March 1st, 2010, 15:00
Former guardsman leads U.S. to bobsled gold
WHISTLER, British Columbia — They were bitter rivals, at least until the race was over.
Steve Holcomb has spent the better part of a decade chasing Andre Lange, trying to knock the German legend off his perch as bobsledding’s best pilot.
Saturday was Holcomb’s last chance.
Done deal. Bobsledding’s torch was passed. And when it was over, minutes before Holcomb got his first Olympic medal and Lange got his last, they sat together and shared a beer, sliding’s past and sliding’s future toasting one another.
“Overwhelming,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb, a former Utah guardsman, drove USA-1 to the gold medal in four-man bobsledding Saturday, the first American pilot to do so since Francis Tyler at St. Moritz in 1948. By winning, he cemented the status of his famed “Night Train” sled and push team of Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Curt Tomasevicz as sliding’s best.
“This will take a while for it to sink in,” Holcomb said. “You work so hard and when you finally get there it’s like, ‘Well, now what? I don’t know what to do.’ We’ve worked so hard and gone through so much in the last four years. To end on a high note like this is huge.”
The high note came four hours later.
They jumped atop the medal podium together, each arm raised skyward, before each man bowed to have Olympic gold placed around their necks, none of them able to stop smiling. Then they put their right hands over the hearts, and as the national anthem blared and the U.S. flag was raised, Holcomb seemed to hold back tears.
And for the photo that followed, Holcomb knelt next to Lange, then shared one last hug with the man he needed to beat.
“This will change their life,” USA-3 driver Mike Kohn said.
World champions, 2009. Olympic champions, 2010.
“You can’t do any better,” said U.S. coach Brian Shimer, a bronze medalist in 2002, the year the Americans also got a silver in four-man with Todd Hays joining Shimer on that podium.
With that, Shimer started to cry, unable to hold back any longer.
Holcomb absolutely tamed the track, his four runs completed in 3 minutes, 24.46 seconds. Lange was 0.38 seconds back for the silver, his quest to win five gold medals in five Olympic tries thwarted, and Canada’s Lyndon Rush drove his sled to the bronze.
Lange celebrated wildly at the end, as if he had won. In his mind, he had.
“Coming into today,” said Kevin Kuske, one of Lange’s pushers, “we knew silver was all we could win.”
Holcomb was that dominant. And not apologetic, either.
“I’m good friends with Andre, so it’s a thrill,” Holcomb said. “And at the same time, it’s, ‘I didn’t mean to rain on your parade — but I have my own parade going now.’ ”
Holcomb and his sledmates crossed the finish line, index fingers in the air, then wrapped each other in American flags as a red, white and blue crowd roared with delight. Holcomb hoisted his helmet as family and friends craned for photographs, and a party the U.S. program waited 62 years to throw was finally getting under way.
On the trackside podium for the flower ceremony, Tomasevicz pulled off Holcomb’s hat, planting a smooch on his pilot’s bald, sweaty head. Sealed with a kiss, it was, and then the four teammates stood together and did what’s known as the “Holcy Dance,” the little shuffle step that Holcomb does to keep his team loose.
Hours later, at the medal ceremony, they danced again.
“It means an awful lot,” said Darrin Steele, CEO of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. “This has been a long road. But all the components came together. You put a sled and a team together, and you never know how it’s going to go.”
Holcomb was walking around trackside about an hour before the final heat, shaking his finger, mouthing the words “one more.” With a lead of 0.45 seconds over Rush, all Holcomb needed to do was get his sled down the mountain without a huge mishap, knowing his lead was such that no one could catch him.
All he had to do was not wreck before Curve 13, this track’s most dangerous turn, the one Holcomb himself dubbed “50-50” after seeing roughly one out of every two sleds crash there last year.
Holcomb and his sledmates grabbed each other by the hands one last time, took one last look down the hill and prepared to push the “Night Train” — the menacing, flat-black, super-high-tech sled that is coveted by almost every bobsledder in the world — into Olympic lore.
Holcomb’s final message, Olsen said, was: “One more run. Let’s do it.”
A mere 51.52 seconds later, they did.
“They embarrassed the field,” Rush said. “They showed up in our backyard and it’s kind of like the theme of these Olympic Games. The Americans have shown up in Canada and whipped us.”
It’s barely been two weeks since Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed during a luge training run and died just hours before the opening ceremony. The Olympic track has been a lightning rod of criticism since. There were dozens of crashes on the super-fast surface, six during Friday’s four-man heats alone, one bad enough to knock up-and-coming American John Napier — some say he’ll be better than Holcomb — out of the Olympics with a sore neck.
It might be the toughest track in the world, but Holcomb made it look toothless.
“It’s a great thing for the U.S.,” Canada-2 driver Pierre Lueders said. “They’ve been competitive in bobsled for so long, but have been shut out quite a few times. He definitely is a talent, and I can’t wait to see how he’s going to do four years from now.”
It wasn’t long ago that Holcomb had 20-500 vision — “profound visual impairment” — that could have ended his bobsledding career before he managed to scrape up $15,000 to have contact lenses embedded behind his iris to correct a degenerative condition.
“There was a moment when the four of us were standing there and everybody else had gone inside and we were the last off, and it was a moment where I just stopped for half a second and took it in,” said Mesler, who will contemplate retirement. “Four of us, empty parking lot and going down the hill. I’ll never forget that.”
The “Night Train” guys were overwhelmed a few weeks ago, when they were surprised with shimmering championship rings for winning the four-man world title.
A new piece of jewelry awaits, for doing something no U.S. four-man team has done since 1948 when Tyler, Patrick Martin, Edward Rimkus and William D’Amico went to St. Moritz and won gold.
“When they raise the flag and play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ for your son,” said Steve Holcomb, the bobsledder’s father, his voice choking at the thought, “well, that’s pretty cool.”
His kid made it happen.
“He’s the best,” the proud papa said.
In the bobsled world, no one can argue.
More on the U.S. military Olympians:
After Action blog
March 1st, 2010 15:00