Holcomb said, “off the table even before it made it on the table.”
“When you’re sitting in third place, you can deal with a lot more pain than you think you can,” said Holcomb.
Calling Holcomb a gamer, Langton never doubted that his driver would continue. After all, before the 2010 Winter Games, Holcomb continued sliding as he progressively went blind with keratoconus — a condition that was finally corrected by a procedure now named for the bobsledder.
“I assumed he’d be at the start block when I got there,” said Langton, who’s famous for his strongman YouTube videos squatting over 500 pounds and doing five-foot-high box jumps. “Luckily, I was right. I would have carried the sled down the start ramp if I’d had to.”
The plan was for Langton to overcome the sled’s inertia and Holcomb, with kinesio tape on his calf, to run alongside the sled, then jump in. Shimer knows Holcomb performs well under pressure, but told him, “You’re going to have to drive perfect” to make up for the slower start.
Langton powered them off the line with the 12th-fastest start, then Holcomb gained time driving on this tricky track that features three uphill sections.
“He’s the best pusher in the world, hands down,” said Holcomb of his brakeman. “He kept up with everybody when he had a driver who was limping.”
For the fourth and final heat, Holcomb knew he could push harder at the start. As they flew down the track, Langton could feel that it was a good run, saying to himself after each of the 17 turns, “That was good, that was good, that was good … ”
In the end, Holcomb and Langton were able to hold off a charging Russian sled — Russia 2. The Americans kept their podium position by 0.03 of a second.
“I am more excited for this bronze than mine,” said a choked-up Shimer.
“We came here to win a gold,” said Holcomb. “But a medal is a medal. I’m going home an Olympic medalist. That’s pretty bad-ass.”
Piloting USA-2, Cory Butner with Chris Fogt finished 12th, and Nick Cunningham and Dallas Robinson were 13th.
Holcomb and Cunningham now turn their focus to the four-man competition on Sunday. But Holcomb does not seem concerned about his strained calf.
“The good thing is I have two more dudes who are going to roll in on the sled to help me push,” he said. “These guys are ready to go.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.